Jen Gerson: Our endless reserve of national complacency

Canada was probably always screwed.

Note from The Line editors: Normally we’d end our week with a dispatch from the front, but, if we’re being totally honest, we completely forgot that this week was the one leading up to Easter. Yeah, yeah, we know. Look, there’s a lot going on, OK? So we are going to take this week off, but we’ll be back on Tuesday with more. To our readers, a very happy Easter, and a safe, restful long weekend.

By: Jen Gerson

I'm going to do something incredibly unfair. 

I'm going to pose a question: If we could go back in time knowing everything we know today about COVID-19, how would we advise our past selves to respond to the then-emergent virus? 

For me, the answer would look something like this: identify the threat of a global pandemic when anyone with half-an-IQ point could see it was likely to be a serious problem — weeks before the World Health Organization declared it so. Implement masking and social distancing protocols in line with Asian countries. At the first sign of domestic community spread, enact one short and time-constrained but incredibly strict and straightforward lockdown to allow us time to learn about the virus, improve our PPE stockpiles, bolster contract tracing, harden long-term care facilities, and increase ICU capacity. 

Lastly, I would advise this: move aggressively at the beginning of the pandemic to shut international borders to all but the most essential traffic — namely food and goods. We should also have closed interprovincial borders, and restricted inter-municipal travel until we could secure communities, cities, provinces, and then COVID-free regional bubbles — akin to what the Atlantic provinces have done. Because if one thing seems obvious now, it's that the jurisdictions that have emerged from COVID relatively unscathed are not just the ones that seriously enforced early lockdowns — they could pair those temporary measures with ongoing travel restrictions that were less likely to break under the strain of COVID fatigue. 

And if you think about this, it makes sense. More than a year into this mess, if someone were to give you the following choice, how would you answer: "We can keep doing what we’ve been doing, with alternating lockdowns and re-openings, or you can go about your lives in relative normality, but you can't travel beyond your regional COVID bubble without special permission"? I know which one I would pick, and I know which option I could sustain with relative comfort over the course of a year. 

Everything else, including round-who-knows of lockdown measures like the ones recently announced in several provinces, are just whack-a-mole games that put all that feel-good rhetoric about "crushing the curve" to shame. Vaccines are our only way out now, and they won't come fast enough to prevent another wave of cases (although what vaccinations we have achieved to date will likely blunt the mass deaths we saw in the first waves).  

Of course, I had no way of knowing any of this a year ago, and even if I did, no one would have listened to me, and rightly. I mean, I'm no expert. I'd have sounded like a raving lunatic, and I can only imagine this would have gotten worse when I started crowing about the perils awaiting us in 2021, Cassandra style. 

More importantly, hindsight is 2020 (ha) and pointing out that we failed the most obvious strategy is mean. 

So here is a fairer, more interesting question to ponder: even if we knew the way out of our current mess then, could we have executed that plan? 

The answer from one corner appears to be endless and ever-stricter lockdown measures, but few seem to be willing to spell out exactly how draconian we ought to be. Is Quebec's curfew-and-closure model heavy handed enough — despite the fact that it has one of the highest death tolls in the country? Has Alberta been too lenient, even though our death rates register about average for the country? 

We seem to handwave a lot about jurisdictions like Australia and New Zealand. OK. Here's a story from the Guardian in which nine public housing towers in Melbourne were surrounded by police, trapping 3,000 people inside their apartments for five days in violation of human rights law. Is that how hardcore we ought to have been? 

Could we have surrounded a Toronto Community Housing high-rise with a few hundred cops and forbidden everyone to leave post George Floyd? Remember, our public-health agents and politicians wouldn't discourage protesting last summer. I just don't see a lot of progressives who trumpet the Australia model digging down into the details and thinking through the implications. The more punitive your measures, the more disproportionately those measures will hit poor and racialized people.

Not so long ago, we chafed at the mere mention of the fact that COVID seemed to be spreading more aggressively in some minority communities, for a host of cultural and practical reasons. Stories to this effect were castigated as scapegoating. Yet this same crowd of COVID fantasy LARPers now imagines we had the stomach to play it as hard as Oz? 

I just don't believe it. 


Meanwhile, what is our military and police capacity, and do we have the bodies to actually enforce stricter lockdowns and travel restrictions? I honestly don't have the answer to this, but I think it ought to be noted that we don't seem to be able to enforce even the comparatively lenient "lockdowns" currently underway. Paradoxically, this seems to be why we get so many examples of COVID overreach — teenagers fined for shooting hoops, or flouting BBQ restaurants shut down in dramatic displays for the television cameras, pour encourager les autres. This is the sort of thing one tends to see when enforcement agencies know they are in the shit, and respond by engaging in showy and targeted over-enforcement in order to make a point.

In other words, it's pandemic theatre — a label to which I would also append our quarantine hotels — authorities acting tough precisely because they are weak.

And then we must come to, what my mind, looks like our biggest and most obvious error. Lack of travel restrictions. Or as one of my Twitter friends put it: 

Forbidding snowbirds from jetting off to Florida in the middle of a second or third or whatever wave strikes me a shockingly obvious and reasonable curtailment of liberties. But while we're talking Oz and New Zealand let's also remember that these two countries share something that Canada does not — they’re surrounded entirely by ocean. Jurisdictions with smaller populations and geographically useful features that restrict movement are always going to be easier to segregate and quarantine than countries that do not share these features. 

We have to manage the world's largest undefended land crossing with a hegemonic basketcase, and one to which we are inextricably economically intertwined. Not to mention the fact that an absurd amount of our food supplies crosses that border daily on long-haul trucks that are difficult to quarantine.

And then there is the most important factor of all: the question of competence. Our governments couldn't manage basic airport screening. They said border closures were not effective shortly before they closed the border. They botched our early warning response. They were wrong on mask use. They partnered with the Chinese on vaccines while that country was holding our citizens as part of a hostage diplomacy gambit. This government tried to funnel a cockamamie youth COVID volunteering scheme through their buddies at WE

That's just the federal government. 

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As of February, most of our provincial governments were still sitting on crates of rapid tests. Our contact tracing systems are overwhelmed. These governments couldn't communicate a clear instruction to move left if a tree were about to fall on our heads. Big box stores are ok, but small businesses are death traps. Patios are closed, parks are open, spas are at half capacity, and churches are banned. The rules are always changing, and some of these restrictions do not appear to be grounded in reliable evidence, nor are they internally consistent with what we know about how the virus spreads. 

I write about the news for a living, and I honestly could not tell you what phase of COVID lockdown my area is experiencing. How many layers of mask should I be wearing when I go out? I no longer care. What's a lockdown vs. a shutdown vs. an emergency brake? Fuck you, that's what it is. 

Hey, if you want to get really angry, check out this utter hogshit inanity: residents of a long-term care facility in Ontario who are begging to be let outside after spending the last year in virtual solitary confinement. This despite the fact that most of them are now vaccinated. This is only one of one hundred tales of COVID that is not even remotely rational. 

At this point any expectations must be tempered by an inescapable reality: we are not living in a particularly well-governed country. This isn't just a matter of lack of political will or vision. Every province and city above a certain population threshold is stranded on the same sand bank in the canal waiting for a single backhoe to dig us out; it's only a question of whether they sit in the bow or the stern. Our leaders are neither well-suited nor well bred to crisis. And we have surrendered the most basic common sense and decency to a political and technocratic corps that has demonstrated again and again that it is undeserving of our foggy headed deference. 

So what we're left with is what we've got: partisan camps squabbling about how strict our quasi-lockdown measures ought to be while we watch comparable nation-states vaccinate their 30-year-olds. Just wait until they start pinning Orders of Canada on these guys for our crafty and courageous pandemic response. Our finances may be a wreck, but, hey, we'll never exhaust our endless reserve of national complacency. 

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