This piece is a followup to what I did last May 18, critical of those denouncing emergency pandemic measures as a violation of civil liberty. It’s at https://blog.burble.ca/2020/05/18/on-pandemics-and-civil-liberties-for-someone-who-should-know-better/#more-166 Public attention is currently distracted by the latest hysteria over police behaviour but I am putting this out now anyway. In a few days I think it will be topical again.
Nope! They all didn’t listen to me. In the Excited States of America, there is still an organized attempt to disrupt public health measures. It is a weird situation in which the federal government is assisting the efforts to disrupt these measures as most state and local authorities try to keep them going. Some commentators describe it as the beginning of a new civil war in America, run on the “hybrid war” methods of this century.
Hybrid war means use of proxy forces and forms of economic disruption and blockade, and the propaganda potential opened up by social media, against a designated ‘enemy’. In furtherance of this new “proxy civil war” the “rent a geek with a gun” crowd has been parading through quarantined shops and state legislatures. People are being threatened, frivolous law suits are being launched, businesses are being opened illegally.
The virus has already had a devastating effect on the USA. The impossibility of epidemic control methods will lead to a huge disaster, hastening the collapse of our southern neighbour. There has been great resistance there to the forced reopening of the society, but it is not enough.
In Canada, we have done much better. Here, a single payer health care system has been the basis for a halfway serious response to the world pandemic. That, along with a somewhat saner social attitude and generally enough sense to follow authority in a crisis.
Most of Canada’s provinces have done pretty well at pandemic control. Even Alberta has done well enough, despite a libertarian type of yo-yo in office as premier. This is no doubt due to an old tradition in Alberta politics that runs parallel with absolute domination of provincial politics by the “Oiligarchy”. That is, of local governments defying the province when its lunacies seriously endanger social well being.
The exception, alas, is in Central Canada; Ontario and Quebec. I really do not know what went wrong in Quebec. Usually government there is more progressive and aligned with public needs than the rest of Canada.
In Ontario, our local Blowhard and Bully turned premier was able to create an impression of taking charge and making sure the virus threat was dealt with seriously. This impression is not really justified. However, there is little Ford can really do against the structural problems in Ontario which have built up over many generations.
The problems with controlling the epidemic have been focussed in the Greater Toronto Area. Many smaller centres have done much better. Effective action in a crisis has been stymied by factional fighting and turf protecting behaviours. These in turn are the result of that old Toronto problem of a lack of democracy and public apathy.
Now is a good time for people in the Toronto area to come out of their apathy. The rest of Canada needs to start asking some questions too. As I wrote last month, when there is a pandemic you follow the measures set down by the authorities unless they are clearly disastrous. But when the immediate crisis has passed, it is time for evaluation.
This has barely begun in public discussion in Canada. However, there are issues. Moreover, the crisis is not really over yet, it is in a pause.
The fact is, the way the pandemic was handled in Canada was not adequate. We were lucky. It could have been a lot worse. You can look at the consequences for advanced countries like Belgium and the U.K., which had the wrong people in charge during the crisis. But we did far worse than many other countries with far fewer resources than us.
China, South Korea, and Japan were the gold standard. Yet China in particular is being slagged as the source of the pandemic. It was China which showed the world how to deal with a pandemic in a modern, urban society but their advice was ignored.
Of course, in some highly capitalistic countries like Canada, where civil society is a bit shaky, it would not have been possible to come up to the standards of these countries. Here too is a lesson which Canadians need to absorb. Canada, like other western nations, faces decline if it does not change its economic and political systems.
However, that is not the most immediate problem. Here at home in Ontario, we have failed to get the basic infrastructure into place to deal minimally with the continuing pandemic. Things just are not moving, but we cannot stay in lockdown forever.
Local production of enough of the almighty “personal protective equipment” is still not happening. Quick and effective contact tracing, such that every Covid case is traced to its source, should be in place before the lockdown starts to be lifted. The authorities seem incapable of getting this going.
But the real key to containing any pandemic, and what the countries most successful in beating the pandemic all did well, was centralized quarantine. In most western countries, including Canada, it isn’t even being attempted. Some people may describe centralized quarantine as being totalitarian; I find the lack of it to be fairly medieval.
There are three things you do in a pandemic. They have been known for many centuries. Sometimes they get done right when an actual pandemic hits. Sometimes the authorities prove inadequate to the task or the society is just not at a high enough level of social cohesion.
One is the centralized quarantine. You take the infected or at risk person to a quarantine hospital, quarantine shed, “lazar house”, or whatever the term of the time. You keep him or her there until he or she is cleared.
You do not lock up an entire household with one infected person so that the whole house is infected, so none can go out and get necessities without bringing the infection out with them. This is what the lack of centralized quarantine , in effect, did in Canada. It brings me to mind of the most chilling passages of Daniel DeFoe’s “Journal of the Plaque Year.”
According to that account of the great plague of London in 1665, the local authorities tried to deal with the plague by locking up the inhabitants of any house where the plague appeared, for forty days. Guards were placed around the house. Sometimes dozens of people were shut up with an infected person, and no way to get food and water.
This did not work very well. There were sword duels as people tried to fight their way past the guards. People hid the rotting bodies of dead relatives for fear of also having their doors nailed shut.
DeFoe’s great criticism of the handling of the plague was to ask, why on earth infected people were not moved to Lazar houses until they recovered or died? This was what was done in Holland, which suffered much less from the same plague.
We have come a long way from those times, but not quite enough to suit me.
Of course a modern day Lazar house would not be like being thrown in a dungeon. I recall an account by a South Korean of being under centralized quarantine there. The place was made as pleasant as possible, with good food and single rooms, and plenty of entertainment.
We seem to be making a beginning at centralized quarantine, with people from homeless shelters who are testing positive being moved into hotel rooms.
The second thing you must have in a pandemic is an effective system of contact tracing. If someone has the disease, you have to know where he/she caught it; every time, no exceptions, no nonsense. I am not sure if “testing” is all that useful in this, if there are limited testing resources. It would be more a matter of legwork. If a society is properly prepared for any pandemic, as it should be, it would be able to just test everybody. Of course, if you are positive, you are off to the quarantine hospital for 14 days.
The third thing is to shut down all vectors of disease transmission. This is what Canada was best at. We got the borders closed, movement between areas restricted, and a campaign of ‘social distancing’ which depended on voluntary compliance.
Canadian people are generally sensible enough not to fall into this warped understanding of “rights”. Here, your rights end where everyone else’s rights start. People here understood that the pandemic was not a joke; it has been far less serious than it might have been precisely because it was taken seriously from the start.
However, much of the prudence of Canadians has been squandered.To repeat, government has failed to suppress the infection. It will smoulder on for probably at least two years, like a ground fire that keeps flaring up. The economy all over the world will continue to be severely effected.
Pressure is mounting from business lobbies to “open up” again. There are powerful sections of most “business communities” which believe that the lives of employees are expendable. Propaganda is circulating that Covid was not really that serious, was a “false alarm”, and so on. This has not found much traction in Canada so far.
The real ‘covid rebellion’ will not be of people trying to “break out of the lockdown” but of people resisting being forced back to work without proper measures in place. The drive to force people back has more bite in the USA. In Canada we have stronger social protections so people can resist more easily.
People all over the world are refusing to be crowded into closed spaces again; into night clubs, work places, airliners, streetcars. The ‘three Cs’ rule, which should always have been practised, is now being demanded as a permanent fixture. People will not accept “Close, Crowded, and Closed in” any more. A healthy space between people is being demanded, with proper air circulation.
In Canada people are not blindly obeying Pandemic rules of authorities. Excessive or pointless orders are being resisted, such as the closure of parks. But extensions of needed measures, and implementations of new ones, are being demanded.
The public is calling for Measures such as Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) to be refined and extended. This is turning into a demand for permanent measures, such as a Universal Basic Income. It is also being made clear that things like rent payments, for both businesses and individuals, will have to be not postponed, but written off.
As it gets clearer that the pandemic is not going to go away, due to the inadequacy of the way the Canadian economy and government are organized, the demand for reorganization of both will grow. In Canada, and much of the developed world, peaceful pathways for achieving this reorganization are still open. In the USA, a serious revolution will be required, which will likely be very violent and chaotic, which should greatly concern Canadians.
This brings us to the issue of how Canadian government will be able to respond to other crises. If it fell down on Covid, which should have been fairly easy to suppress, what will happen if there are serious disruptions of supply chains due to a collapse of our southern neighbour into some sorts of “hybrid” events?
There is almost no emergency planning and preparation in Canada. There is less than a week’s stockpile of staple foods. Other necessities could also run out quickly. The idiocy of “comparative advantage” and “just in time”global supply chains is made apparent.
We need better systems. We need government that can actually govern. We need an economic system that can supply whatever is needed quickly and is not overly dependant on foreign suppliers.
We need an emergency planning and management system which insures stockpiles and facilities are ready for any emergency, and can spring right into action. It needs power to cut through jurisdictional gridlocks, commandeer key facilities, and command things to be done.
Judging by much internet discussion now, people are catching onto these ideas. The Covid19 revolt is on and it will radically reshape Canada over the next years. The world will be transformed by both the Pandemic and by the global depression that began before it.
I have two final, rather grim thoughts. Covid19 will be most devastating in the poorer nations and ones with really bad government. It will kill millions. It will take years to develop an effective vaccine for it.
Stay safe. By that I mean, adopt permanent habits that minimize risk of infection. Demand that where you want and need to go be made safe. Stay safe.