Last week’s unravelling of the so-called Atlantic bubble should erase any lingering romantic thoughts that Canadians are united in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since July 3, the nation’s four Atlantic provinces of Newfoundland and Labrador, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island had banded together to allow free travel between their provinces. They did this without abandoning traditional suspicions of fellas that come from away by insisting anyone entering from outside their trusted cartel had to go into a 14-day quarantine before moving freely among the locals.
For months, this strategy successfully kept the world - and Quebeckers and Albertans in particular - from importing “the Covid.” People stayed healthy and their region’s fragile economies remained functional, which means they continued to produce tax revenue for cash-strapped provincial treasuries that in some cases are obliged to spend more on debt than post-secondary education.
The bubble may have caused all but a handful of flights to cease to and from the region, but all appeared well until last weekend when outbreaks popped up in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Before you could sing Bud the Spud or I's the b'ye, PEI Premier Derek King and Newfoundland Premier Andrew Furey had opted out of the collective and reverted to their own bubbles.
This followed the plea from British Columbia Premier John Horgan earlier in the month for closed borders between provinces because, well, when it comes to national unity (my words, not his) it’s every health care system for itself.
It is increasingly obvious that the nation is separating into two primary groups - or tribes if you will. Each is well-motivated and fears the other’s argument will prevail.
In one tribe, you have a large number of academics, health professionals, educators, and public servants. The other comprises those who sell cars, operate restaurants, cinemas, galleries, clothing shops, airlines, Ubers and department stores. (These are sweeping generalizations but the nice thing about generalizations is that if you apply them in general, as opposed to in particular, they are generally true.)
The lines that divide these two groups are straightforward. When it comes to a lockdown, the totality of the former group’s risk extends to a restricted social life, takeout meals instead of dining, bottled instead of draught beer, and being a little bored.
In the other group, you have the people who deliver those takeout meals (as pointed out by Bank of Canada Governor Tiff Macklem last week, low wage earners continue to be hardest hit in an economy likely to shrink by 5.5 per cent this year, and who knows by how much in the year ahead.) Many of them are among the 600,000 Canadians who still haven’t found jobs since losing them in the First Wave lockdown, 200,000 others who lost them, got them back and don’t want to lose them again, and small business operators hanging on by their fingertips. Not surprisingly, this group is quite conscious of the fact the federal mortgage deferral plan expired Sept. 30.
When it comes to our current reality, it is the group facing the least amount of risk that most often calls for intervention in the form of sweeping economic shutdowns, lockdowns, circuit-breakers, etc. This group is generally well-connected to a culturally sympathetic media and often accuses those who disagree with their position of putting profits before people.
The second group wants an end to the pandemic just as badly as the first and wants protection focused on those most at risk from infection – overwhelmingly the elderly and the ill (Alberta stats indicate 58 per cent of COVID fatalities involved people suffering from dementia; another 24 per cent from cancer, for instance). They strongly oppose the idea that by risking and perhaps losing their income, their investments and their homes can we protect at-risk populations.
Not surprisingly, they find unconvincing the former group’s most recent argument that their businesses can only be saved by a lockdown, particularly as those forwarding it appear unaware that this time of year is vital to business survival. Public sector coverage of rent and wages just doesn’t cut it.
Complicating this relationship are those who wonder why the government doesn’t just close businesses and give them money, which ignores the reality that governments don’t actually have any money. They depend on a functioning economy to produce the revenue needed to pay for schools, hospitals and other public services. The fact so many journalists remain heedless about the source of their employers’ revenues is a topic for future delicate exploration. In the short term, let’s just say it is either principled and courageous or whatever the alternative might be. You decide. I’m not touching it.
Around the fringes of this you can sprinkle an array of libertarians and super skeptics insisting this is all just a “mild flu.” They, in turn, inspire people in places like Fond du Lac, Saskatchewan to not only ignore self-isolation orders when they test positive, but to mark the occasion by throwing a house party.
Even some good old fashioned religious resentment flared up in Quebec after fresh COIVD-19 restrictions were viewed to be more tolerant of Christmas gatherings than those related to Hanukkah. Spice this up with a soupcon of shameless political rage (Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley has taken this to a whole new level by abandoning working people for the woke) and, as Hardy said to Laurel, “Here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into.”
Nope, when it comes to COVID social cohesion, our diversity is not - as we’ve been told these many years now - making us stronger.
The challenge for a renewed conservatism that will have the authenticity and robustness to appeal again to the electorate will have the courage to avoid simplistic talking points and recognize that a healthy society requires a full range of social institutions to play their roles