(Image Credit: Author ‘Draconichiaro’ at Wikimedia commons; the image is at this link. Used without modification under Creative Commons Licence).
Today’s announcement of re-imposition of various restrictions by the Ontario government feels like a carousel ride – no matter how much you ‘move forward’, you end up in the same places again and again.
DÉJÀ VU ALL OVER AGAIN
As was being rumored / anticipated, the Ontario government today announced the re-imposition of various restrictions in order (ostensibly) to deal with the threat of the Omicron variant.
As could also be anticipated, the reaction to this announcement fell along predictable lines.
The crucial factor for me is that, given the reports about Omicron from various countries, there is cause for cautious optimism that we could finally be reaching the end of the Covid tunnel. I see some people opining that Omicron means Covid is over (one variation of this being ‘Omicron is our ticket out of Covid’), but in fairness, policy makers need to be a little circumspect about abandoning all caution so soon.
But even with that necessary circumspection factored in, I find it difficult to understand the official approach that treats Omicron as being potentially equally dangerous as the earlier variants, notably the Delta variant.
The crucial aspect here is that this latest announcement gives us zero guidance as to what is the way out of the quagmire that we have been faced with for the past two years. By now, there is the unmistakable pattern of official panic, followed by restrictions, then the abatement of panic to some degree, leading to easing of some of the restrictions, only to be faced with the next wave of panic.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record here, I would offer that the main issues at stake are, yet again, being ignored in our officialdom and commentariat. Instead of having those crucial discussions, we have senior journalists like Andrew Coyne calling people ‘innumerate’, ‘bots’ and ‘from the same troll farms’ for daring to propose that we should look for other ways to deal with the virus this time around. As I wrote in January 2021 (which seems like ages ago, and yet no time seems to have passed since then, in light of the lack of newness to anything) in my article ‘Structural Dysfunction’:
“… instead of having a marketplace for competing ideas, what we have in Canada is an ongoing battle between ideologies …”
I might add here that one of the two sides in this battle has what we might call power, both political and that of a monopoly on the podium.
In that article, I also observed that “We are no longer a nation of people sharing a sense of destiny, but rather different groups that seek to subjugate each other.”
Again, the imbalance in the two sides’ respective capacity to subjugate the other must be noted.
In short, the latest announcement merely serves to bring us back to where we have already been – several times. But now, the people are exhausted. Something will have to give.
The question is exactly what it will be that gives. And the answer depends on the kind of society we are.
From a very young age, I was impressed by Western movies, and among them, the classic spaghetti Western ‘The Good, The Bad and The Ugly’ was my favorite. As a result, I became a fan of Clint Eastwood.
Many years later, I happened to read an anecdote about him (which I cannot vouch for as being genuine, but the point that he was said to have made is instructive in our current circumstances).
The anecdote went that Clint was acting in a movie being directed by someone else, and after they finished a shot, the director said that he wanted Clint to do the same shot again. Clint asked him how the director wanted him to do it differently the second time around. The director replied that he didn’t want anything to be different; he just wanted the same thing done again. Clint refused outright, saying:
“If it isn’t going to be any different than the last time we did this, I am not doing it.”
Of course, Clint Eastwood had the heft required to take such a stance and then stick to it. Ordinary Canadians don’t.
IT IS DIFFERENT THIS TIME (REALLY)
In contrast to the gloomy view taken by the government, some doctors are comparatively less worried. For example, Dr. David Jacobs of Toronto tweeted:
“I share (the) opinion that the system will be stressed by volume, but our kids and vaccinated adults are at extremely low risk from Omicron.”
Elsewhere, CTV quoted Dr. Adalsteinn Brown, who is Dean of University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, as saying that:
“Ontario does not need to close businesses or schools during a circuit breaker… while public health measures are needed to slow the spread of Omicron, they are not ‘not sustainable in the long run’”.
The definition of ‘long run’ is, of course, subjective – but one can objectively say that for a lot of people, that definition has been met.
It is also noteworthy here that Dr. Brown made the above comments while maintaining that “This will likely be the hardest wave of the pandemic.”
I think this bears emphasis: The Dean of a school of Public Health, who believes that Omicron will cause the hardest wave of the pandemic, also believes that closing businesses and schools is not necessary to deal with that wave.
There are, of course, other doctors proposing the exact opposite. Whom to believe is, yet again, a matter of one’s opinion.
I suggest that this is the nub of the matter: Expert opinion is almost necessarily divided, offering the decision maker to pick and choose based on their own priorities. Quoting from the Book of Murphology:
“If you consult enough experts, you can confirm any opinion.”
To put it in different (and possibly conspiratorial) terms, these policy decisions are arrived at first, and then later ‘pointed to’ by the chosen expert advice.
What goes into making these a priori decisions?
THE POWER BEHIND THE THRONE
It is common to refer to governments as ‘administration’, but often their main function is politics (as in self-survival) rather than providing services to the population. This is as true in a democracy as in other forms of governance, and truer in an election year – when various vested interests can play their cards to maximum effect.
In order to arrive at an understanding of a government’s decision, therefore, it is fruitful to try to look for the entities that either stand to gain or are sought to be appeased via the decision. Thankfully, the list of the usual suspects is short: corporate interests, workers’ unions (especially those in the public sector), and people whose votes are expected to be swayed by the policy announcement.
The machinations of corporate interest are usually behind a curtain, so barring a journalistic scoop, we are left guessing / speculating about them. Conversely, policies aimed at swaying votes are trumpeted loudly, so there is nothing left to guess. That leaves the unions, whose push for the policy will usually be couched in far nobler terms than many would like.
It was, therefore, in the order of things that CTV reported about a letter from Ottawa teachers’ unions to the city’s Medical Officer of Health Dr. Vera Etches, asking that schools be closed ‘until additional safety measures are put in place to protect staff and students from the Omicron variant of Covid-19.’
Let us recall that the Dean of the University of Toronto’s School of Public Health has opined that schools do not need to be closed, and Dr. David Jacobs (among many other doctors) is of the view that ‘kids are at extremely low risk from Omicron’.
The government has a choice to make:
- Follow the opinion / advice of the medical professionals expressing cautious optimism (which is corroborated by evidence from other countries where Omicron arrived earlier than it did in Canada) and risk the wrath of an important electoral constituency, or
- Follow the advice of those medical professionals who have mostly been saying the same thing for nearly two years (= ‘we need restrictions’) and avoid landing in political hot water with an election on the horizon.
In an election year, it is not hard to guess which way the government’s choice will go. And unlike Clint Eastwood, Ontarians lack the capacity to refuse that choice. For them, it’s one dead-end after another.
DEAD MAN’S HAND
In the eminently enjoyable Netflix Western ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’, there is a famous bar scene where the main character (Buster Scruggs) arrives at a poker table and ends up inheriting a hand of cards that is known as ‘Dead Man’s Hand’ (you can see the cards at the 0:54 mark in the clip). Having taken a look at the cards, Buster is under pressure to play the hand even when he doesn’t want to, and after a brief exchange, someone pulls a revolver on him.
In a word, it’s a hopeless situation with no escape seemingly possible. And yet, aided by his presence of mind (and a friendly set design) Buster manages to extricate himself from it. I encourage you to watch the clip, and then decide for yourself as to what we Ontarians will need to do – comparable to what Buster did, but in a more peaceful manner – to get ourselves off this Covid Carousel of successive phases of restrictions and closures.