Who Do We Want to Be?
"A response that asks everything of its citizens and almost nothing of its government is selfish."
We have received this personal account from Cate D., published in its entirety below.
A few months ago, a well-loved colleague of mine retired. Due to Covid restrictions, instead of getting together for a farewell dinner, most of us said goodbye to her over the phone. A few of us drove by her house with banners on our cars in a well-intentioned but rather pitiful attempt to create something special for this woman who had given 40 years of her life to our place of work.
At the last work meeting she participated in, which was done via teleconference, we each took our turn to try to say something about our time with her and to wish her well. One of us, in doing so, began to choke up with emotion, her voice cracking as she felt the loss of her dear colleague. In that small, breathless moment every fibre of my being cried out in protest at not being physically present with my friends.
If the world were as it should be, we would have been in the same room together, honouring and saying goodbye to this witty, kind, intelligent woman who deserved to be celebrated, loved and supported as she transitioned to a new phase of her life. We would have squeezed one friend on the shoulder when she could no longer speak and hugged the other as she said goodbye to a years-long endeavour and the team she had been with for most of her adult life. We would have been able to share stories and words of love with no need to wait our turn, and with nothing in the way of seeing each other’s faces as warm memories and encouraging looks played across them. We would have shared laughter, tears and hugs with all the fullness of communication only physical presence can bring. A soft sadness remains in my heart when I think of this lost celebration.
Gathering together is a basic human need, written into our biology. We can, of course, continue to live and breathe without it. But we are not whole. … It is, in fact, the core of what makes life worth living.
On its own, this is a relatively trivial example of the negative impacts of the lockdowns the world engaged in over a year ago. This is not the devastation of losing a job, a home, a loved one. But added up over the long months of this pandemic, these kinds of missing moments are eating away at our psyches. Gathering together is a basic human need, written into our biology. We can, of course, continue to live and breathe without it. But we are not whole. We are ragged and beaten down. We are anxious and heartbroken. Connection with others – in person, in proximity, and without barriers – is fundamental to our well being. It is, in fact, the core of what makes life worth living.
To take away these things as we lose our livelihoods, as our children struggle to learn at home and we struggle to take care of them and provide for them, as we mourn those who pass and fear for those who are not getting the treatment they need, is to guarantee suffering on an absolutely massive scale.
For over a year, we have had to make do with virtual connection and faces half-covered, with passing in and out of varying degrees of constraint on what our social circles are permitted to be; a state of being that can only produce conflict and stress and that has never allowed us to have a normal, well-rounded community in our lives. We have done this to young and old alike – stripping our children of their friends when they need them most and isolating our elderly when they most need care. Stripping all of us of those vital moments of real connection we require in order to thrive and doing so as we also lose concerts, theatre, sports, dance, festivals and fairs - nearly everything outside our homes that nourishes us. To take away these things as we lose our livelihoods, as our children struggle to learn at home and we struggle to take care of them and provide for them, as we mourn those who pass and fear for those who are not getting the treatment they need, is to guarantee suffering on an absolutely massive scale.
It is not a mark of selfishness to wish to celebrate life’s big moments with everyone you care about, to wish to mourn a loved one’s passing with all who loved them. It is not selfish to wish for your child to grow up in a world in which the maintenance of their health and well being is treated as a sacred trust held above all others. It is not selfish to wish to explore the world when you are twenty by being in it with your friends. It is not selfish to wish to see your family – to hug them, to have them in your home. It is not selfish to wish to hold your newborn grandchild instead of looking at them through a computer screen. It is not selfish to wish your parent were not deteriorating as their care dwindles and their isolation increases. It is not selfish to wish for timely treatment of your illnesses. It is not selfish to wish to keep your business open, to keep your means of feeding and housing your family available to you. There is something very wrong with a society that has proclaimed these wishes as selfish rather than as deeply human.
It is also not a mark of selfishness to wish to keep yourself and your loved ones safe from dying of an infectious disease. It is not selfish to wish to see our hospitals able to care for our sick with all of the resources and time they need to do so. It is not selfish to wish to minimize the impact of a virus on the health and mortality of a society.
A response that does not take into account the harms incurred on any other person but a person with Covid and one that does not actually consider the best ways to mitigate the suffering of those who do contract the disease is selfish.
What is selfish is throwing everything that makes a society whole on the chopping block for the sake of a single disease. What is selfish is a blind and flailing response that bases its actions on a meaningless daily number without context, without a robust framework around it that includes all facets of life. A response that does not take into account the harms incurred on any other person but a person with Covid and one that does not actually consider the best ways to mitigate the suffering of those who do contract the disease is selfish. A response that asks everything of its citizens and almost nothing of its government is selfish. Failure to change course when it becomes obvious that the measures you chose are not working, and are, in fact, doing more harm than good is selfish.
There was always (and still is) a middle ground we could have gone to that was in between letting Covid run its course unhindered and shutting down the whole damn world. Most of us would have given up what was asked of us without resentment as a short-term measure when the pandemic first hit. But over a year in, how is it possible that we have not changed course? When it became apparent that we were in this for the long haul, why did we choose to continue hammering - with increasingly callous and haphazard measures - on our economic and social fabrics? How did we not come to a full stop on lockdown strategies and instead pour our efforts and money into precise, imaginative, and targeted protection of the vulnerable and into strengthening and expanding our health care system?
We chose this bizarre extreme of unnecessarily and dangerously shutting down the majority of our activities and work, of destroying countless lives through financial and social hardships, and it will not and cannot change the fact that Covid will continue to kill people. It is a hard truth but a truth nonetheless that sometimes, we are powerless to save everyone. We live in a province of nearly 15 million, a world of nearly 8 billion. You can lock down a town of 50 and wait a virus out. You cannot lock down 15 million people who are part of a network of 8 billion. It is logistically impossible in the world we live in today. And hurling us instead into these erratic lockdown measures could only ever have resulted in severe damage and little benefit. Instead of least harm, we chose harm to all, not only in the present but for years to come.
The sad truth is that our sacrifices are not serving a greater good. They are serving only panic and politics. They serve the placation of our fear and our sense of self importance. They serve our inability to face our own mortality and to meaningfully wrestle with our shortcomings. They serve to protect a government that wishes to pretend that hallway medicine is new and that it is our fault, not theirs; a government with no imagination, no flexibility, and no accountability. They serve the smoke and mirrors that keep us focused on impossible rules and those who break them lest we dwell too long on our leaders’ utter and disastrous incompetence. They serve a desperate government that seems endlessly content with placing blame on its citizens rather than responsibility on its own shoulders.
And so, what makes all of this a more bitter pill to swallow than I can sometimes bear is that we have been on this long and heart-wrenching journey of deprivation for no good reason. The sad truth is that our sacrifices are not serving a greater good. They are serving only panic and politics. They serve the placation of our fear and our sense of self importance. They serve our inability to face our own mortality and to meaningfully wrestle with our shortcomings. They serve to protect a government that wishes to pretend that hallway medicine is new and that it is our fault, not theirs; a government with no imagination, no flexibility, and no accountability. They serve the smoke and mirrors that keep us focused on impossible rules and those who break them lest we dwell too long on our leaders’ utter and disastrous incompetence. They serve a desperate government that seems endlessly content with placing blame on its citizens rather than responsibility on its own shoulders. Do we forget how many deaths have been elderly patients in long-term care homes? We knew very early on that the elderly were most at risk of death from Covid and our government did nothing pre-emptively to ensure their safety and have still done little to solve the issues in long-term care. Just one example of a direct responsibility of government that has been overlooked as they have continued to shift the burden and the blame of the pandemic’s toll to ordinary people.
We don’t solve this problem with slogans. We don’t solve it with half-truths and vague notions of what heroism is. We don’t solve it by stressing an entire society to its breaking point. We solve it first by being honest.
It is heartbreaking to see this public health crisis turned into a marketing campaign for “saving lives”. Truth is difficult. Making choices that will balance benefits with cost is difficult. We don’t solve this problem with slogans. We don’t solve it with half-truths and vague notions of what heroism is. We don’t solve it by stressing an entire society to its breaking point. We solve it first by being honest. Honest about what the real problems are. Honest about what we can and cannot prevent. Honest about our mistakes. Honest about what we are trading and what we are getting in that trade.
Our response to Covid-19 is a dangerous precedent. We have established a bar at which we are willing to give up fundamental freedoms for an indefinite period of time. At which we are okay with the government deciding who we can have in our homes. We have now decreed that a virus that the vast majority of people survive is enough. This is the bar at which we are willing to give up our basic need for human connection, our livelihoods, the security of our family, the education and social development of our children, the dignity of our seniors, our economic future and psychological well being. This is the bar at which we are willing to force others to give up those things. Are we really okay with that?
Do we want to be a society that fears death to the point that we will stop living to avoid it? Do we want to be a society with inflexible systems that cannot pivot in a crisis without causing untold harm? Do we want to be a society that chooses to ignore the complexity of difficult choices in favour of slogans and cliches? Or, do we want to be a society that is mature enough to acknowledge and gracefully deal with the fact that sometimes the choice is not between good and bad but between bad and worse? One that can recognize with great compassion but fierce honesty that sometimes what we have to sacrifice is our egos and our sense of control? Do we want to acknowledge that life is more than a heartbeat and that if we truly deem it sacred, we must ask ourselves what makes a life whole? What is the cost of preserving a life worth living and are we willing to bravely pay it?
Our world has irrevocably changed and the fallout from all of this will be with us for years to come. There are many normal things we desperately need back – among them, a world without mandatory masks, social isolation and arbitrary closure of businesses. We need these things now and they must be prioritized.
But when the dust settles, let’s also be cautious of which normals we wish to return to. All that is wrong with our response to this pandemic was built out of the normals of life before Covid. Though some seem to have forgotten, hallway medicine was normal before Covid. Poorly functioning long-term care homes were normal. The reason we had to panic about flattening the curve has little to do with the severity of Covid-19. It has much more to do with having no robust plan for a situation we knew was inevitable. And with having a health care system unable to meet the needs of its citizens. We had not even come to a place where our health care system could cope with our aging population, let alone a pandemic.
For a long time now, normal has also been unhealthy diets and sedentary lifestyles. It has been consumerism and a populace so used to being marketed to that they don’t even recognize it when it’s happening. It has been income inequality, polarization and politicization of nearly every issue, and a media that sensationalizes and stokes fear. It has been inflexibility in all of our systems and style over substance in our politics.
We are led by wealthy, disconnected people whose whole lives have been a popularity contest. Is this how we want to proceed out of the ashes of this time? If we are willing to look, this pandemic has shown us what our priorities are and it is not a pretty sight.
Perhaps what we need is not a return to normal but to use this catastrophe as an opportunity to take a long, hard and honest look at ourselves and decide who we really want to be.
Excellent. There are no words left. You've hit the target.
lovely and brilliant and speaks to the soul of each human i am praying will wake up and listen. thank you!!