Why Is This Crisis Different From All Other Crises?

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April 27, 2020

Why Is This Crisis Different From All Other Crises?

Written by Robin V. Sears for Policy Magazine. Click here to read the original.

Humanity has endured and prevailed over catastrophes both man-made and natural since the dawn of time. In a chapter of that saga when both the management and repurposing of crisis as opportunity have become policy art forms, how will we learn from the mistakes of this pandemic to create a better world than the one it ravaged? 

Robin V. Sears 

One of the most powerful moments in a family Seder comes when the youngest at the dining table asks before the group begins to eat, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” The child then runs through four questions that define the painful history of the Jewish people in Egypt and their celebration at winning their freedom. They are a powerful teaching moment, in an emotional night of bonding. A “lest we forget” moment. That happened only on screens during this somber Passover season, but under the shadow of the pandemic, many of these Seders have had even greater emotional impact.

We might well all ask ourselves, “Why is this crisis different from all other crises?” 

One answer might be: “We have never had a pandemic globally in a few days, overwhelming the entire world.” At a deeper level, we must examine how and why this epidemic became more broadly tragic in more places, than any before it. We need to remember this pandemic’s lessons, and ensure that we never forget them.

Four specific crisis questions might be:

1. We had several smaller crises in the past two decades, from the same source, with the same method of attack, why was the whole world caught flat-footed—again? Why did we not listen to all the warnings? 

2. How can we use this painful experience to build bridges across partisan, ethnic, religious and national divides—not allow the suffering to become an excuse for cementing divisions more deeply?

3. What innovations and learnings should be made permanent? Which of our former foolish behaviours should be forever banished? 

4. How can we build a better Canada in a better world as a result of the lessons we have learned?

Perhaps, as we commemorate wars and other emotional anniversaries, we should develop a ceremony to those whom we lost to during this awful assault. Each year, we would honour their memory in ceremony and by ensuring our defences are in place and ready at the push of another pandemic button.

It is incredible to reflect that until two decades ago, Canada—a nation overweeningly proud of its healthcare system—did not even have a national public health agency. Dr. David Butler-Jones was its estimable first head for a decade following SARS. Dr. Carolyn Bennett was our first Minister of Public Health, working closely with Butler-Jones to set up the Public Health Agency of Canada, and the Canadian Public Health Network, connecting medical officers of health and related officials across the country.

Yet by the time of Butler-Jones’ departure in 2014, public health was sliding back down the policy agenda across the country, funding was cut, its independence from the other giants of the healthcare sector was undermined. It became the victim of what public health advocates call the “tyranny of the acute.” A heart attack is highly visible and a successful intervention must come within minutes. A long-term campaign’s success against childhood diabetes is measured in years, even decades, and is mostly invisible. 

So, the healthcare sector in Canada, always pressed for adequate levels of funding to heal the sick, found it much easier to cut the champions of public health rather than trim funding for the acutely ill. The giants in the sector—hospitals, drug companies and doctors’ unions—fell victim to one of Henry Kissinger’s favorite cautions to new political leaders: “Never let the urgent drive out the important.”

That tale of the world forgetting the three virus threats we have already faced in this century—SARS, H1N1, MERS—is how and why the whole world paid no attention to the worst health crisis in a century until the middle of March this year. Where China—the source of this virus and several predecessors—is concerned, they knew of their explosion in Wuhan in November, but only revealed it in late January. 

America will have the highest death tolls in the world, mostly a result of a late and incompetent response to the epidemic, one that President Trump declared he took “no responsibility for,” jeering that the pandemic was a Democratic “hoax” until the end of February. With less than five percent of the world’s population, by mid-April, the United States represented nearly one out of four deaths globally. It is surely not too harsh to ask how many thousands of American lives would not have been sacrificed if there had been a competent leader in the White House.

Thucydides description of the impact of the worst plague Athens had until then faced is a tale of violence, cruelty and selfishness on the part of its citizens in their panic to save themselves or to die in a last indulgent night of wine, rape and debauchery. Plagues throughout history have typically brought out the best and the worst of humanity. We always recover, but sometimes it takes decades, and sometimes it leaves scars for generations. 

So far, we can be grateful that the heroes far outnumber the fools. The millions of front-line workers, too many of whom have died on the job due to inadequate preparation and protection, have not quit. The hostile idiots who deliberately endangered the health of friends and neighbours have been mercifully few. With the exception of the usual oligarchs, who have used the crisis to seize ever more power, most democratic governments have honoured the values of the Enlightenment—that their first obligation is to the protect the safety and freedoms of their citizens.

As Angela Merkel, using her powerful credentials as a physicist, as a survivor of tyranny, and as the most respected leader of her nation in half a century, said as she resisted demands for the use of the military to enforce social control, and rallied her country one more time, “We are a democracy. We don’t achieve things by force, but through shared knowledge and co-operation.”

In Canada, there has been an outbreak of political comity unseen even during the two world wars. Our leaders have responded too timidly and too slowly in some cases, but were wisely open to quick course correction. More importantly, almost without exception they have avoided partisan games or damaging attacks on opponents. How improbable was it for Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, a Liberal, to declare that Ontario Premier Doug Ford, a Conservative, had become her “therapist” in a marvelous exclusive by the Toronto Star’s Susan Delacourt.

The public reaction to this dramatic change in what was becoming far too regularly a pugilistic approach to politics has been enormously positive. Quebec Premier François Legault has reached the stratospheric height of a 90 percent approval rating. Let us hope that we can preserve at least some of this new civility, this focus on policy, not personal attack. And that it is matched by a sense of unity in Canada across regional, racial and religious lines. 

Perhaps the most startling aspects of global responses to the pandemic have been in the domain of upended mythologies and the death of sacred cows. Worrisome national debt ceilings—pshaw! We have a nation, an economy, a world to rebuild. Thousand-dollar cash gifts with few limitations on who can qualify? Do it, now! Governments triaging who will get taxpayers’ money by sector, by company, by province—even Conservative politicians and commentators are demanding such surgical intervention in the economy.

Will this lead to permanent changes in monetary, fiscal, and economic policy? Maybe. Blue ribbon panels are being assembled, wise policy veterans are coming out of retirement to offer their counsel. Canadians of all types are beginning to listen to advocates of a universal basic income, of the importance of teaching wellness and not merely treating sickness, of the role of governments in the economy, with a more open mind. 

Will we travel less? Certainly, business travel seems unlikely to rebound given the immersion we have all had in the power of a variety of communication technologies. Will we demand more local food, local products, even at higher prices? Probably, but it may not last unless legislation and regulation support the changes. Will regionalization supplant globalization? Again, probably and along continental lines immediately. The NAFTA countries, the EU and the members of the Asian trade agreements, are all likely to see their fellow trade pact members as partners, and others, not so much.

But as the history of the past two decades, even the past two millennia, amply demonstrates we all have a strong tendency to recidivism, unless we take strong measures against it. I have a large print of a London we will never see. It depicts what the City of London commissioned from Sir Christopher Wren. It is a vision for the city after the massive destruction of the Great Fire of 1666. It included broad sweeping avenues, many new public squares and parks. It also recommended the beginning of new garbage, sanitation and water treatment systems, partly to prevent a return of another massive fire and subsequent epidemic. 

Instead, the city was rebuilt much as it was. Few of the public engineering recommendations were implemented, and less than two centuries later, the city was devastated by a rat-fed cholera plague. 

When I first walked down the congested, narrow streets of older parts of Tokyo, framed on all sides by wooden buildings, I imagined they must have been relics from another century, before the Great Kanto earthquake or the firebombing of the Second World War. But no, many of them were fewer than 50 years old.

Crises define leaders and reveal national culture. America has a new hero in Andrew Cuomo as the epitome of a wartime leader—conveying competence, confidence and empathy every day. In Florida and Australia, too many young people—with the complicity of local politicians, indulged in the same behaviours that Thucydides warned Athenians against. Many of them carried the virus back home with them, as we now know. 

As in most arenas, Canada sits somewhere between those poles. We have been good at physical distancing and hygiene. But we came to it a month later than our political leaders should have prescribed. 

Some will argue that permanent changes have now been ingrained into the social fabric: working from home, telemedicine and schooling, better general hygiene, tougher hygiene rules for nursing homes and prisons, a greater civility in public discourse. Perhaps. 

One thing is indisputable, if we work at it, we need never return to some of the foolishness of our past: deep inequalities, dependence on suppliers thousands of miles away to come to our rescue in a crisis when their own citizens need supplies just as badly. 

This crisis was unlike any other. It skipped from Wuhan, to Shanghai, to Los Angeles, to London in the time it took to fly a virus-afflicted passenger. It will happen again, and our response must be faster, more competent, and more universal as a result. 

But, hopefully, there is another truth. That we can rebuild a better Canada and a better world out of the pain of this experience. In the parliamentary showdown over tweaking the various relief packages, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh laid out such a vision and once again offered the core of his political values:

“The decisions we make in the next weeks and months will be some of the most important of our lives—some of the most important that any Canadian government has been faced with…

I hear a lot of people talking about ‘when will things return to normal?’
But I believe we need to do far better than normal.

Normal is workers not having paid sick leave. Normal is families struggling on a minimum wage. Normal is people who are essential to health and safety not getting paid enough to live.

Normal is a public health care system that has been starved of funding. Normal is a society that is neither fair nor resilient. We can’t ever go back to normal. Canadians are showing their compassion. They’re showing their desire to care for one another…Let’s not return to the old normal. Let’s build a new normal where we take better care of each other. Where we have a strong social safety net that lifts us all up together.

Let’s build a Canada that is fair and resilient. Canadians are counting on us. They’re counting on us to learn from this crisis, to build a better Canada for all of us.”