How To Turn A Pandemic Into A Social Mess

By Gerrit Van Wyk.

We shall fight on the beaches.

The British Medical Journal this week published a series of articles as part of a postmortem on Canada’s response to the covid-19 pandemic, which was widely announced in the press and media. The authors elegantly point out the problems but then, like all other similar reviews, ignore the most important aspect, namely the social context and consequences, which, in my opinion, is the elephant in the room that really matters.

When Churchill became prime minister in World War 2, he said the country faced one of its greatest challenges ever, but it would fight to win, no matter how long it took. He had nothing to offer but blood, sweat, and tears. It united the country behind him.

After the disaster at Dunkirk, the country’s morale was low and only half of the population wanted to fight on, to which Churchill responded with one of his most famous speeches. He said the country would defend itself; it would fight on the beaches, fight on the landing grounds, fight in the fields and streets, fight in the hills, and never surrender, which turned the defeatist mood around.

Contrast this with Canada’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Modern media rapidly cascades rumors of bad news through populations. At the beginning of the pandemic, we had little knowledge about what to expect, and into this breach stepped population scientists with sophisticated statistical models, making predictions which were not properly explained to the general population. Instead, the media and our leadership latched onto worst-case scenarios, and propagated that, leaving us ordinary people confused about what was going on. Daily news reports and announcements hammered home the message: Crisis! Crisis! Crisis! Giving us no hope or comfort. We were left to feel we were facing our Dunkirk.

Had Churchill been here, he may have said we have a crisis on our hands, but we’ll work together with all means available to us, and no matter how long it takes, we’ll persevere and overcome this. We had no Churchill.

Different “experts” sent contradictory messages, for example the World Health Organization initially refused to acknowledge the pandemic nature, that the virus spread through droplets, and infection can be prevented by masking. When it changed its mind, not everyone believed it, which encouraged resistance, anti-masking, and conspiracy theories.

Instead of working together, every province chopped and changed their own rules and regulations, spreading confusion and encouraging a them versus us mentality. In one province people left rude notes under the windscreens of Canadians from other provinces, slashed their tires, and keyed their vehicles as if they were an enemy, with little or no push-back from their leaders. Instead, they toyed with the idea of closing their borders to fellow Canadians from other provinces. Decisions were supposedly evidence-based, but different Medical Officers of Health seemed to use different, sometimes conflicting evidence, or interpreted the same evidence differently, creating confusion, loss of belief in scientific evidence, apathy, and resistance. Instead of thinking things through, decisions were reactive, often under pressure from many political masters, increasing cynicism and a loss of trust in political institutions. In parliament, political parties used the crisis for seeking gain, resulting in an opportunistic acrimonious mid-pandemic election. It seemed we were in a sinking boat to which leaders and influencers attached outboard motors everywhere, driving in different directions and screaming advice, fighting, and making it difficult for those trying to bail out the water. Had this been Britain after Dunkirk, we would be facing invasion and certain defeat.

It’s not that we couldn’t see this coming. Canada was one of the worst affected nations by the 2003 SARS epidemic, but under the guise of efficiency and cost-effectiveness emasculated the institutions set up as an early warning tripwire, which, as can be expected, failed. Critical stockpiles of medical supplies were destroyed, and manufacturing of those supplies outsourced to save money, which meant countries with the manufacturing capability took care of themselves first, resulting in shortages of critical equipment.

A virus is a medical condition, a pandemic plays out in a wider complex social context. Our politicians, leaders, managers, academics, scientists, etc., are stuck in an obsolete time warp of thinking making them incapable of seeing this and anticipating the consequences of their decisions. The burden of the infection fell on the elderly, those lower on the socioeconomic ladder, and women. Fear, uncertainty, and anxiety lead to resistance and conspiracy theories which, instead of being dealt with compassionately, was mocked as a minority of lunatics, increasing social division and anger. Young people are psychologically, educationally, and socially scarred by the experience, feeling the government ignored and sacrificed them, the pandemic exposed the shocking state of elderly care, we have a group of babies raised without the benefit of social contact, which affects cognitive and social development, and we can’t see the consequences of that damage yet, online learning affected education, and the current inflationary spiral is beginning to show the economic after effects.

Politicians and leaders responded with Churchillian speeches: we will fight each other on the beaches, fight each other on the landing grounds, fight each other in the fields and streets, fight each other in the hills, and never surrender our power and privilege, creating a situation eerily like 1930’s Weimar Germany. Like 1930’s Germany, when resistance turned into peaceful protest, the government responded with a totally unnecessary state of emergency sending in lawyers and law enforcement to break it up. What we needed instead was for the Federal government to step up to the plate, show leadership, and put together the equivalent of Lincoln’s team of rivals. It didn’t. Some countries, like Germany and Australia, did.

We knew a lot about viruses, pandemics, SARS-like viruses, and vaccination before the pandemic, but instead of bringing these perspectives together, it remained in their traditional silos. Instead of academic and decision makers cooperating and sharing, we ended with a cacophony of competing voices. Instead of logically thinking things through, we acted on impulse, which meant we were unable to adapt to a constantly changing situation and learn from it. Most of all, instead of hope for the future, our leaders gave us fear of death. Instead of conversation and dialogue, there was only one-way top-down communication.

The health care system, doctors, and nurses, bore the brunt of the pandemic and our politicians, leaders, managers, academics, etc., failed them because they couldn’t or wouldn’t see the big picture. In World War 2 conscientious objectors had the choice of serving in non-combat positions, in the pandemic, conscientiously objecting doctors and nurses were given no such choice, and were shamed and fired, aggravating existing shortages of manpower. Our healthcare system was in trouble before the pandemic, our leaders left it a smoldering ruin.

There is a lot to be learned from this self-created mess started by a tiny virus. The question is, will we? Those who made the decisions need to take ownership of the consequences, but that requires introspection and humility. Given their actions during the pandemic, I somehow doubt that will happen. The Covid-19 pandemic experience should be an opportunity to redo health care and make it stronger. Will we take it?