A pox on all their houses - The Orca
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A pox on all their houses

Maclean Kay
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From traveling politicians to house parties, Canada has an epidemic of people flouting public health advice. Maclean Kay wonders why.

Is Canada sick of the pandemic? Well…yes. Obviously. But there seems to be signs the public’s will to obey public safety restrictions has waned. Before we rush to condemn, it’s worth asking why this is happening. I think there are five factors playing into this.

The first is the most newsworthy: broken trust. From Ontario’s Conservative Finance Minister, to a prominent NDP MP, to one of my own city councillors here in Victoria, the news is awash with leaders who publicly said stay home, we’re all in this together, et cetera and so forth…and then poof, just left.

CBC’s Justin McElroy has written about the “sucker’s payoff.” If you scrupulously follow the rules, you notice when others don’t, and are much less likely to maintain maximum vigilance. Anonymous lunkheads at a rally are one thing. But credible leaders who have urged you to stay in your living room, and no worries, Zoom is just as good as hugging your parents?

Nah.

If your objection is not all the cases of traveling public figures are the same, you’re right. There’s a real, human difference between making the difficult decision to travel to say goodbye to a dying relative, and shying away from breaking your personal streak of toasting Christmas with mai tais in Maui. But comparing these isn’t the issue.

The latter, almost cartoonishly tone-deaf case, Alberta CPC cabinet minister Tracy Allard, is easy to mock. Former Ontario PC Finance Minister Rod Phillips was even more brazen, like something from HBO’s Veep.

The former, NDP MP Niki Ashton, absolutely deserves empathy for wanting to fly and see her grandmother in Greece twice last year – but millions of Canadians have been told they can’t see their relatives down the street. Even those dying in terrifying numbers in long-term care.

If even the head of UBC’s school of public health either (a) thinks travel is no big deal, or (b) just couldn’t resist…how much longer are the average joe and jane expected to hold out?

Message fatigue. I suspect the majority of the public has long since tuned out live public health briefings.

For one thing, they’re not novel anymore, and mostly formulaic. And you don’t really need to watch or listen live – they’re well-covered. But we in the media have sometimes been guilty of incredulity that everyone doesn’t just drop everything and tune in each and every time, and keep track of what Dr. Bonnie was asked, when, and how many times. Easy(ish) if you work from home; but for teachers, plumbers, delivery drivers, and so on, it’s just not a reasonable expectation.

Maybe I’m wrong, and these aren’t the reasons why. Either way, there’s a steaming pile of anecdotes and hard numbers both saying the message simply isn’t getting through anymore.

And speaking of messages:

Mixed messages. Even if tuning in was compulsory, government messaging doesn’t exist in a vacuum. For example, the last time I accidentally saw TV commercials (live sports), there were repeated ads for Expedia, a travel website. What?

It’s hard not to be confused. A perusal of social and traditional media would easily give the impression that Canada’s borders are closed (nope), and that international travel is against the law (strongly discouraged, but quite legal).

I daresay white-hot anger over politicians traveling comes in part from an impression that they broke the law. This, when Air Canada has reportedly hired social media influencers to promote vacation destinations.

That’s not to say these trips were justified, or a good idea. But a great many seem genuinely perplexed that police are dispatched to parties, but not the arrivals gate at YVR.

It’s not just crossing borders, or TV ads. Since March, social media has been full of photos taken at crowded local venues – beaches, malls, etc. – by people angry at others for also being there.

Think about that for a second.

To be clear: there’s no cover-up or conspiracy here. But you’d be forgiven for having the wrong impression about a number of things, from the finer points of official pandemic response, to whether some people’s daily lives are more important than others.

Coasting on summer success. British Columbians took enormous pride last summer at low COVID-19 infection rates, often tut-tutting places like Quebec and (especially) the United States. The provincial government basked in praise – and won a snap election on it.

Unfortunately, things have changed. Cracks are starting to show – and it’s not just high numbers of infections and even deaths.

Despite reassurances otherwise, BC has been remarkably reluctant to share detailed information about outbreaks – enough so that one Dad took it upon himself to create his own site.

Testing remains surprisingly low overall. The province has been slow to utilize rapid testing in long-term care homes, where infection rates and deaths continue to mount. And the provincial government inexplicably refuses to join the federal government’s COVID alert app. In Alberta, this is taken as reckless partisan stubbornness; in BC, just an under-discussed quirk.

The last factor is worst of all: despair. The light at the end of the tunnel keeps moving further and further away.

When BC went into lockdown last March, it was supposed to be just a few weeks. At the time, cancelling Christmas would have seemed unthinkably pessimistic.

When tighter restrictions were imposed in the Lower Mainland in November, it was again, supposed to last for just two weeks. Vaccines have been approved – that’s good! – but the rollout has been glacial. If you’re not in a high-risk group (also good!) you’re not likely to be released back into the wild for months and months – and only then if the pace of vaccinations increases quickly.

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was condemned to roll the same rock up the same hill, over and over again. It was designed to break him. You tell yourself to just push through and get over this hill, only to find another. And another. And another.

And another.

At a certain point, people see others just kinda doing their own thing, sigh, and stop pushing.

Yes, there’s good news. It’s genuinely encouraging to see vaccines arrive at isolated First Nations communities. It’s a rare reason to smile. It’s a light. But when your kid asks when he can go on a playdate, or see his grandmother again, that light is distant, and flickering.

Maclean Kay is Editor-in-Chief of The Orca

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