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Federal Politics

How COVID Broke Canadian Society

'Canadians failed to come together in the face of adversity, failed to protect some of the most vulnerable, and failed this test of common decency.'

Crawford Kilian 14 Jun

Crawford Kilian is a Tyee contributing editor. He blogs regularly about the pandemic.

After two years of the pandemic, Canada might well be diagnosed as a case of political long COVID: We know what hit us, but we can’t seem to muster the energy to do anything about it.

Public health has disintegrated into “personal responsibility,” though public health officials continue to be paid good salaries. Doctors, nurses and other health-care workers are catching COVID-19 or just quitting, leaving hospitals and clinics understaffed. Some of us are lucky to have family doctors, even if it takes weeks to arrange a face-to-face 10-minute interview. Pierre Poilievre has reportedly signed up 300,000 new members of the Conservative Party of Canada, largely on the promise of doing away with all vaccine mandates.

From the start of the pandemic, writer and researcher Jon Parsons tracked our response to it — not just the numbers of cases and vaccinations, but our ethical responses.

Our responses to the pandemic fall, he argues, into three categories: passive nihilism, active nihilism and ethical subjects.

The passive nihilist “perceives the world around them in chaos and, in response, then makes the decision to turn inwards and focus on themselves.... In the context of the pandemic, the passive nihilist wants their creature comforts. They miss most of all their haircuts and going out to brunch. They want to go on holiday amid suffering and disease.”

The active nihilist “sees the world in chaos and, in response, decides to make that world more chaotic still.... In the context of the pandemic, the active nihilist is the person who fights against any reasonable attempts to contain the virus. They are against lockdowns, against masks, against vaccines, and against anyone who tries to keep others safe.”

But Parsons sees the nihilists’ point. “These two nihilisms rightly perceive the world around them in chaos and recognize there is little anyone can do to fix the situation.”

The third response is from what Parsons calls the “ethical subjects,” people who realize their inability to fix things but who try anyway. “In the context of the pandemic, they understand that it is an unfair situation, and they know it is not in their power to make the virus go away. Still, they commit to doing whatever they can to minimize the suffering of others.... The ethical subject makes a commitment to social solidarity even while recognizing there is some absurdity to it, in the sense that they know their actions will make little difference in the face of such tragedy. They cannot help but try.”

Most of the chapters of Parsons’ book were originally articles he wrote for the Independent NL and Ricochet as the pandemic progressed from 2020 to spring 2022. Some passages are therefore dated, but his analysis of general responses seems accurate. So we began the pandemic with a combination of self-centred and collective responses: we respected social distancing and washed our hands to protect ourselves from infection, but it was also to protect the health-care system from being overwhelmed if too many of us got sick at the same time.

But we soon saw that mere self-protection wouldn’t work. An infection anywhere was an infection everywhere, and we were at the mercy of anyone who wouldn’t follow the rules. “The shift in thinking here,” Parsons writes, “is from a self-centred to a collective perspective. It is a call to act in ways that account for people we have never met. It is a call for a kind of altruism and collective ethics that are in many ways the opposite of the typical ‘me against the world’ mentality.”

Who’s essential?

Parsons correctly identifies the essential workers: everyone in health care, everyone in food production and distribution, cleaners, sanitation workers and others: “all these workers are taking risks with their health and the health of their families so that life continues.” And he emphasizes that insecurity we all felt in the early pandemic was even worse for essential workers because they’d always been insecure. “And as a general and widespread form of insecurity becomes the new ‘normal,’ we are called on as neighbours and communities to care for one another, especially the most vulnerable.”

That attitude, however ethical, seems as dated as banging on saucepans every night to thank our health-care workers. We are simply out of the habit of collective political action. “Is it surprising,” Parsons asks, “that within a political culture that tells people the limit of their involvement is voting every four years, and in which grassroots politics is all too often written off as virtue signalling, might not be the best for mobilizing a population?”

Parsons discusses social unrest and the emergence of class warfare, especially in poor countries, around the world. He doesn’t expect such unrest in Canada, but he laments “the abysmal performance of Canadians during the pandemic” — not in cases and fatalities, but in our basic attitude.

He cites Albert Camus’ The Plague: “For Camus, the most important acts are the simple acts of everyday people: ‘There’s no question of heroism in all this. It’s a matter of common decency. That’s an idea which may make some people smile, but the only means of fighting a plague is common decency.’”

For Camus, Parsons says, common decency means accepting the absurd unfairness of our situation and acting to meet the needs of the people around us and our community. That can range from getting vaccinated to just listening to other people with respect and empathy.

How to avoid responsibility

He also rejects the blame game, whether it’s blaming anti-vaxers or government officials. “But entirely blaming the government is another deflection, a way of avoiding personal and collective responsibility.”

He goes on to say, “Part of the uncomfortable truth Canadians are starting to come around to is that we have collectively failed. Canadians failed to come together in the face of adversity, failed to protect some of the most vulnerable people in society, and failed this test of social solidarity and common decency.”

It’s an unsurprising failure because North Americans have been encouraged for over 40 years to think that it’s “me against the world.” Margaret Thatcher, while still British prime minister in 1987, summed it up very well: “Who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first.”

Am I my neighbour’s keeper?

So we have no real obligation to our neighbours, nor have they to us. We owe our success or failure to ourselves alone, and once we’ve grudgingly paid our taxes we owe nothing to our fellow citizens, or better said, fellow consumers, since citizenship without society means nothing.

Of course the federal and provincial governments responded quickly with enormous spending to help the people who lost jobs and the businesses on the edge of bankruptcy. They didn’t do so out of common decency, but out of existential fear. As Parsons wryly notes, “Obviously this was something that could have happened all along. The system was always in a position to do something about the yawning inequality and injustice in the country. It was always possible to help the vulnerable and downtrodden.”

But that was temporary and, as the pandemic dragged on, the supports shifted back to the “non-essential workers.” And some of the weak and vulnerable never got support at all. Among them were the thousands of seniors who died of COVID-19 or simple neglect in long-term care facilities across the country — or in the heat dome.

“It is indecent,” Parsons says, “that so many older adults in care homes have died.... It is indecent that many racialized communities have borne a disproportionate share of death and suffering in the pandemic in Canada.... It is indecent that people experiencing homelessness have not received the support or care they need to stay healthy and survive during the pandemic in Canada.... It is indecent that a significant portion of the population refuses to simply wear a mask. And on and on…”

Capitulation means 'Devil take the hindmost'

We have now reached the point called “capitulation,” when most governments and most of their people decide it’s time to “live with COVID” (or to die with it).

But Parsons notes the deep flaw in that thinking.

“Saying we must learn to live with it while having no plan whatsoever for how to do that undermines the legitimacy of those in positions of authority, and the phrase is, in the end, simply code for ‘we give up’ and ‘you are on your own.’” Like the old “choose your own adventure” books, we can now choose our own pandemic.

That may have bought governments some temporary peace and quiet, and enabled people to gather in bars and schools and airports. But Parsons argues, and I tend to agree, that capitulation has fractured and re-fractured Canadian society.

“The more difficult to deal with for many,” says Parsons, “is the harsh realization that those around them — society as a whole — did not value their existence.... The realization that anyone could simply be cast on the trash pile cannot help but damage social relations and cohesion in a society like ours, that claims to hold compassion and humanitarianism as core values.”

So the freedom convoy ground Ottawa to a halt, demanding as Parsons says “the freedom to be equally indecent as everyone else.” Meanwhile Ottawa residents wondered what their cops were doing, and why the provincial and federal governments were doing so little. Health-care workers across the country have been burning out and quitting as governments keep a tactful silence on wave after wave of cases. Parents and teachers have wondered if it’s really OK for students to attend classes unmasked, in poorly ventilated classrooms, when at the same time classes are being cancelled because so many kids and teachers are home sick.

Most of our governments have become passive nihilists in their policies: everything is fine now, so let’s do brunch. This seems to be what passive-nihilist Canadians want also, apart from a few active-nihilist right-wingers and Pierre Poilievre. Those of us who try to be “ethical subjects” have found, ironically, that it’s us against the world: we stay home, we wear masks, we get vaccinated, but we have very little trust in the rest of Canadian society.

“While economics will be part of what fuels unrest,” Parsons warns, “another part will be the loss of legitimacy of those who presume to lead, make policy and manage.” Without that legitimacy, Canada becomes not two solitudes but 37 million.

Loss of respect for the legitimacy of American institutions led directly to Donald Trump, who further de-legitimized them. Loss of respect for Canadian institutions, and for our fellow Canadians as people, will break our country as thoroughly as the Americans have broken theirs.

So when the next pandemic, or food shortage, or war threat comes along, we will deal with it not as decent human beings but as self-centred nihilists.  [Tyee]

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