Column: The lessons of COVID -- are we good students?

Charles Jeanes
By Charles Jeanes
February 3rd, 2021

“Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”

All in this together, but not all suffering together

The coronavirus pandemic has been rich in lessons. We have been told one lesson over and over as a kind of mantra, by authorities in government, science, and medicine, and we know what we are supposed to have learned: “We are all in this together.”

Except we aren’t, and we learned that also. The rich are not with us, they are using their wealth to insulate themselves from what the less fortunate suffer.

The rich are not bothered by any loss of income, they travel at will on private transportation, they are not isolated at home by fear, they are free from anxiety about affording good medical care, they can increase their fortunes by doing nothing but invest in new pandemic market opportunities. Billionaires must laugh in delight at their soaring profits. Corporate retail flourished while small businesses were drowned by debt. Executives kept getting paid while workers were laid off.

Consequences, intended or not

Screen addiction was encouraged by pandemic isolation, and the pathology goes unnamed because we think we are using a tool to solve our problems. The tool is using us. Dependence on the internet was multiplied in the name of health.

Celebrities and “influencers” increased their fame online and in entertainment venues found on our devices. They think they are helping us, by helping themselves in their careers. Athletes too insist they are good for us, giving us diversion. Maybe we need less diversion and more capacity for solitude, quiet, and self-discovery. And time to get to know the people most close to us, family and best friends.

Boredom, tedium, mental-health deterioration, social isolation, domestic violence, substance addictions, alcoholism: a host of maladies were loosed upon us by the pandemic and by the regimes of health measures imposed by our governments. Overeating became commonplace in the affluent countries where food scarcity is never an issue.

Such challenges were of insignificant consequence for those with sufficient wealth.

We have ignored the climate deteriorating, and issues of how to respond to it, because it seems a distant peril, far less immediate a danger than disease. Our lack of attention to the places far from human pandemic, remote forests, plateaus, rivers, coasts, and mountains, allowed resource extraction to go ahead with less opposition.

The powerful and the rich can purchase treatments unavailable to the rest of us. Former US President Donald Trump got treatment few but the most powerful and wealthy can command and emerged to tell us all, “Don’t let it dominate your life.”

Social inequality is evident, too, in who gets vaccines first. The developed world will help the impoverished nations when we finish vaccinating our people first. People with wealth are finding various ways to use it to get preferential treatment.

Economy and desperation: or paycheque poverty vs. virus vulnerable

There ought to be a Canadian Pandemic Memorial Cemetery, with a stone for every person who died of the virus, even though the grave there is empty. And over the entry to this memorial site should be an arch with words inscribed, “Here lie the pandemic dead. They gave up their lives so that The Economy could continue Business as Usual.”

We have an economy, rather than a society. To serve it, we will risk death. Who has not seen or heard fellow Canadians expressing their concern over falling into poverty without their paycheque, even the pay for a single day? It was better to avoid a test than to know one was ill, since illness meant no job, no pay.

I will take it as read that stories of people staying at their jobs despite risk of contracting COVID-19 are known to all. Workplaces are being investigated for practices which amount to worker exploitation, from Cargill meatpackers in Alberta to farms in BC. Governments all over the democratic world wrestle to keep citizens from abject poverty with income-support programs; in Canada we have CERB, in BC the Recovery Plan. Universal basic annual income is on the horizon, becoming more probable rather than just a distant theoretical option for affluent democracies.

The lack of paid sick-leave has suddenly become a fact we care about, not just a fact known only to academics and union activists. The comforting story that, decade by decade, workers’ conditions, pay, and rights, make progress, has been known by students of the facts to be a complete fantasy. Progress has ceased. Regress is the norm.

The Story of Progress falters

Most people who follow news know that CEO’s now make hundreds of times more per hour than workers, when it was only on average twenty times greater 50 years ago. Wages have stagnated since 1980, in real purchasing-power. The 2008 economic crisis worldwide did not end for many, and for these, the effects of lost jobs, savings, and homes will never be repaired.

For those who think humans want to know facts, and will understand their reality from facts, the pandemic should wake you up to this more-accurate knowledge: people do not seek out and retain the facts that make them feel bad.

Because the facts are grim for middle-class economic affluence, and the good life has been receding as a realistic prospect for decades now, we deny the facts and focus on new technologies and scientific discoveries to prove that progress is marching forward.

Consider: how economic inequality has been deepening (far worse new than in 1929 or 1899), how desperation has been overtaking formerly-secure people as well-paid employment declines, and how Canadians are indebted to the tune of $1.70 for every one dollar they earn in work – and that is a pre-pandemic statistic – and one must conclude that the promise of capitalism to raise us all in the long term, is a fantastic falsehood.

The statistical data-collection, the clear analysis of that data, and the diagramming of deterioration of democratic middle-class affluence since the 1970’s, has only one conclusion in the social, economic, and political sphere – things have been getting worse, not better, for citizens of affluent Western democracies. The trend is steady, and experts have reached consensus.

However, human rights codes have added some improvements for niche segments of population, in racial, ethnic, gender, and cultural equality, making them protected under law. This is a kind of progress, yes — for Western, liberal, democratic nations.

[See here research by economists R. Wolff and T. Piketty on the falling prosperity of the middle class in the democratic West.



The Story of Progress is more powerful than economic and social fact, however.

The crisis in the lives of working people all over the West due to the pandemic, has not resulted in any clear indication that people are waking up to the failure of our systems. Even as we amass the information — of people needing their paycheques at whatever cost to their health — we do not agree on a conclusion that the old ways should not return. A return to the lives of people living paycheque-to-paycheque, of weak worker protections in law, of feeble environmental defenses, is a return to the old normal. Building a better order after the pandemic is the ideal of progressives.

For every person who posts on media or voices opinion in public by some means, arguing for a New Normal, and saying we must Build Back Better, there is one who says no to any fundamental change and wants the order of the pre-pandemic world to be rebuilt once the danger of infection is under control thanks to science.

The heart wants what the heart wants

Woody Allen notoriously said, to explain why he married his step-daughter: “the heart wants what the heart wants.” This is also true for any individual faced by a conflict between what they want for themselves and what their government has ordered to control the pandemic with health orders. For every story that makes news, there are surely ten which are never discovered, on the evasion of laws mandating health measures.

Canadians are not a people who willingly respond well to an appeal for our social, collective, common good when it conflicts with personal priorities. I think we used to be, as recently as my father’s generation. We are not those people now.

Capitalist advertising has reshaped our consciousness to create consumers who consult their appetites and preferences first, and our economy is premised on creating such people to be the foundation of the market.

The market is free. What advertising can do, to direct a mind to favour one product or service, is entirely legitimate. We do not expect any form of moral or ethical intervention in the market by any public authority. I am not at all surprised by the self-centred nature of modern Canadians. We are self-interested because economic norms tell us to be.

[A site I have  just discovered is dedicated to exploring the rational self-interest philosophy:      http://www.rationalselfinterest.com/post/psychology?fbclid=IwAR14Ao1yyyNmpAQ57-B8uym1podHQhs1KdpsktvCdgqpG8x0eGQEMB1pees]

Adam Smith, the genius of early capitalist economic theory, posited “enlightened self-interest” would keep the market in harmony and motivate citizens, but he also needed to invent a ghost called “the hidden hand of the market” to complete his argument. Who now believes that each of us is “enlightened” as a consumer? Smith had a particular view of human psychology, as he revealed in his book on moral sentiments. [ https://www.adamsmith.org/the-theory-of-moral-sentiments] People today seem quite unlike the human beings he postulated for his market society.

Canadians — among other democratic peoples — have a loud and noisy minority of people who simply do not respond to appeals for the common good, and prefer to declare disbelief and distrust, refusing openly or secretly to obey the rules. Mob resistance and demonstration against rules of control have been manifest in most provinces.

A BC couple have been charged with violation of health orders, by flying to the Yukon, posing as residents of Beaver Creek, taking vaccine shots only meant for locals, then attempting to fly out before their arrests at the airport. The husband has lost his job with a Casino chain. In Ontario Doctor Martina Weir and her husband are facing criminal charges for providing false information, and for lying, when questioned about their known exposure risk to a new and more contagious variant of COVID. She has lost her hospital jobs. These people seem to think their right to do as they want means they should be free to hide their violation of provincial laws regulating health. They are not so different from the rest of us.

Western citizens want what they want, and will work, plan, manipulate —  to get it in some way despite pandemic rules. Vacation travel? Social gatherings? Nightclub activity? Earnings? Individual desire trumps social good enforced by law.

Politicians in peculiar times

Our politicians provoked voter outrage and career disaster by acting selfishly and violating no-travel rules, for their hypocrisy was rank to our noses. But we, the people they represent, were ourselves not practising the virtues we demanded. If we could circumvent the rules for our own desires, for parties and festive family gathering, for travel or income… there were many of us who did just that, broke the rules, in secret.

Only wartime or natural catastrophe can match this pandemic time as a challenge to the quality of our leaders, of their character, ethics, and ability to be leaders.

What is leadership in such a crisis? One, adherence to a clear plan endorsed by medical-science authorities, and leaders whose example is congruent with the plan they impose by law and cabinet orders.

Canadian leaders at various levels have not excelled, and many have appeared unequal to their task and lacking ethics when it comes to following their own regimes of control. Ideological differences between conservative and liberal-left politicians have emerged as factors in how provinces responded to the power of businesses who wanted to remain open in the pandemic; conservatives leaned toward opening for the sake of The Economy more than their political opposites.

Alberta was very slow to impose restrictions, preferring very weak regulation in the name of civil liberties as expressed by Premier Jason Kenney, while he had to fire cabinet ministers who evaded travel rules for their own convenience. Premier John Horgan has been consistently aligned with the early-imposed stricter BC measures his chief officer of health recommended; BC has benefited.

Some island populations benefited from their isolation rather than good political leadership. Vancouver Island has had remarkably low case numbers. Quality leadership in Australia and New Zealand is very much a reason for those nations’ fine record in this pandemic. Good policy is more important than geography, in my view.

Ontario’s Doug Ford appears unable to maintain any consistent policy toward business; big stores got advantages small ones lacked, and he had no excuse for this failure. He prefers to get angry at the federal government or Pfizer or denial mobs, while not admitting he has dithered badly. Inconsistent rules, unfairness in the rules on retail affected small business worse. A lack of enforcement of rules has plagued Ontario and Quebec, but then the latter went to an extreme not seen elsewhere and imposed a curfew, which is enforced.

Hypocrisy among cabinet ministers have cost a few their jobs when their secretive travelling became exposed to public view. This undermines public trust even more.

But we must be fair, the politicians who cheated on the rules are just like us. Their shifty, rule-breaking behaviour reflects us. In this regard, our chosen democratic representatives in government truly do represent the people who elected them, people who cheat because they want what they want more than to act ethically.

One fine mind in Canadian journalism has been consistently exposing the failures and defects of Canada’s various responses to the pandemic, from our absurd travel restrictions that leave gaping holes, to the pathetic vaccine acquisition plans. He is Andrew Coyne, and I recommend readers find his essays in newspapers online or on CBC.  He is not difficult to find. Here is one link:  https://munkschool.utoronto.ca/profile/coyne-andrew/

Good-bye, leadership from science and technology

Every observer of the story in Western nations has agreed that the refusal of trust in authorities by significant numbers of citizens, and the power of the internet and cell phones to spread irrational fear-mongering counter-narratives to the official story from medical experts, is a very worrying trend. It should be.

I wrote much about this in my last column, and will not here rehearse my commentary on this subject. Suffice it to say, in future we who are citizens of democracies have a formidable cultural challenge to re-create a consensus around who is credible and who is an authority, what is real and what is truth. Trust and critical thinking are in peril. This fact is not merely part of pandemic lessons, it has been incubating for decades in the affluent, supposedly-educated West.


The pandemic will be remembered for a whole of host of learning opportunities. I will remember that for my personal interest in human cultural history, this was a time to witness mass and individual behaviours I otherwise would have missed.

Coping with the radical alterations forced on our lives by the virus stalking us, has made every person learn about themselves and the people they live among. Some of the lessons are uplifting, and some quite the opposite.

What I hope we have learned at a minimum is just how important our relationships to other humans are, not to our employment and not to our governments, but to one another. Before there was the city, homo sapiens had the tribe; before the tribe, the mother and child. We have not evolved human intelligence so that we can become more like AI units, unless we allow it. There are humans who wish this for us. Not I.

Your money will not save you. Your relationships might. Cultivate them, consciously.

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