BY IAN PATTISON

We’re in a health crisis. There’s no sugar-coating it. But our reactions are as important as the course of this coronavirus pandemic.

Canada is well-positioned with health care expertise at all levels. The district health unit and the regional hospital issued statements indicating that plans are well in hand. Without knowing details, however, it’s difficult to imagine what might happen in the event of a serious outbreak of the virus. And since Thunder Bay already has poor health habits among parts of the population, those details will be important.

The hospital emergency department already gets an average of 300 visits every day. The hospital’s beds are constantly full. One can only imagine the strain a serious viral outbreak will place on the institution.

Dr. Marcus Powlowski, a city MP and ER physician, has said there are 22 ventilators at the hospital and all of them are in constant use. Ventilators will be critical to treat this disease which takes root in the lungs.

We must trust that our local health officials have the situation in hand and by all indications, they do.

The rest of us have to do our part.

The advice has been clear and constant: Wash your hands, a lot and properly. Don’t touch your face. Cough or sneeze into your elbow or a tissue. Clean and disinfect commonly-touched surfaces, such as door handles, phones, keyboards, and steering wheels. Masks are only recommended for people with symptoms. Keep your distance from others; avoid crowds. Stay home if you experience symptoms of respiratory illness. If you experience persistent dry cough or trouble breathing, call the district health unit to arrange to be tested. And for heaven’s sake, stop hoarding!

The average person apparently uses fewer than two rolls of toilet paper in a week. So why are people buying bundles of 20-roll packages for a possible two-week self-isolation? This is not a diarrheal disease. Buying all the hand sanitizer in a pharmacy leaves others with none. Think about others who, without products like this, will be apt to spread the disease in the community.

Stock markets tend to overreact to crises, just like people do. The markets will recover. The chances of you getting seriously ill or dying from COVID-19 are low, especially in Canada. A vaccine will be developed. We will get through this. Keep calm and carry on, carefully.

***

Lest anyone harbour any doubt that gasoline price gouging is standard practice in Thunder Bay, consider this:

Oil prices suffered an historic collapse Monday after Saudi Arabia launched a price war against one-time ally Russia. The move sent the price of crude tumbling more than 25 per cent.

A day later, on Tuesday, the price of a litre of regular gas had dropped to $1.08 in Sudbury, 99 cents in Ottawa, 95 cents in Halifax and 91 cents in Brantford.

The price in Thunder Bay -- throughout the city -- had not budged from $1.26.

In Barrie, on Wednesday, you could fill up for 86 cents a litre; at a Costco in Toronto gas was 84 cents and in Ottawa it was 82 cents. In Thunder Bay the price had finally dropped -- 5 cents to $1.20. You’d still pay $1.26 if you unfortunate enough to pull off the highway at Red River and fill up at the Shell or Esso a block down at Junot, and perhaps that’s by design to capture unwary cross-Canada drivers.

By Friday it was much the same story. In Barrie you could fill up for 83.9 cents a litre at a Costco. In London gas prices ranged from 82.9 at Costco to 88 cents elsewhere. Most Hamilton stations were at 89 cents. Ottawa prices ranged from 81-89 cents per litre while Toronto drivers paid 82-86 cents.

In Thunder Bay Friday, the best you could do was 90.9 at Bannon’s on the Fort William First Nation while motorists in the city had to pay $1.16.9-$1.18.9. That’s between 26 and 33 cents a litre more than most other stations in Ontario.

Early last year a federal Competition Bureau investigation of gas pricing in Thunder Bay and Northwestern Ontario “did not uncover evidence of anti-competitive agreements among competitors in the wholesale or retail gasoline markets.”

Hmm. Petroleum analyst Dan McTeague has said that in Thunder Bay the profit margin is about 24 cents a litre, double the industry standard. The most likely explanation, he suggested, is a lack of competition in the local market.

The price at the time of the Competition Bureau study was a near-record $1.46 per litre, much higher than in much smaller markets like Kenora ($1.35) and Dryden ($1.29) with much less competition.

“Should the Bureau become aware of evidence of anti-competitive activity at any time in the future, it will not hesitate to take action,” it said in April.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, start your engines because the evidence is staring you in the face. How do margins of up to 33 cents a litre stand up to scrutiny, let alone fair play?

 ***

Bernie Sanders is under pressure to drop out of the U.S. Democratic presidential race He shouldn’t. He’s got too much to say to those who have swung behind Joe Biden on the theory that only the former vice-president can defeat Donald Trump in November.

That attitude puts winning over good ideas, simply because Trump is so bad. Trump is awful, we know that, but Biden, while an infinitely better person, won’t deviate that much from the status quo. Big, new ideas are needed in this world. Sanders has them but moving 300 million people to take a chance on them is proving to be a huge task.

That’s why Sunday’s one-on-one debate is critical. It will force viewers to concentrate solely on the differences in approach between these two aging men without all the other competing ideas from former candidates trying to stand out.

Now we’ve got the two extremes in play -- the progressive social democrat versus the moderate, middle-of-the-roader.

Americans are timid about embracing Sanders’ ideas for cheaper public health care, free university tuition and attacking inequality. As a result, Biden is now seen as the go-to guy.

Debates have a way of sorting things out fast. Sanders has one last chance to do that Sunday. He must convince viewers that they can save money and live better with his policies in play. If he can’t do that, another debate will set the future course for the United States. Biden doesn’t stand up well to mocking criticism which is one of Trump’s specialties. Biden has a habit of tripping over details, getting things wrong under pressure.

Still, “Joe Biden may be slowing down a bit. But compared to Donald Trump, his mind is a rocket ship and the thruster is experience,” writes columnist Vinay Menon.

There’s a lot at stake on Sunday, and not just the fate of the Democratic race. It’s doubtful that Sanders can win, but he can swing Biden toward a bolder, better agenda.

Ian Pattison is retired as editorial page editor of The Chronicle-Journal, but still shares his thoughts on current affairs. 

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