We’re gambling on unlikely outcomes

(July 18, 2020)

PEOPLE have a weird relationship with numbers, especially probabilities. How we view those numbers depends on whether we are considering the probabilities of a good or a bad outcome.

If it is a bad outcome, it will never happen to me. If it is a good outcome, then it’s almost money in the bank!

Millions of Canadians every week demonstrate this kind of reasoning when they spend money they don’t have on lottery tickets and other forms of gambling. Tell them they have only one chance in a thousand to win the next draw, and some would sell their mothers to buy more tickets.

Infrastructure Minister Ron Schuler had the opposite intention, however, when he said storms like the recent one that hit the Brandon area were a “one in 1,000 years flood event.” He meant, “No need to worry, folks” — couldn’t possibly happen again, right?

(No doubt he gave the same speech a couple of weeks earlier to communities in southeastern Manitoba, as they bailed out their basements from a similar storm.)

That same mathematical idiocy leads people to ignore public health warnings about masks and physical distancing, because the risks are so low for them to catch COVID-19. Couldn’t possibly happen to me, they say, on their way home from the crowded beach, lined up (shoulder to shoulder) to buy tickets for tonight’s draw, betting for a win against much worse odds.

People are just not getting the picture that, in our world today, all bets are off. Previous predictions about what is likely to happen are almost pointless. Using probabilities to decide on funding priorities for floods or pandemics is a waste of time, for example, because we don’t (and won’t) have the data sets we need to calculate them properly.

Who knows what it really means, when both the Arctic and Antarctic are warming at a rate several times that of the rest of the planet? When Siberia hits temperatures in July that are hotter than Houston? Those things alone are signs, when it comes to calculating outcomes, that systems beyond our control are also beyond our comprehension, if we rely on the tools of probability.

We need to approach our problems – and our potential problems – differently. If you want a fancy phrase, call it “qualitative analysis.” Otherwise, just call it systems thinking, or applied common sense.

Look at water issues from the perspective of watersheds and their management — and find the points of vulnerability (such as the Rivers dam). What would happen if the dam failed — and how could the system be rejigged to relieve pressure on that dam, not just now, but in the future, given that more extreme weather (drought and rain) will certainly lie ahead, thanks to climate change?

A stitch in time saves nine, we have been told for centuries, but we seem to have forgotten that wisdom. Our probability calculations and resulting economic assessments cost us more in the long run, because they too often fly in the face of common sense — a cheap and increasingly rare commodity in these Trumpian times.

In April, I got a call from a former student, who was watching the pandemic unfold and remembered my course on “Disease and History” at the University of Winnipeg 20 years ago. It was a troubling course that year; we toured the virology lab, and I had to devote an entire class afterward to reassuring students because of the security flaws we observed.

Then I offered an assignment to assess Manitoba’s emergency response to a potential Ebola epidemic — and had to take another class to calm them down because of what they found.

Briefly: Many of the phone numbers on the emergency list were dead; others went to people surprised to find they were on the list. Asked how the airport authority would screen incoming passengers from abroad, we were told not to worry, because there were no direct international flights “from those places to Winnipeg.”

Pressed further, the airport person said anyone who “looked sick” would be put in a separate room – no special precautions — and then admitted the only medical personnel available to do any screening was a veterinarian. At that point, there were no hospitals with HEPA-filter, negative-pressure environments in the city — only the new Canadian Blood Services building and the virology lab had them. And so on!

Of course, the odds were this kind of epidemic would never happen here, and for 20 years, it hasn’t. But whatever experts had been consulted along the way, my students could have easily set up a better system. I only hope some of them eventually did.

From pandemics to the climate crisis, we need more common sense and less preferential gambling on best possible outcomes. Ideology, whether political or economic, has to stop getting in the way of practical solutions.

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Not quite ready to embrace Phase 2

(May 28, 2020)

I WISH I could share the enthusiasm of those who are now happily booking haircuts, eating in restaurants and making plans to visit with friends and families.

My hair has not been this long since I was a teenager, it would be nice to share that home-cooking load with a chef, and I miss being able to sit around and just visit with people.

But I can’t. A Facebook meme shared last week sticks in my head: “Relaxing restrictions doesn’t mean the pandemic is over. It means there is now room for you in the ICU.”

Ouch. And then that famous tagline from Jaws 2 (1978) surfaces in my memory: “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water.”

OK, maybe I am over-thinking all of this. So I asked myself the blunt question, which no one has really asked our public health officials — the question for which Premier Brian Pallister needs a good answer before opening the doors to Phase 2 on June 1:

“What has changed from March 28 to May 28?”

Remember March? The frantic closing of everything, the suspending of in-class education as the educational system was shut down in a few days and students (and teachers) dispatched to their homes? Those restaurants I like simply closed, along with the churches, the hair salons — everything except liquor and cannabis stores, the new essential services to pacify the population as we watched jobs and entire industries shutter, perhaps for good? When professional sports just stopped? When tourism was reduced to “How quickly can I get home?”

We were told there were good reasons to do these things, to shelter in place, to avoid contact with anyone we didn’t live with, and as we watched the body count rise elsewhere in the world, it wasn’t hard to be convinced it was a good idea, whatever else happened.

Sixty days later, is it really safe to go back in the water? By fluke of geography and timing, Manitoba dodged the initial wave — the advantage of having a later (and thus cancelled) spring break, and not being a tourist destination in February for anyone sane enough to travel.

There will be a second wave, we are told — and if other pandemic patterns hold, it will be worse than the first, especially if it is later in the fall, when flu season starts.

What has changed? We still have no vaccine (if there is going to be one, it could be a year away from mass distribution). We have learned how best to treat people in intensive care, to improve their chance of survival. We might have enough PPE now for those in front-line roles … but it will be harder to identify who is front-line as society opens up again. The extra ventilators are on order, and the new Canadian design might help improve their delivery.

Yes, we know more about the virus, and have a better idea of who is at increased risk. We know more about how it spreads, and that, while it is highly contagious, it is less contagious than it could be. We know people who contract the virus can die, but fewer will die than with other, more deadly, pandemic diseases.

We also know most people who contract the virus will recover, though there are troubling questions about serious long-term health damage.

What we still don’t know, however, is how many asymptomatic people are carriers. We don’t know what makes some people — of any age — more susceptible to getting the virus, or why some people get very sick, very quickly, and others shrug it off in a couple of days, like a cold or the flu. We don’t know if it will mutate, again, and what those potential mutations could mean.

We know people should wear masks, to reduce the likelihood of spreading the virus. We know social distancing and not spending a long time in a poorly ventilated space with others reduces risk, too. We have always known the importance of washing our hands — and now are actually doing it, for a change.

But is it safe to go back in the water? Are we making that decision for good public-health reasons, or only because of economics? Or just because we are going stir-crazy?

What is clear is that leaving our bubble — for any reason — involves a risk we have never considered before, especially if you have health conditions, or are older.

I don’t know if I would recover in a couple of days, or if I would be fighting for my life in ICU within a week. Or when I spread it to my family, what would happen to them.

So, I really don’t think much has changed since March.

Please tell me I’m wrong — my barber wants to hear that, too.

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Pallister’s ‘bucket list’ of irritations

(May 20, 2020)

I wrote the first words of this column as the sun rose over the Red River on Manitoba’s 150th birthday.

After bemoaning the fact the Snowbirds did not swing north of the city during the local leg of their now-interrupted inspiration tour, it was then back to life in the midst of a pandemic.

At heart, like all activists, I am an optimist. You have to be, because there are always lots of reasons to quit, as you listen to the voices of those who tell you it is hopeless, or pointless or futile.

So, last week, I hoped we would see some sign of Pallister’s plan to mark the province’s sesquicentennial, some blueprint for Manitoba’s future that showed the collective wisdom of our political leaders in a time of crisis.

Instead of a plan, however, it seems Premier Brian Pallister has an agenda — a personal agenda, his own “bucket list” of irritations before he hands off to a new leader just in time for the Progressive Conservative Party to face Manitobans at the polls in 2023 (or sooner).

Bloated civil service, propped up by nasty unions? Check. Post-secondary institutions, where people do very little except belly-ache for more money? Check. Environmental organizations that keep telling me the government is not doing enough for the planet or the future? Check. Manitoba Hydro, which just won’t roll over and die? Check.

All of this, of course, is ostensibly to provide more money for health care — but then, in the same breath, Pallister gifted seniors $200 each ($45 million) and dropped another $500 million worth of promises into construction. That $360,000 cut from the budgets of Green Action Centre, Manitoba-Eco-Network and Climate Change Connection — which were told “the fact of the matter is, all of us are in this together, and that includes advocacy groups” — is a long way from even being nickels in that scenario.

Calling them “advocacy groups” also misrepresents most of the work they do, from ecological education in schools and working on sustainable transportation to establishing the composting service the city (and province) continues to dodge. But silencing them eliminates awkward questions, asked on behalf of average citizens left out in the cold, that this premier would also prefer to dodge. Check.

For younger Manitobans, facing unemployment this summer and yet wanting to return to school in the fall, there is the promise of a wage subsidy — as long as there are employers with jobs for students, and who have the cash to float that $5,000 advance until the government pays up in the fall. Publicity that will cost little or nothing? Check.

Then $10 million for summer Green Team funding for students — with the irony that many sponsoring organizations (such as churches or community groups) are now closed or reliant on those environmental “advocacy” groups for organization, resources and support. Vaguely green gesture, that again will cost little? Check.

So, here we are. Hard to be an optimist for Manitoba’s 151st year, isn’t it?

I have confessed this before, but the only political party to which I have ever belonged was the Progressive Conservative Party. Granted, it was a long time ago, back when — in Manitoba, especially — you could be both progressive and conservative without being a walking oxymoron.

As a young person, I was proud of what the Progressive Conservatives were doing — at least, until the Reform wind blew from the west and Alberta’s Social Credit ideology took over. Like many other young people I knew at the time, I left, and have never really found a place since I could call home.

I think that progressive element is still out there in rural areas, among the people who vote for the PC Party in Manitoba, but whose personal lives, in their communities and in the wider world, reflect values that support their neighbour and help others in need, ahead of ideology and budget cuts.

I propose, to those readers who regularly get financial requests from the party, that they reconsider where their donations should go at the moment. As the premier says, “We are all in this together” — and right now, the Progressive Conservative Party of Manitoba does not need a war chest. It needs a wound chest, or it will not deserve re-election.

So politely refuse the opportunity to give more money to the PC Party — and tell them instead it will be going to the food banks, the theatre and music groups, the social services in your community, the environmental groups — all of which are suffering and have not made it onto the premier’s agenda, except as targets.

For the seniors who can afford it, top things up with the $200 you didn’t expect.

Premier Pallister makes it clear he won’t be forced to do the right thing — so it’s time for the progressive members of the PC Party to do some damage control of their own.

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