END GAME: A brave new world
“We have to think with our heads, remain calm, and put the measures in place where we can be as safe as possible. I will never sacrifice health and safety for the economy.” — Industry, Tourism and Investment Minister Katrina Nokleby
“We are in it for months, not weeks.” — Minister of Health and Social Services Diane Thom
This is totally out of control. Turning into a police state. The government needs to take a breath and calm the hell down . — Spencer Sproule on Cabin Radio’s Facebook page
There is a difference between lives and livelihoods.
We’re essentially prisoners in our own homes, as we are living under an emergency order that hands over leadership of the territory to the chief public health officer.
So far, the drastic measures — including the latest ban on nearly all social gatherings, indoors and outside — have worked to keep the confirmed cases of COVID-19 to just five, with all those cases tracked and involving travel from outside.
However, we will at some point have to make a decision on when to balance out our fear of the novel coronavirus — which targets older people and those with pre-existing conditions or in poor health the hardest — with the equally brutal side-effects that society will feel with the economy shut down and our social circles smashed.
That’s when we will have to look to our political leaders to, well … lead. The cure, as the saying goes can’t be worse than the disease. We are already having businesses — and the jobs they create — express concern over ever re-opening. We have people ratting out their neighbours over having visitors from down the street. I note that as of this writing, there is no community spread of the novel coronavirus in the NWT.
These measures are a great academic exercise that will undoubtedly make for some compelling convention speeches for our medical experts in the years to come. However, as we are in uncharted waters, our elected leaders must also listen to others voices or concern coming from the business sector — our promising tourism industry will be almost wiped out for at least a year — struggling nonprofits and the general population who will be yearning to get outside after a long, cold winter.
I mean geez, this week came news that the Yellowknife Fire Division will no longer be issuing burning permits to residents until further notice. The reasoning is to “conserve emergency response for those affected by COVID-19.” Except we are not, at present, experiencing a medical emergency — by any stretch of the imagination.
So people simply wanting to emerge from their house/jail to sit in their backyard and enjoy their fire-pits won’t be able to.
Same for burning of grass and bush-burning for land-clearing.
Nobody is trying to downplay this virus, I’m just trying to make sense of what I’m being told.
And this week, I’m hearing via CBC North that these strict rules will continue indefinitely — at least until the disease has reached its peak in southern Canada. That, no matter what impact COVID-19 has actually had in the NWT.
“I want to see, does Canada hit a peak with their infections?” Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Kami Kandola is quoted as saying. “That would be a time when I would be looking at relaxing restrictions in the NWT”
Kandola has been using the phrase “flatten the curve” and hashtag #flattenthecurve when explaining why the extreme crackdown is called for. Problem is, we have no curve to flatten in the NWT. Flattening the curve is a concept of prolonging the infection cycle so as not to overwhelm the health-care system. Just one COVID-19 case has been hospitalized at Stanton Territorial Hospital.
So in a recent streamed media conference featuring Industry, Tourism and Investment Minister Katrina Nokleby, Minister of Health and Social Services Diane Thom and Kandola — who accepted questions from the public via Facebook — I asked about what curve Kandola was flattening.
“James,” came the reply from a ‘Mike TW,’ identified as the Health and Social Services COVID communications manager, “it could happen anywhere.
“This virus is here, we’re taking it seriously, and getting ahead of it is the only way to avoid a surge which could negatively affect our territory.”
Well, Mr. TW, we are certainly ahead of it. And I, too, am taking it seriously. I was only questioning the use of the term “flatten the curve.” But thanks for the patronizing response. I came back quickly, though.
The schmozzle the GNWT’s communications system has become — I’m sure the organization chart looked pretty on a spreadsheet, but it’s really proving ineffective in practise and is pissing off a lot of reporters — will be the subject of another blog.
So pardon for the digression. Back to today’s topic.
Recently, The Atlantic had a piece that showcased some of the brilliant work by local photographer Pat Kane. The accompanying blurb written by The Atlantic’s Nicolas Pollock, contained the first words that helped me really make sense of the situation we find ourselves in right now in the North.
“The region’s remoteness, its limited health resources, and the history of infectious disease among the predominantly Indigenous population sparked an austere response to the spread of the coronavirus. Upon the discovery of its first case, the territory closed its borders to outside travel and implemented strict self-isolation measures.”
But even as the “curve” flattens in southern Canada, there will be no surefire way to avoid COVID-19 until a vaccination is ready, likely in over one year. There will be some therapeutics developed that will help treat the symptoms of the virus, but it will still exist in the weeks and months to come. Being in our sanitary bubble in the NWT, we will not have even built up much of a “herd immunity,” where people will have already had the virus without symptoms and are immune from getting it again.
So, when will Premier Caroline Cochrane and her cabinet start to formulate a game plan to reopen parts of the territory? Sure, the GNWT employees working from home are still receiving paycheques, but many, many others are struggling to pay bills and manage their children who are wondering about school. Basically, to stay sane.
We are wondering how many pages this lost chapter will be in our life story.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau warned recently it could be as long as a year before normal life returns in Canada.
I’m concerned about alcohol abuse. People are becoming depressed. Stories of domestic violence and child abuse will start to emerge. The YWCA NWT says there already has been an increase for emergency protection orders. We will have an increase in suicides. We will have a new wave of alcoholics and drug addicts.
Cabin Radio reported that the NWT Help Line is open but there may be delays in response time due to the high volume of calls. Since March 8, 40 per cent of its calls have been related to COVID-19. People under the age of 25 can contact Kids Help Phone by phone, text, or online message.
“I think, as a mental health challenge, the COVID-19 pandemic creates not only the threat right now about anxiety, but I think it’ll become more complex as time goes on,” Dr. Keith Dobson, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Calgary, told Cabin Radio.
“Just the toll that this has taken on society… we’re going to see people starting to grieve, and start to feel sadness as a result of that.”
Sandro Galea, dean at Boston University’s School of Public Health, told CBC News the isolation as well as the uncertainty about how long it will last and how the pandemic will play out can all contribute to increased anxiety.
“I think it’s actually very important that we are recognizing that mental illness is going to be the next wave of this epidemic and I think it’s very important that we de-stigmatize mental illness.”
Some of our favourite local shops and bars will announce they won’t re-open. COVID-19 has strained our economy unlike anything seen here before.
We now know what to do. We will wear masks, keep a safe distance from others, wash our hands and use hand sanitizer. We get it.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said those restrictions will likely continue for weeks as the first wave of the pandemic is not yet over.
Locking down society is a blunt instrument of last resort. It is medieval in nature and at odds with the advancements society has made in terms of technology and science.
We will, in coming weeks, need to do a risk assessment and debate the trade-offs that make it worth re-opening parts of the territory and returning at least part-way to our new normal. Economic ruin, staggering unemployment, and psychological harm versus some people getting sick and a few dying.
It’s called risk assessment. It’s done all the time in all parts of modern life.
If we wanted to prevent most vehicle deaths, we would all drive at 30 km/h. If we wanted to avoid injury, we wouldn’t allow most sports.
We gamble each year with the seasonal flu. We either get a shot, or don’t. And we don’t know if the vaccine we have received will be the right one for the flu strain that eventually arrives. People die as a result of that each year.
We will need to protect the most vulnerable among us — to the extreme — but let the rest of us get on with our lives. Communities can choose how open they want to be.
Our health-care system should be ready for a “curve” or “surge” by now.
The health professionals in charge of the NWT right now of course will continue to push for this complete lockdown as their job is to protect life. However, death and disease is always part of our lives.
Our elected leaders have the responsibility to protect us from all of the non-COVID-19 harms that will come our way.
When decisions are made about relaxing anti-COVID-19 measures, not all provinces or territories will do so in unison. Given the makeup and newness of the NWT Legislative Assembly — which will be in session next month — I expect the NWT will be one of the last jurisdictions to substantially ease restrictions.
I just don’t see the potential for Cochrane and cabinet to do anything to go against our de facto premier Kami Kandola. I hope I’m wrong.
We need to slowly emerge from our Brave New World into our uniquely imagined, and as safe as reasonable, brave new world. Wearing masks and keeping our distance from strangers.
The term dystopia is an antonym of utopia. When I moved to the NWT, it was my version of utopia. It felt free and wild. There was more space and less government oversight than I had experienced in my life.
I referenced Brave New World in the headline. British author Aldous Huxley 1932 classic novel Brave New World, is described as a “dystopian” as it’s largely set in a futuristic World State, whose citizens are lulled into drug-induced happiness to passively uphold an authoritarian ruling order. Our drugs? Liquor stores are open with other essential services and cannabis is legal. Hmm.
But the characters in the novel aren’t free. We are not free.
I yearn to be free from this house arrest, while also being free from fear of catching a potentially deadly disease. There is a way to accomplish that.
But moving forward, we can’t just listen to the technocrats who would have us living in an engineered bubble.