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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The new ‘normal’ won’t look like the old one

(April 24, 2020)

WITH the first probable cases of COVID-19 in Manitoba having been identified on March 12, we have been living with the pandemic and its implications for more than a month and a half.

It is hard to listen to the news, every day, and hear the death tolls around the world. It is hard to read the stories of people who have lost family members, friends and colleagues. It is incredible how much has changed in such a short period of time.

If you offered a silent wish for things to return to “normal” about now, you would not be alone. Yet the pandemic doesn’t have the same effect on everyone. Nor is that desired return to “normal” necessarily a good idea.

If you watch your social media, you will see a wide range of “Living with COVID-19” stories.

There are those with privilege, whose work or income remains uninterrupted, who have no children at home as “co-workers” whom they now have to school, on top of learning to work remotely for employers who expect the same level of performance as before, with perhaps a well-stocked liquor cabinet, a judicious pot supply, Netflix to binge-watch after a nice afternoon nap, or some combination of all three, for these lucky few it has been a pyjamas-clad month, interrupted only by food-delivery services and the occasional awkward Zoom meeting.

That privileged experience jars with the reality of other households, who are confined to smaller spaces, with poor internet or none, without cable television — but still with children to amuse, all day long, because teaching is impossible or impractical. Finding enough food, and praying for the means to buy it, is a constant, daily anxiety — and perhaps something that has never been a concern before, because there once was a steady job that is now gone, maybe for good.

Then there are the people who live alone. For them, isolation really does mean isolation — face-to-face conversation means getting a response from the cat. Electronic devices make some human interaction possible, but require both money and the technical ability to use them. For many seniors, especially those who are now locked into care facilities in an effort to keep them safe, even a telephone may be out of the question.

Some businesses flipped to remote operation in a matter of days; others face closure for longer than they can afford, assuming they are even able to reopen. For millions of Canadians, steady income has stopped, but those Visa bills and mortgage payments keep on coming, with interest rates unchanged. Government help is not fast enough — or not enough, period — and too many people and organizations here are falling through the cracks.

Then there are the essential-services workers, who still have jobs outside the home, but are fraught with anxiety because of the risks they now face, every day, for the same meagre wages as before. New sanitation requirements, shortages of personal protective equipment, stress and tension everywhere they work — on top of the daily concern for their own families — create a perfect mental-health storm.

How much more can we take, and for how much longer? Glib answers from anyone about imminent returns to “normal” are wrong, however, for two reasons:

First, if we return too soon, all these sacrifices will be pointless, as the virus roars back from somewhere else and the second wave starts. What’s more, global problems require global solutions — our lives are interwoven with those of everyone on the planet, and our decisions need to be, too.

Second, there is actually no going back to “the way we were,” except in song. Any person, any business, any organization — and especially any politician — who thinks we will ever go back to the old “normal” is delusional.

Comparisons are already being made to the aftermath of the Great Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed. Add to them the Great War that set up these global disasters, and the world of 1914 was clearly gone forever.

As we approach the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, we need to remember that while U.S. president Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal” pulled the United States out of its Depression, in Germany and Italy, a return to prosperity was offered through nationalism, fascism, genocide and war.

I fear we face a similar choice today. Especially after the Great Pandemic, we need a Green New Deal for the planet — the same one that two months ago we apparently couldn’t afford — but attempting a remix instead of the old elitism, economic disparity and racial injustice will only set the stage for further global disaster.

For some readers, such problems seem light years away from what’s happening here. For others, they are already local realities, every day.

Whatever the new “normal” will be, however, it can’t look and feel like the old one, or our troubles are just beginning.

The world of 2019 is gone forever. What better choices will we make together in 2020?

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