WITHOUT A PADDLE
The second round of lockdown ordered by various provincial governments in Canada has evoked a very different reaction from Canadians. In general, there is a distinct sentiment of unease, sometimes outright belligerence, among many. They see this lockdown largely as a consequence of the governments’ own failures over the past eight months. On their part, the governments are trying to pin the blame, somehow and anyhow, on to people themselves. In their view, the increasing case numbers and spread of Covid-19 are stemming from widespread non-compliance with the precautionary requirements such as masks and social distancing. That debate aside, it cannot be disputed that the people who are financially affected by the second lockdown are left up the proverbial creek, and without a paddle.
As a subject of public discussion and policy, Covid-19 has already bloomed into a complex and multi-faceted issue, and this fact renders it difficult to address the issue in its entirely in one piece.Therefore, I feel it is better to explore and analyze it in bite-sized segments instead of attempting to arrive at a ‘grand unified theory’. In this article, I will be discussing some long-standing failures of governments that have contributed to bringing about the current state of affairs.
LESSONS OF WAR
The first war between India & Pakistan broke out within months of gaining independence from Britain. Over the succeeding seventy-plus years, hostility has remained at varying levels of intensity. Concomitantly, initiatives to establish normalcy in bilateral relations by citizen groups that include artists, poets and intellectuals have also been a common occurrence. These initiatives suffer a setback with each incident that brings the two countries to a flashpoint or even outright war.
Under one of these citizen-initiatives soon after another war between the two countries, a Musha’ira (gathering of poets) was organized, where each poet recited his poetry. Their topics were wide-ranging. One of the poets at this function was Josh Maleehabadi, a prominent poet who wrote in the Urdu language. His poem was titled ‘Rishwat’ (‘Corruption’), and delved deep into the many forces within the society that fed into the phenomenon that had started becoming a regular topic of criticism in the Indian subcontinent. Because of this, it is a very long poem. Addressing the contribution of governments to the culture of corruption, Josh wrote:
Theek to kartay naheen, buniyaad e na-humwaar ko
De rahay hein gaaliyaan, girti huyi deewar ko
(You are not mending the infirm foundation, (and) you keep cursing at the crumbling wall)
Such bataaoon, zeyb yeh deta naheen sarkaar ko
Paaliye beemariyon ko, maariye beemaar ko
(I am telling the truth, it does not behoove the government to nurture diseases, (while) killing the patients)
Here, Josh has focused on the central obligation of a State, viz. that of providing a conducive environment for a healthy society (I use the word ‘healthy’ in a broader sense).
In one of his books, American author James A. Michener has used an interesting phrase to describe a group of people who were organizing to face a challenge to their security:
‘They were not prepared, but they were ready’.
This phrase aptly describes the situation in Canada in the face of Covid-19.
Let us see the areas in which we were unprepared for this challenge.
Depending on your source, anywhere between 75% to 98% of all the Covid-19 fatalities have been in the Long Term Care institutions. In some reports, conditions in LTC’s were depicted as being so bad that the word ‘care’ seems to be singularly inapt. These conditions did not develop suddenly. Therefore it would be fair, I think, to hold both the operators and the regulators responsible for this sad state of affairs.
Even if we keep that factor side, it should be clear to any reasonable person that keeping the elderly in extreme isolation cannot augur well for their physical well-being. In the final stages of their lives, humans crave family and company – little else matters. The fact that governments in Canada opted for such draconian measures is, therefore, revealing of a State that has lost touch with ordinary lives. This was brought home painfully when it emerged that a 90 year-old woman had opted for Medically Assisted Death rather than face another bout of isolation. This point bears emphasis:
The Canadian State is now at a stage where it doesn’t care how much suffering is inflicted on the elderly, but if the elderly should decide to end the suffering by choosing to die, the State is happy to oblige and provide the service that would enable them to die.
I have always believed that one of the foundational, in fact sacred, obligations of the State is to ensure the physical safety of citizens. We now have a State that has not only abdicated this obligation, but has also devised a way of exonerating itself for that voluntary failure.
Right from the initial stages of the Covid-19 crisis, we have been hearing from politicians, media and others that a shutdown of normal life was / is necessary in order to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed. From my vantage point in Brampton, I found this choice of argument extremely curious; the only hospital in my city is overwhelmed every day. The provincial average in Ontario is 2.3 hospital beds per 1,000 of population. In order to be right at that average, Brampton would need about 1,600 hospital beds. Instead, it has exactly 608 – representing a 62% shortfall against the provincial average. ‘Hallway medicine’ is a routine affair. Too much has been said about it, and equally too little has been done about it. The crucial question for me is this: How was this situation allowed to develop to this alarming stage?
When it comes to discussion of public policy or governmental failure in general, it is commonly seen that Canadians’ arguments are based on ideological / party affiliation, with each side blaming the other. But a shortfall of 62% in the availability of a crucial service does not develop over a short period. In the last 30 years, all the three major political parties have been in power at different times. So the failure is shared equally across the political spectrum. How did this failure arise? In a nutshell, the answer is ‘a total absence of planning’.
Population trends are known for each major centre of population. The number of beds required per capita is already at hand – 2.3 per 1,000. These two factors should enable an continuously ongoing process of planning for additional capacity that needs to be created over the next few years. The fact that this simple truth has evaded our political class for decades tells me that we have the wrong kind of politicians. However, it would be improper to put all the blame on them, because we elected them. We failed to keep them accountable. We gave them political cover when someone ‘from the other side’ started asking uncomfortable questions.
Put these two factors together (politicians & voters), and we reach an unpalatable truth: As a society, we have lost sight of our priorities. It has become preferable to defend ‘our side’ rather than to ensure that the foundations of a strong society remain strong.
Within a couple of years after coming to Canada, I made an interesting discovery. The current location in Toronto of the major international pharmaceutical company Sanofi Pasteur started off as a purely Canadian operation for manufacturing vaccines in 1914. Initially a part of the University of Toronto, it was christened Connaught Antitoxin Laboratories in 1917. I was told that the Sanofi operation in 2005 had the distinction of having the highest number of scientists working at a single location in the entire world.
The part of its early history from a century ago is especially relevant, as the major thrust of research at the time was to find an antitoxin for diphtheria, which was causing havoc in the European theater in World War 1. In the Covid-19 era, we are often being told that we are supposed to fight Covid-19 with the same commitment that our predecessors fought the two world wars. In the same vein, the extraordinary powers that various governments have granted to themselves are also supposed to be justified on the same comparison. But when it comes to actions that actually ensure the safety of Canadians, we come to the disturbing realization that we no longer have the capacity – and perhaps even the will – to do so.
In short order, debate around this revelation has acquired partisan dimensions. Some people are blaming the current Liberal government, while those on the other side are claiming that it was the fault of the previous Conservative Prime Minister, Stephen Harper. Lost in the cacophony is the fact that successive governments of both parties did not have this crucial element of public safety on their radar. Since 2015, we have had a federal minister specifically in charge of a combined portfolio of innovation, science & economic development. His very first proposal in this role was to increase Canada’s annual immigration quota to 500,000. When I heard about this, I had two objections: one, why is he straying into another minister’s area of work, and secondly, how does he consider doing more of the same as ‘innovation’?
While the failure to make Canada self-sufficient in terms of public safety is shared by many, the above incident highlights what is wrong with our political processes: Our politicians no longer remember what their core function is. Add an electorate that does not demand answers – or better still, results – from their leaders, and you get a perfect recipe for exactly the sort of disaster that we are having on our hands now.
A combination of mismanagement by governments at all the three levels, special dispensations for politicians and big business, and extreme economic hardship caused by repeated lockdowns has created an incendiary environment. A sense of unfairness in policy is spreading. This is exacerbated by mixed messaging that increases hardship. For example, restaurants were told that they would be able to extend the patio season into the fall & winter. After many spent considerable sums on putting in place heating and other necessary structures, they were then prohibited from having dine-in customers. A restaurateur already facing financial hardship due to the previous restrictions is bound to feel outraged.
There is other kind of bungling as well. For example, during the first lockdown when small businesses were forced to close, there were widespread complaints about the big box stores being able to sell exactly the same goods that those small stores were prohibited from selling. This time around, and in typical Statist fashion, the province of Manitoba prohibited even the big box stores from selling these items. I say ‘typical Statist fashion’ because when it became known that uneven application of economic restrictions was causing resentment, the province doubled down and introduced even more restrictions, failing to realize that this would increase hardship by folding consumers in with the small business owners in the group of affected people. The fact that they did this right at the start of the holiday season only serves to add a feather in the province’s cap.
As can be expected, sparks of defiance have begun to appear. Over the past three days, we have seen the spectacle around Adamson’s Barbecue in Etobicoke, which remained open in very public defiance of the lockdown. The brief saga ultimately culminated in his arrest. However, the steps from the authorities have only served to fan the flames of dissent and dissatisfaction among many people.
On the same day, another small business, Paramount Golf announced that it would soon be opening its simulated golf facility for five customers at a time. As of this writing, this is still in the future. It should be interesting to see how it unfolds – and also if this defiance grows into a movement. I think this is where the crux lies. One barbecue can be shut down by sending a dozen or so police officers. Shutting down one hundred restaurants poses a steep challenge as it strains the State’s resources. Shutting down one thousand small businesses becomes impossible, and the State has to admit defeat.
The only alternative for the State is to crack down harshly – and risk a mass uprising.
I have seen a few of such uprisings in India. One popular tactic in these has been ‘jail bharo’ (fill the prisons). Demonstrators court arrest by openly defying the rules in such numbers that it becomes impossible for the State to hold them in prisons. These large numbers also raise the probability that some of the police personnel would have family, relatives and friends among the arrested demonstrators. This personal connection starts the formation of cracks in the official resolve to quell the demonstrators. I am not sure when and how this tactic emerged, but it was common to hear about ‘the path shown by Gandhi’ from the leaders of these uprisings. Regardless of its origin, the concept behind the idea is elegantly simple: At some point, the numerical advantage of those defying State policy grows to a point where it is bound to touch the State’s enforcers of policy personally, in some manner. This has the effect of blurring the line dividing the State and the citizenry. The people enforcing State policy start feeling the impact of that policy more closely. At some point, they must choose between their official duties and fealty with the people around them. As a result, their commitment to enforcing the policy begins to crumble.
When Gandhi openly defied the law in South Africa, his friend Rev. Charlie Andrews asked a question of his congregation: How do you deal with a man who will not obey an unjust law?
As we found out eventually, the answer is that you don’t – justice prevails.
I think we may not be too far from asking the same question in Canada, and we will probably arrive at the same answer.