As is evident to everyone except perhaps those charged with maintaining it, the COVID-19 crisis is exposing the weak points in the status quo and our social structures the world over. The arrogance of government, the mainstream media, and public health bodies is on full display, as is the fact that each is deeply beholden to the ruling class as they scramble to minimize the impact on “the economy” whilst getting a grip on a situation that threatens to continue if the appropriate controls are not applied. It’s a delicate balancing act, one that no one has gotten quite right yet.
In the meantime, the working class and poor have little to no power but must keep participating in the system to survive, ironically putting their lives at risk in the process and being blamed (or dying) if they don’t pull it off well enough. This with little to no support. And to add insult to injury, in addition to issuing ambiguous or confusing directives and statements, public health and special interest groups are using the crisis to drive ideological agendas. I’m trying to think of a better term than shit show to describe it all but I lack the imagination.
It would be enough to deal with the pandemic that has swept our globe but we are simultaneously treated to a peak behind the curtain and how our system works. It is wholly reliant on the work and the oppression of regular folk by well-heeled middlemen acting on the behalf of their own director-benefactors. Are the people in charge endowed with particular intellect or talent that sets them above the rest of us? No. But they have their interests. On some level or other, we knew this. It just isn’t normally laid so bare. Let’s have a look at some of the key players and where things have gone so terribly wrong.
We overestimate the credibility of our governing bodies and the media
In fairness, the people in government overestimate their own intellect, credibility, and virtue while simultaneously underestimating that of the general public. It’s a game that goes both ways and we’ve been playing for too long to shift the dynamics overnight. It’s only now that government officials are tripping over themselves in an effort to correct the information they days or hours earlier issued with confidence that the fraud is exposed. (The same too can be said for our public health officials and “experts” in their various fields.)
All of them now concede that they’re only sharing the best information, which often includes guesses, sometimes educated, that they have at the time. Which is basically what they can be counted on to do at the best of times leaving aside the multiple layered relationships and interests that they factor into any decisions. What is striking is not the mistakes, not the misinformation or misdirections, but the acknowledgment of any wrongdoing at all. Granted, not all of them are so ready to yield, no matter how blatant their lack of judgment.
Focusing on Canada (though it can also be said for the United States), there are questions about exactly when our government had more information and why they chose not to share it, why they did not act more forcefully to prevent the spread sooner, and whether they underestimated the magnitude of the crisis. I’m just spitballing here but I suspect that they knew sooner than any of the public- if sooner is a relative term in an online world, that they didn’t want to panic people and the precious markets, that they worried about the economic fallout, and yes- absolutely they underestimated it. But I’ll leave the heavy lifting to our intrepid investigative reporters.
The CBC revealed that a medical intelligence cell within the Canadian Forces Intelligence Command (CFINTCOM) shared information with the government as early as January, long ahead of the government seeming to take the threat very seriously. But stepping back for a moment, anyone with an internet connection knew about the coronavirus in January. The Chinese government shut down Wuhan, a city of eleven million people and the largest in Hubei province, and quickly followed that with more lockdowns. Safe to assume that our intelligence agencies and “Five Eyes” (FVEY) network had more information than what was available publicly. That part is not newsworthy. What is interesting is why the government felt their response (or non-response as the case may be) was commensurate with the threat.
I am not hinting at any conspiracy here. I don’t think that the Canadian government understood the magnitude of what we are dealing with ahead of time and simply chose to hide that from its citizens. I think for the government’s part they seriously underestimated the threat while simultaneously overvaluing the importance of trade and global governmental relationships and the credibility of the World Health Organization and other public health experts (our own included).
And, not for nothing, this particular government likes to think of themselves as the reasonable adults in the room and they overplayed that role to disastrous effect. The opposition Conservatives might well be patting themselves on the back for calling for travel restrictions early on, a move that may have helped prevent the spread of the virus in Canada considerably. Shame that they squandered their credibility with xenophobic rhetoric so far ahead of this crisis. In fact, perhaps if their rhetoric wasn’t so charged all of the time politicians on the left might not feel so compelled to always make the counterargument. Blame to go around.
Our public health officials are no better
Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Tam, whose ties to the World Health Organization (WHO) are frequently touted to underline her credibility, has taken a leading role during the COVID crisis. Dr. Tam has an extensive background in infectious disease prevention and control, including experience with SARS. Only a short while ago she stated that asymptomatic transmission was unlikely, indeed rare.
In response to a question from MP Sonia Sidhu at a parliamentary health committee on January 29th, Dr. Tam emphasized the importance of not spreading misinformation. “I think that is the challenge of our day. Our approach is to try to provide consistent, credible information through different channels … We have to try to improve, very broadly, Canadians’ literacy in terms of health and what they can do to protect themselves but also almost their social media literacy. You cannot believe every rumour and everything you see … As I have always said, the epidemic of fear could be more difficult to control than the epidemic itself.” Leaving aside the good doctor’s rhetorically charged use of the term “epidemic of fear” to make her point, Dr. Tam was in fact the source of much of the misinformation about COVID-19 in the early days of this pandemic hitting Canada.
On a January 31st episode of Power and Politics, Health Minister Patty Hadju stated that the government was following the recommendations of the World Health Organization closely and that, “We’re comfortable that we’re completely up to date in terms of our approach and what the science says. There is a very low risk to Canadians.”
As we now know, asymptomatic transmission is and has been occurring and the widespread use of face masks, as well as travel restrictions and quarantine measures may have prevented the rapid spread of the virus through communities. As of April 6th, the Chief Public Health Officer was recommending, albeit somewhat grudgingly, the use of face masks where social distancing cannot be controlled for.
On April 14th the United Nation’s Secretary General, António Guterres, announced that the UN was developing a communication response initiative to combat the spread of misinformation, countering with facts and science. In his video release, he talks about the “epidemic of misinformation” (later referring to it as a “misinfo-demic”) and says that the “world must unite against this disease too and the vaccine is trust.” The WHO is an agency of the UN, he might start with an honest investigation there. A mea culpa wouldn’t be ill placed. (He might also avoid using words like epidemic and disease and vaccine as rhetorical terms at a time when he is preaching the seriousness of dealing with a pandemic.)
It turns out that many of the WHO’s early pronouncements were wrong, though many governments (our own included) have systematically relied on the WHO for direction. That in and of itself is not scandalous. We are dealing with a novel coronavirus after all- we’re going to be learning a certain amount on the fly. And the WHO is reliant on member states to provide accurate information. But if the WHO had been more concerned with the potential spread of this virus than with its relationship with China, they might have questioned why China shut down entire cities given the supposed rarity of human to human transmission. They might be particularly circumspect following on the heels of their disastrous Ebola predictions.
In any case, it is appallingly arrogant for so many of these public health officials to lecture us all on the importance of not spreading misinformation whilst simultaneously being the source of so much. A little self-awareness would go a long way.
Public health officials and special interest groups see the opportunity for social engineering
So what would you do if you were with a public health organization or associated special interest group at this time of public scrutiny and distrust, when the stakes are so high? At a time when it is critical to regain the public trust enough to get control of this virus both to save lives and to move as quickly as possible to a semblance of normalcy. If you answered double down and seize the opportunity to forward your ideological agenda, you’re one step ahead of me. That’s exactly what some have chosen to do.
Credit to the early birds, like Dr. Chris Mackie in Ontario who lost no time in forwarding his agenda, ahead of a lot of the crowd. On February 27, with absolutely no evidence at all, he tweeted, “Maybe the risk that vaping could increase susceptibility to Coronavirus is just the incentive that people need.” To be clear, Dr. Mackie is basing this on nothing at all but his long-standing desire to restrict vaping. This was ahead of
noted physician mayor Bill de Blasio highlighting the link upon hearing of the case of a man in his twenties contracting COVID-19. “Why is a 22-year-old man stable but hospitalized at this point? The one factor we know of is he is a vaper,” de Blasio said. Well, that’s all the evidence I need. Hot on his heels, renowned respirologist Governor Gretchen Whitmer mused that vaping might be the reason they are seeing more young people contract the virus. Anyone who had an interest in banning vaping ahead of the crisis is now lining up to use the pandemic to push that agenda.
Dr. Tam, following the WHO’s lead again, was slightly more circumspect. She noted that the act of putting one’s (presumably unwashed) hand to their lips frequently may increase risk of COVID-19. No mention of the snackers or fidgeters in the crowd, or that vaping does not actually involve putting one’s hands to their lips so much as near their face. (Of note, the U.S. FDA’s official statement is that they do not know whether vaping is a risk factor: translation, they have no evidence for it.)
Likewise we don’t yet have any evidence that smokers are more susceptible. It makes sense that anyone (smoker or not) with underlying respiratory issues may be at greater risk but we simply don’t have the data to support a link between smoking and contracting or suffering worse effects from the virus at this time. In fact, where data has been collected and shared, there is some indication that smokers are not succumbing to the virus at the expected rates. But that is not stopping public health officials from pushing the unsubstantiated link and from some organizations, the New York State Academy of Family Physicians for instance, for pushing for a full tobacco ban in the midst of the pandemic. Because raising stress levels as well as the likelihood of smokers travelling to obtain cigarettes, or seeking them out on the black market, is not more risky than leaving people alone.
But the U.S. Surgeon General has taken his clean living advice to the next level, advising people of color to use this opportunity to avoid smoking, drinking, and drugs in order to safeguard the lives of their loved ones. “If not for yourself, do it for your abuela, do it for your grandaddy, do it for your big mama, do it for your pop pop.” And if you’re thinking oh no he didn’t, he continued, “We need you to understand, especially in communities of color, we need you to step up and help stop the spread so that we can protect those who are most vulnerable.” I have heard the apologists for SG Adams but I have yet to hear a reasonable argument for why it was necessary to further stigmatize people of color in order to recommend measures for which there is no clear link with COVID-19. People of color need their government to step up, not the other way around. And they could start by being honest about the risk factors, for one. If they wanted to take it a step further, they could work on addressing discrepancies in health outcomes for people of color and they could start right now by helping communities to get the resources they need to mitigate risk.
If ever there was a time to put aside one’s agenda and just focus on dealing with the matter at hand, it’s now. Again, if the intention is to give the clearest direction to the public so that they can implement the appropriate strategies to flatten the curve and prevent as many deaths as possible let’s just stick with that. Very clearly though, there is no rest for the moral entrepreneurs among us.
Media standards are pretty low these days
Our mainstream media is, by now, accustomed to a twenty-four hour news cycle but doesn’t seem to have adjusted for it. They haven’t quite figured out the trick of remaining relevant and staying funded and remaining true to their roots, and the ugly result is something that might best be described as news-tainment. Neither fully news or entertaining. They are increasingly reliant on so-called experts to fill in a narrative and relatively little time is taken to examine an issue in depth, to really dig in. Sometimes it seems that they’re not even bothering to critically assess the news they’re reporting on, let alone investigate. I cannot tell you the number of news articles from reputable media outlets that I have read where the author’s primary contributions were, “he said” or “she added.”
They cannot on the one hand promote themselves as serious news agencies who provide trustworthy reporting and then relinquish responsibility and blame the officials and experts that they relied on entirely for faulty reports though. They failed to piece together the information that they did have about the COVID-19 crisis in a way that might have made them question the laissez faire attitude of governments that were slow to react. For an industry that takes such pleasure in the never ending game of gotcha, this is the flip-side. Their reaction, to the facts that they did have and those widely available, was not remarkably different than that of the government. They relied too heavily on “experts,” put too much stock in the World Health Organization, sought to preserve relationships, and left common sense to the side.
Add to which, many in the media take a condescending view of the public for not taking this seriously enough (or, in the early days, for taking it too seriously). You have, on the one hand, government officials who have made grievous errors from the start and whose instructions change on a near constant basis, sometimes seeming to have no reason to them (e.g. what is considered an “essential” versus “nonessential” business, how large a gathering is too large, what kind of movement is “okay” versus not). And on the other you have an industry that likes to break the news with all the breathlessness of a B-movie star, however mundane, that now expects its messaging to be treated with respect and gravity. Both the media and the politicians they cover are too clever by half only now it’s on full display.
Are the upper and ruling classes even qualified to manage a crisis, being as out of touch as they are?
Oh come on, you’ve at least pondered that question. Even if you’re the sort- and I suspect the majority of us are- who generally support our public health authorities and trust governments to do the best they can with the information they have at the time (particularly if the government in charge is the party you voted for). Or maybe, like me, you’re skeptical by nature but entirely too busy with the problem of getting through the week to concern yourself with second-guessing the authorities charged with governing the country or fact checking global health organizations. But it’s a little difficult right now to ignore the serious errors in judgment that have occurred. It’s also difficult to pretend that some of these errors weren’t based on safeguarding relationships or preserving financial interests over protecting human lives. And that has serious repercussions for actions going forward.
Government officials are worried about the effects on the economy (an evergreen concern, not to be confused with worry for the workers), industry stakeholders, their relationships with global partners and their campaign contributors, the impact on their electability… Public health, even during a pandemic, doesn’t top the list outside of the effect it will have on their top-level concerns. And the ruling class, above the political class, are presumably most concerned with maintaining their wealth and power. The relationship between the two groups is influence: one holds it, the other bends to it. Yes, even the ones who claim they are so wealthy that they can’t be bought.
The fact that governments and heads of industry are chomping at the bit for relaxing restrictions ahead of widespread testing isn’t because they are primarily concerned with your well-being or mine. Their concerns are very much tied to the interests of the super rich, put another way- the donor class. The same group who thinks that lighting up empty hotel rooms to display a heart shape should move us more than the fact that these empty hotel rooms could easily be used to house the homeless who are at extreme risk of contracting COVID-19.
The working class are, as always, our foot soldiers
While the upper class muse on such deep questions as, “After this time of introspection what do you want to emerge with? Spiritual growth? Artistic growth? Intimacy? Forgiveness?” much of the world is consumed with surviving. People who are working on the front lines aren’t taking up yoga, or learning the guitar, or perfecting the art of baking the perfect Pavlova. I suspect that many who have been laid off aren’t using their newly found free-time that way either.
They’re also probably not as worried about whether multi-billion dollar industries having enough of a financial cushion to weather the storm as they are about whether their elderly neighbour next door will survive the pandemic. Or how Joe down the street is going to buy groceries for his young family without a job. Or whether they themselves will bring the virus home to their own family after working the day collecting garbage for the rest of us.
The working class are trying to survive a pandemic that they largely had no part in starting. While the media and local authorities concern themselves with how the unwashed masses might spread this deadly virus and hold up a return to normalcy, let’s remember that the working class and poor weren’t globe trotting and taking cruises. (Nor were they making global health recommendations.) This virus was brought home to them and now they are stuck working to provide the rest of us with the basic necessities, or whatever our jurisdiction deems necessary.
And they’re largely happy to do it. Well, maybe happy is a strong word but a good number of essential workers are cognizant of the fact that while the coronavirus is a risk, so too is the potential for eviction or not being able to eat. Others still are anxiously awaiting the time that their workplaces are reclassified as essential or a more widespread reopening. They’re aware that they’re putting themselves, and potentially their loved ones, in harm’s way but a great many people don’t have the financial wherewithal to sustain an extended period of unemployment. Right now, large segments of the population are hoping that they have a job to return to and would do so earlier than is deemed “safe” because the threat of hunger or homelessness is as real as the virus.
Of course, the working class are also more accustomed to risk. And not risk in the way that the rich talk about it: not a gamble on an investment that can be written off. Workers in mines, on boats, in prisons, loggers, roofers, truck drivers, ranchers, farmers, steel workers, electricians, firefighters, construction workers, landscapers and groundskeepers, refuse collectors, taxi drivers and many, many more all face formidable hazards just in the course of their normal work, for pay that is not (generally) commensurate with those risks. Risk is relative for working people in a way that it isn’t for the uber rich.
And, like the billionaires, many working people who aren’t currently working are anxious for things to reopen, if for different reasons. (As a side note, I hope we remember this when we discuss the enormous risks refugees take with themselves and their families, simply in the hope of something better than terrible.) Hopefully the transition to ‘normal’ will be slow and methodical. Hopefully too we’ll have considerably wider spread testing than we currently do, and the resources for treatment should a relaxing of measures trigger a second wave as it is expected to do.
The opportunity for change will be squandered
It would be wonderful if on the other side of this we came out with a renewed respect for all of our essential workers. If we remembered how essential they are to all of us, to the very fabric of society, whether we are simply in need of groceries or to have our garbage taken away or we depend on them for our bottom line. If we could put the fight against raising the minimum wage behind us, in fact raising the wages of our most valued contributors altogether.
We can, once this is done if not sooner, take a critical look at why some communities fare considerably worse in health outcomes and take responsibility for addressing those inequities. We can reject stigmatizing language and practices. We can examine the way that we care for the old and for the disabled.
Public health bodies should, ideally, be treated with the level of skepticism that they have earned, not just through this crisis but through the years. They get things wrong, frequently, and they have the tendency to link preexisting agendas and donor interests to their current work, as well as just working with the best information that they have at the time. So too special interest groups. Not that we shouldn’t trust public health officials whatsoever (we should always be wary of special interest groups)- but we should take a “trust but verify” approach. Yes, we’re all busy, but that is not good enough reason to blindly trust what we are being told without a brief run-through of the basics: does what they are saying make sense, on a basic level? Do they have any interests (funding, etc.) that might impact their assessment? Does the assessment seem more ideological than based in reason?
Likewise, those basic questions might be applied to anything that comes out of a politician’s mouth- whether you voted for them or not. Your side isn’t always right while the other side is always wrong. Politics are not the sort of team sport that many of us take it to be. Yes, there are teams- but you’re not on one. Your interests are not paramount. (I’m just taking it for granted that no one from the ruling class is reading my article.) They’re a concern, yes, but minor in the scheme of things. I am not saying that there are no good people in politics. Just that however pure their intentions may have been at the start, they are now part of a firmly entrenched system. It feels silly to point out that there are exceptions, surely my dear reader knows this, but so few of those exceptions rise to the top without some concession to the way things work. We need to ask our government and our politicians- all of them- the basic questions. We can only hold them to account by, well, holding them to account.
And speaking of holding people to account, the media must really have a reckoning with itself. There was a time not long ago when one could point to Fox News as the clear outlier in the North American media landscape. So much of their work was, and is, transparent propaganda. Batshit crazy. But the line between serious and absurd has been blurred with so many outlets vying for attention, advertising dollars and/or taxpayer subsidies, and relevance. Instead of bemoaning the unfair attacks of “fake news” a better defense might be serious investigative reporting. The ability to understand a subject well enough to not be wholly reliant on “expert” panels and interviews (or at least be able to sort the talking heads and moral entrepreneurs from the serious sources). Less reliance on gotcha moments than on pressing for answers to important questions would be a marked improvement. Attention to the use of language and rhetoric would go some way. And for goodness sake- enough already with reporting every story with such breathlessness. The public can determine their emotional reaction to a story without cues that have all the subtlety of a laugh track. The gap that exists today is in reliable and credible news reporting, not entertainment. And if they don’t take the opportunity to change course, I hope that they lose to the independent journalists, reporters, and media outlets that have sought to fill that gap in recent years.
Looking forward, it will inevitably be painful regardless of what we do but there is so much potential for positive reorienting following this worldwide crisis. I fear many of us will be too busy, too traumatized, and too ready to put the lessons of this crisis behind us though. We can do so much better. Whether we will is an entirely different question.