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A Reply to Jordan Peterson’s Pandemic Demands

The famously opinionated psychologist told Canada to open up or else. Andrew Nikiforuk’s response includes some reading advice.

Andrew Nikiforuk 17 Jan 2022TheTyee.ca

Tyee contributing editor Andrew Nikiforuk is an award-winning journalist whose books and articles focus on epidemics, the energy industry, nature and more.

Dear Mr. Peterson,

I recently read your column in the National Post. You boldly argued that we need to open the country back up again before we ruin it with our various COVID responses.

To support your argument you itemized the many inconveniences that you and your wife suffered as “entitled Westerners” while flying to B.C. and Alberta on the last day of the year.

Taking such a trip while the highly infectious Omicron variant thinned workplaces throughout the country, unsettled airports and crushed hospitals certainly takes some chutzpa. In any case you described your pandemic predicaments with the gusto of Gulliver.

The stress of multiple delayed and cancelled flights. Empty shelves at the grocery store. Businesses just hanging on by their toenails. An encounter with a tyrannical banking security system. (I, too, have experienced such digital enmity.)

In other words you described the usual pandemic drama: things not working well during a predictable fifth wave.

And then you wrote this: “We are pushing the complex systems upon which we depend and which are miraculously effective and efficient in their often thankless operation to their breaking point.”

You then argued that, “We’re compromising them seriously with this unending and unpredictable stream of restrictions, lockdowns, regulations and curfews.”

You even echoed a provocative line used by former president Donald Trump and claimed the cure “has become worse than the disease.”

You followed by observing there are no riskless paths in life and we should “all pick our poison” and get on with things. “There is only one risk or another.”

“I am weary of living under the increasingly authoritarian dictates of a polity hyper-concerned with one risk, and oblivious to all others,” you wrote plaintively.

Now, I do agree with some of your sentiments (we are all weary and out of patience). And I also share one of your key concerns — the growing authoritarian response to COVID in places like Quebec. But otherwise I find your conclusions baseless and whiny. Do you actually think it is possible to live through a pandemic without making some sacrifices or exercising some civic responsibilities?

With all due respect, your column conflated the effects of the pandemic, which makes people too sick to do their work (hence the delayed flights and empty shelves) with the response to the pandemic, which has been an irregular hodge-podge in Canada and another subject altogether.

Unfortunately, the misfortunes that you directly experienced during your travels had nothing to do with “precautions.” In fact, quite the opposite. Your troubles were the direct result of political decisions to not respond to the exponential growth of Omicron — a variant more infectious than measles.

You should know that governments of B.C. and Alberta chose not to act swiftly and blunt Omicron’s rise. They did not impose any new restrictions. They did not provide schools with good ventilation — a much neglected measure that could slow any surge and protect health.

Moreover, the status quo basically decided to let the virus rip through their jurisdictions. You got caught in the surge. The authorities didn’t offer their citizens N95 masks — basic protection against a variant as contagious as Omicron. Or rapid tests for that matter. Despite four waves Canada’s political class had not prepared for another variant.

As a consequence things didn’t work out very well for you, and lots of other people in the month of December. (Good thing you are not an emergency hospital nurse.) When governments surrender to exponential viral surges, I think it is only reasonable to expect delayed flights, bare grocery shelves, disrupted schedules, empty restaurants and frayed nerves.

So it was the absence of precaution, and not any evidence of precaution that befuddled your poor trip to Western Canada.

What did you expect?

Forgive me for asking, but why did you expect everything to run normally in your travels as Omicron sickened record numbers of people? Did you not carefully calculate the risks of travelling during another disruptive COVID wave?

To be fair, this inconvenient pandemic has illustrated many fragilities in complex modern systems that you and I routinely took for granted: regular flights, functioning banks, and abundantly stocked grocery shelves.

As you duly experienced, a just-in-time supply chain that sources items from all over the world will not function well in a pandemic because such a system is not robust.

A system that chooses efficiency over traditional conservative concerns about quality and reliability will always be fragile. Short and local supply chains are healthier than global ones, and we should thank the pandemic for exposing this vulnerability instead of being naive about its predictable failure. The connectivity made possible by global travel has also heightened biological risk.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, like yourself a popular thinker, has repeatedly noted that an anti-fragile system, just like a well-adjusted citizen, is better off after a shock. Not so for a fragile system. This pandemic is telling us many uncomfortable things about the complex systems and associated entitlements we have created for ourselves. Air travel, just like the internet, has created dangerous levels of interconnectivity.

Now what about risk? I’m not certain you — or most Canadian politicians — understand the nature of risk during a pandemic. Or the reality that the poor bear a disproportionally higher risk than the rich.

Not all risks, of course, are equal or equally distributed. Or to be avoided. But a pandemic caused by a novel virus with a one-per-cent mortality rate (probably six per cent without hospital interventions and vaccinations) or 10 to 30-per-cent risk of long COVID is not “a routine poison.”

Some risks in life, for example, don’t scale up into big trouble — but pandemics do. If you carelessly cross the road without looking, you risk your life and likely no other. That’s a pick-your-poison risk.

But if you become infected with COVID and wilfully expose others, well, you put a vast number of people at risk given the way infections multiply and spread. That’s not picking your poison: that’s spreading your poison. And because the risk scales up in society, it is no ordinary thing.

Taleb, a renowned expert on risk and a moral philosopher to boot, compares the reckless behaviour of infected people to “the equivalent of willingly letting vast numbers of people carelessly cross the road at the same time.”

Not wearing a mask or respecting social distances during a pandemic can quickly become a dangerously selfish act. And that’s why risks with heavy social consequences that can result in ruin require precautions in a civilized society.

Our ancestors respected the precautionary principle, and I thought you, as a conservative who values traditions, might also.

In your column, you suggest that our irregular COVID responses are now “compromising the great economic engine upon which our health also depends.” Actually, that’s not what the evidence says at all.

Countries that have kept COVID infections to a minimum have protected civil rights and fared much better economically (Taiwan, New Zealand and Japan) than many jurisdictions in Canada that reacted to one wave after another like deer caught in the headlights.

Larry Brilliant, who helped to globally eradicate smallpox, makes a telling observation: “You can’t get to economic growth without solving the problem of the pandemic. History shows that in every pandemic in every place.”

You mention in your column that you had a pleasant trip to Tennessee without masks. You probably ventured to that wonderful state during a COVID lull. Last August and September, Tennessee got clobbered by Delta, and recorded the most COVID infections per capita of all states.

The governor didn’t believe in masks or understand risk. As a result, both schools and hospitals got overwhelmed with infections. Lack of precautions resulted in record rates of hospitalizations for children.

In fact things got so grim that more than 5,000 doctors wrote the governor a letter demanding that the government endorse proven measures like masks, testing and better ventilation. One asked the governor at a news conference, "How do you feel about children getting sick and dying from COVID?" The governor didn’t answer. The governor behaved dishonourably and did not protect his people.

In case you are thinking of returning to Tennessee this month, you might want to consider that 3,000 people have required hospitalization.

You claim that COVID is comparable to the flu in children. It is not. A recent Canadian study found that “kids who are ill enough to be hospitalized and have COVID are more likely to have a severe outcome than kids who are ill enough to be hospitalized due to other similar types of illnesses” such as influenza.

The erosion of trust

The breakdown in institutional trust that you so rightly lament has reached an all-time high in Canada. That process began long before the pandemic. Yet there is no doubt that this biological storm has accelerated the erosion of democracy, intensified inequalities and hastened the spread of tyrannical technologies. The pandemic is a long-tailed process with special attributes that just illuminates weaknesses and fault lines in complex societies.

The erosion of trust comes from multiple sources and dishonourable behaviour. Public health officials have acted in ways static and fatalistic, with little imagination and innovation. The easy flow of disinformation has heightened anxieties. Meanwhile, politicians have hidden behind what your profession calls the “fundamental attribution error.”

When bad things happened to their citizens and especially the poor, many of our politicians suggested they were personally at fault. But when waves of the virus overwhelmed their jurisdictions due to their own political decisions to not act quickly to prevent harm, they blamed the pandemic and called it “unpredictable.”

That sort of behaviour has rightfully infuriated many Canadians who have proven much more adept at navigating fear and uncertainty than their elites.

I agree that authoritarian responses to the pandemic are counter-productive and will not work. Across Canada, governments have done a terrible job of addressing the diverse concerns raised by citizens hesitant about vaccines. A proposal to tax the unvaccinated originated in an insecure government that really doesn’t understand the burden of effective leadership.

We part ways, though, when at the end of your article you call upon our leaders to be courageous and end all restrictions and open up the country. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?

I might remind you that Alberta did that last July.

Premier Jason Kenney ignored the science, declared the pandemic over, and let the Delta variant explode throughout the province with no precautions.

He falsely called the virus “endemic” and ignored cogent warnings from experienced doctors about the outcome of throwing caution to the wind.

As a result, the premier gravely eroded public trust in Alberta’s institutions and was directly responsible for an act of negligence that killed more than 500 Albertans, injured thousands more with long COVID, overwhelmed hospitals (a finite resource) and abused health-care workers.

Strangely, the pandemic did not end just because Kenney tried to mandate it finished.

Again, I do sympathize and share with your frustration. I recommend travelling next time with a copy of Ecclesiastes or Mediations by Marcus Aurelius. The Stoics always make good company, especially when flights get delayed.

Yes, our leaders do need courage. But let me remind you that our ancestors believed that courage and prudence (sound judgement) worked best to protect the poor, children, the elderly and the vulnerable when responding to novel emergencies.

Like many of our health-care workers, they often sacrificed their well-being for the greater good — something very few Canadian politicians seem capable of.

But that is another crisis.

I wish you well in your endeavours and good health.

Best,

Andrew Nikiforuk  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Coronavirus

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