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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Now more than ever, hope matters

Misspelling the Maasai word for “hope” — osiligi — in a Kenyan primary school (2014)

(March 28, 2020)

ACTIVISTS have always said that we need to find another way to do things. Another way to live together — to live with the Earth, instead of against it.

For too long, the response, from too many people, has been, “No. There isn’t another way.” Or, “I don’t want to look for one.” Or, “We did it once and it didn’t work – we tried.”

Through COVID-19, Mother Nature is delivering a blunt message: “Think again. Try harder.”

We need to listen, but that means major cultural change, for communities everywhere. People think such change is difficult, but culture changes all the time.

Since the Second World War, for example, western industrial consumer culture and its ideals of material prosperity have gone global. But so has the damage to the biosphere caused by the tools, systems and attitudes of that culture. So have the social costs, reflected not in global prosperity but in income inequality, made worse by people losing their homes and livelihoods in rural areas and crowding into unplanned cities.

However much the economic indicators have continually crowed about higher gross domestic product, the happiness/well-being indicators have continued to drop. The gross national happiness index, promoted by such countries as Bhutan, was certainly mocked at Wall Street parties. Can you even count happiness?

Happiness might be hard to measure, but unhappiness is literally embodied. Too many of us are malnourished or overweight (or both), inactive and unfit, afflicted with problems that a healthy body should manage. Unhealthy and unhappy seem to go together.

And now, here we are. Anyone who doubts that we are all in this together, inextricably linked to everyone and everything on Earth, just has to watch the graphs of COVID-19 cases, and the global economic dominoes that continue to fall as a result.

Scientists, activists and fiction writers have been predicting a global pandemic for decades. Their audiences have ignored them, sold their books at garage sales, or left theatres thankful that the heroes saved the day, once again, before the popcorn ran out.

As we watch people adjust to whatever this “new normal” means — and it will likely be months before anything even remotely resembling the “old normal” returns — there are some truths already emerging about what matters most:

Neighbours matter. Other people need our help, just as we will certainly need theirs.

There are no strangers anymore — just people we haven’t yet met. If you feel alone, don’t just sit there — reach out.

Relationships matter. Whether the people are near or far, close companions or people (even family) we have hardly talked to in years, those relationships are how we stay grounded, reassured, comforted, encouraged and motivated to get through whatever today brings.

Community matters. No one is in this crisis alone — how we all behave, together, affects how we will survive it, together. Competition in these circumstances is pointless — co-operation makes the group stronger.

Sharing matters. If we each contribute what we can to the well-being of the community, those relationships are strengthened, for whatever comes our way.

Generosity matters. It takes many forms, and so do the gifts we can give. The gift of time, of care, can be as simple as a phone call, or the offer to pick up food or medicine for the most vulnerable. If you still have a job or an income, think of those neighbours who currently do not.

It’s too glib to say religion matters, because in a time of crisis, when the artillery shells fall, there are no atheists in a foxhole. But this situation makes us think about our life priorities, what we are doing with our time and our abilities, what we mean to the people around us and about what we can do for others. Religious or spiritual beliefs can help us to reflect on those things.

Technology matters — as long as we remember technology is in our heads, not just our hands. We can do things differently, so think hard about how to change our culture so what matters most to us is supported by our technology, not undermined by it. We are all powerful, capable people, and there is always another way if we try harder.

Finally, hope matters. With enthusiasm, I once misspelled the Maasai word for “hope” on an ancient blackboard, with a stub of chalk, in a ramshackle school in rural Kenya.

“Osiligi” was everywhere in conversation and on signs. At a deeper level, it means more than just “hope.” It is the faith that what is done right aligns with how the universe is meant to unfold, for a continual blessing from generation to generation, as part of the rhythm of life.

Amid such abject poverty, I learned a valuable life lesson from them.

Their courageous response to the challenges they faced every day was: “Osiligi.”

May it also be ours.

Peter Denton is an activist, author and sustainability consultant based in rural Manitoba. His seventh book, Imagine a Joyful Economy (a collaboration with Gus Speth), was just published by Wood Lake Books.

Pointed questions for visiting PM

(January 18, 2020)

If I could ask Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet one question before their Winnipeg retreat this weekend, it would be: “Would you shoot the children?”

I admit this is a brutal way to start a column. But it does cut away the fluff and go straight to the heart of the problem.

As this is being written, RCMP officers in full tactical gear have barricaded the traditional territory of the Wet’suwet’en in British Columbia, and blocked journalists from entering the area. We don’t know what orders have been issued around the potential use of lethal force against anyone who breaches their lines.

Forget the unresolved issues of Indigenous land claims, the court cases still unfolding, the opinion of human rights tribunals, and any other number of issues. The pipeline goes through. Period.

Forget the climate crisis, the need to keep the oil in the ground, and especially forget we signed the Paris Agreement to limit global warming. Ignore the fires in Australia — and ignore that, except for a miracle, the same fires could have burned in dry northern Manitoba this past summer. Spin the issue of carbon tax some more, offer smoke and mirrors, distract the crowds with bread and circuses, and make sure the pipeline goes through. Period.

Around the world, children are staying out of school, by the millions, to strike for the climate. Greta Thunberg became the face of that global movement, but there are many other young people, including right here in Canada, who will fight just as hard for their future.

But what does that mean? Will it mean the kind of civil action that #ExtinctionRebellion has led elsewhere? Does it mean there will be demonstrations, blockades, protests — attempts to block pipeline construction, among other things?

Of course, it will. The global system is not working. We are literally burning up our children’s future and yet somehow still avoid dealing with what is so obvious to them. There are very few predictions of what lies ahead past 2050, when today’s teenagers will only be middle-aged. We don’t even talk about that nightmare, anymore.

Young people can see we are not making decisions that respect the land and all of the children of Earth, as we should. Forget considering the seventh generation — we can’t even manage to care for the next one.

Because of our lazy luxuries, our sluggish and indolent response to the climate crisis, their future — and that of their own children and grandchildren — is going up in flames, as surely as that Australian bush.

Why should we expect them to say nothing, in response? Why should we expect them to do nothing, either?

Thankfully, the protests so far are non-violent — the next generation has learned what happens when popular opposition resorts to violence. The young people march instead.

But when young people take to the streets in increasing numbers, as they will — supported by the adults who care for them and understand their concerns for the future — what will our leaders do?

Will they order out the riot police, in mirrored helmets, to beat them down with clubs? Gas them? Use water cannons? Fire rubber bullets to maim them? Perhaps shoot to kill?

Before you say such things could never happen here, remember how the Harper government dealt with the G20 protests in Toronto a decade ago.

When unjust social or environmental policies are enforced by the machinery of the state, confrontation is inevitable. People may get hurt or die as a result. Situations such as the one on Wet’suwet’en land are the result of our failure to find another, better way forward, one that not only respects everyone involved, but offers ecological justice, too.

Political leaders who raise their own children to respect other people and the Earth they share can expect tough days ahead, because the next demonstration may see their own kids in the front row, walking toward those same riot police.

One way or the other, children are preparing for the future we have created for them. They would be in school, studying, if we had solved the climate crisis. But the fact they are on the streets instead is a sign of our failure, our cowardice, our hypocrisy — and what’s worse, makes me wonder about our apparent willingness even to use force against them rather than change the course of our society toward a sustainable future.

So, Trudeau, as the movement for climate justice grows, do you plan to deploy RCMP tactical squads or the Canadian Armed Forces to suppress Canadians, including children who object to government policies or protest government inaction?

Or will you publicly commit, here in the Heart of the Continent, to finding another way, one without such dangerous potential for us all?

Dance on a cliff, and someone certainly will fall.

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