By Ian Pattison
“If some people aren’t doing enough, the rest of us are going to have to do even more.”
-- Prime Minister Justin Trudeau
In a national address on the exploding pandemic Friday, the prime minister kept saying that he is confident Canadians understand the severity of the situation and that they will ‘do the right thing.’ In the next breath, he acknowledged that those who aren’t doing what they’re supposed to do are putting themselves, and all of us, at greater risk and that this is “unfair.”
So which is it? Are we all willingly in this lifeboat together, pulling on the oars in the same direction? Or are we at odds with some of our fellow citizens who choose to row their own way, regardless of the danger.
We know the answer, of course, and we know who is responsible. We know because we can see them as plain as day. They are the ones who aren’t wearing masks, or are wearing them improperly. They are the ones out shopping when they needn’t be, visiting friends’ homes or playing pickleball, for Pete’s sake. (Thanks to CBC Thunder Bay for explaining this “relatively low-impact racquet sport that combines elements of tennis, badminton and ping pong.”)
I have a relative who’s been very careful but who had to “pop out to grab something for the baby. It’s insane out here. No wonder there are more cases. I’m not going out anymore for a long time!” (Three grumpy-faced emojis.)
To some people the task at hand is glaringly obvious; to others it’s inconvenient and hey, I feel fine and I don’t know anyone with COVID-19.
Why is it so hard to get people to modify behavior, such as wearing a mask? Because repeating bad behaviour takes time to manifest itself as wrong and, ultimately, tragic.
Behavioral scientist Dan Ariely explained it on PBS this week. Take distracted driving. You know the law forbids using your phone behind the wheel. You’ve been good about it but one day you think a call or a text might be something important. So you glance at the phone, maybe even reply, and nothing happens. The more this occurs, the less likely you are to believe that this habit could cause an accident.
“The experience basically is teaching you the wrong lesson until, of course, it's too late,” said Ariely.
It’s the same with masks. You forget yours in the car one day but you dash into a store anyway (to the chagrin of those around you) and you don’t get sick. So you allow yourself to let your guard down. You wear a mask less often in familiar surroundings outside the home. You social distance less and less, neglect to wash your hands more often. As long as you don’t contract COVID-19 you think maybe the danger is overblown. Until you do get sick and maybe sicken others and suddenly, you’re the cause of an outbreak.
Following the rules during this pandemic is hard. No doubt about it. But we mustn’t let the worst-case scenario occur before we get back into the good habits we willingly bought into early in this now-dire situation.
That worst scenario was laid out on Thursday: up to 20,000 cases per day by the end of December if we carry on as we are now.
The country needs to get serious again. We need to regain the sense of doom that we experienced back in the spring. We can’t let the fact that we’re sick and tired of this thing keep us from doing what we must to stop its spread until a vaccine arrives. And that won’t happen anytime soon. Realistically, it will be at least the middle of 2021 before the bulk of the population can get inoculated.
But we have a problem with motivation. When it comes to leadership, there is too much of it and not enough. There are too many leaders with their own ideas about how we can tamp down this second wave of the coronavirus and not enough singular leadership to which all of us can subscribe.
Canada’s provincial leaders love to slam Ottawa for failing to pony up enough cash on any one of a number of fronts. When the feds do send money, premiers balk at even the slightest suggestion of how it should be doled out.
Jurisdictional squabbles can be understood over relatively mundane matters like trade and energy. But we’re all facing the same deadly health crisis in this country, one that does not respect boundaries. A national task force of leading health officials to advise all governments could provide the uniform, apolitical advice that Canadians need.
The District of Thunder Bay is experiencing its first real sense of danger. From a single case at a time over most of the summer and early fall, we’ve now leaped to 77 active cases in just the past few weeks.
Dr. Janet DeMlle, the medical health officer, takes her cue from the provincial health office by urging people to stay inside, and she did her best this week to convey the seriousness of the situation.
This was amplified by Friday’s overdue decision to place Toronto and Peel region into lockdown as of Monday and Thunder Bay, among others, into the green, “Protect” mode. But provincial officials need to know when and where to get serious sooner. They can and must issue stern guidelines where caseloads are lower but growing, and firm restrictions as soon as cases are surging. And they need to be transparent and honest with us.
For instance, why were health advisers to the Ontario government required to sign non-disclosure agreements? Why does Premier Doug Ford continue to insist that he governs based on the best advice from health officials when we know that most health-care providers insist the province has not been doing enough?
There is one thing that all jurisdictions in this country can do and must agree on. Given the assurance that we will be locked down to one degree or another for some time, government has time to plan, test and establish a reliable vaccination process so that Canadians will be able to receive inoculations quickly and efficiently. Unlike the lame testing and contact tracing regimes, there should be no excuse for backlogs once the vaccine is released.
Ian Pattison is retired as editorial page editor of The Chronicle-Journal, but still shares his thoughts on current affairs.