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Paul W. Bennett: The ‘big shift’ is coming for pandemic schooling

Commentary

Any hope for a definite end to the protracted COVID-19 Pandemic is gradually disappearing. The latest Omicron surge looks unstoppable in Canada and, in province after province, rates of infection and transmission are setting new records.

Some solace is provided when we see signs of fewer serious cases requiring lengthy hospitalization and leading to death.

A fundamental psychological shift is underway with profound implications for children, families, and schools. “When will the pandemic end?” is giving way to “How can we learn to live with COVID?” Confronting a rampant Omicron spread, necessity is giving birth to a new line of thinking. Leading global think tanks were the first to confront “the new normal” and it’s now being embraced by those once thought least likely to change their scripts: Canada’s provincial public health officers.

The shift from pandemic to endemic was forecast by health science experts specializing in epidemic diseases and policy wizards commissioned to forecast social trends. A decade ago, medical researcher Sander L. Gillman, produced a rather obscure book, Diseases and Diagnoses: the Second Age of Biology (2010), connecting the dots between “moral panics and pandemics” and forecasting a global “pandemic killer” potentially worse than the 2009 H1N1 influenza. Four months ago, the American public policy think tank McKinsey & Company got out front of us by daring to produce a policy research paper with the rather audacious title “How the world can learn to live with COVID-19.”

The big shift on COVID-19 has now arrived and is seeping into public discourse. The most recent episode of CBC-Radio’s The House, hosted by Chris Hall, provided a virtual clinic on the profound re-orientation now underway. The dramatic and uncontainable spread of Omicron this month has prompted Nova Scotia’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Robert Strang and a growing group of health experts to change their approach to COVID-19 and to publicly acknowledge that the populace is going to have to get used to living with the virus. Nowhere is that shift more profound than in our strategy of protecting children and teens in and around K-12 schools.

Nova Scotia’s public health chief, nationally recognized for his “tough” COVID-19 regulations from March 2020 to December 2021, has changed his tune. “We are going to have to…move away [from eradication], and accept that the virus that causes COVID is going to be around with us,” Dr. Strang stated on air. Our new goal, he claimed, should be to “manage” COVID-19 based upon “having good levels of immunity from both vaccination and infection…[so] that we no longer have to have these wide restrictive measures and…this huge focus on trying to identify as many cases as possible.”

That’s a seismic shift and Dr. Strang is not alone in changing his approach. Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced that the goal now is to “slow the spread because it cannot be stopped.” Dr. Strang’s opposite number in Newfoundland and Labrador Dr. Janice Fitzgerald has also come to that conclusion. Health care policy expert Katherine Fierlbeck of Dalhousie University offered a succinct explanation for the change. People eventually “get tired of top-down governance,” she said on CBC’s The House, and to retain public trust requires more transparency, including fuller disclosure of the evidence used in making decisions, its limitations, and the tradeoffs between potential benefits and harms.

Convincing school-age parents and educators in our K-12 schools is proving to be a formidable late-pandemic challenge. Pandemics like COVID-19 tend to evoke and provoke extremes in people, clearly revealed in UBC psychologist Steven Taylor’s October 2019 book, The Psychology of Pandemics. While some people in the broader education community are resilient and cope fairly well with the uncertainties, a significant proportion of others, especially parents of younger school-age children and educators, reflect what Taylor terms the “cave syndrome.” Fearful of COVID-19 spread, they become “excessively anxious” spinning a protective web at home and resistant to sending their kids back to school until absolutely every potential hazard and germ has been removed from that environment.

Much of that hyper-vigilance is reflected in a new wave of child-protection parent advocacy. Examining the social media traffic produced by one such parent Facebook group, Nova Scotia Parents for Public Education, an online community of 22,000 parents and friendly educators, provides plenty of evidence of the mass psychology. That group, coordinated by Stacey Rudderham, and a small group of engaged parents, has led the charge in alerting parents to every potential “exposure site,” identifying all manner of lapses in school-level public health precautions, and signs of potential mass outbreaks. Public spokespersons for the group have even challenged the credibility of Dr. Andrew Lynk and his IWK Children’s Hospital team.

The N.S. Facebook group built its membership by creating an early warning system for school-level exposures and attracting hundreds of concerned parents. Over the past 22 months, Rudderham’s group has also supported the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, several times, in pushing for school closures as “circuit breakers.” Organized pressure group activity, going back to March 2020, helps to explain why Nova Scotia, with comparatively low case counts until recently, has closed schools for a total of 21 weeks, second only to Ontario in North America.

Echoing NSTU president Paul Wozney in early January 2022, the Facebook group “deplored” plans to return to in-person schooling, calling into question the repeated assurances of Dr. Strang and public health officials. That strategy worked, because recently-elected N.S. Premier Tim Houston relented to the public pressure, extending the holiday break, for the second time, and into a third week. In short, Dr. Strang’s CBC Radio The House comments may actually have been aimed at changing the channel in his home province.

Watch for the big shift underway in public health policy. When it arrives in your province, you can expect it to mimic the public policy “management” strategy mapped out by global think tanks. You can expect provincial leaders and public health officers to (1) define the new normal; (2) monitor progress through “disease surveillance”; (3) limit illness and death; and (4) slow transmission, responding to identified “hot spots.”

It will not be easy to convince stressed-out parents suffering advanced “COVID-fatigue” that the dreaded COVID is here to stay and we have to learn, somehow, how to cope with the changed landscape, both inside and outside of schools. It will also take far more than a few media briefings and targeted comments drawing upon the McKinsey & Company playbook on how to “manage” our way from pandemic to endemic.

Taylor Jackson: China’s continued ascendance is not guaranteed—and this makes the coming decade more dangerous

Commentary

China’s rise as a global power has been rapid and awe-inspiring. Since 1980, China has seen an 80-fold expansion in the size of its economy, and in the past decade, as its military might has strengthened, it has taken an increasingly assertive role in the Asia-Pacific region.

Together, China’s rise and the relative decline of the United States have led to a resurgence of what some have termed “great power competition,” where the world’s most powerful states increasingly compete to shape global security dynamics, international trade and investment flows, and the very norms and orders that govern state behaviour.

This new period may mark the end of American unipolarity and the coming of a more bipolar, or perhaps even a multipolar world. In this era, revisionist states like China, and to a lesser degree, a revanchist Russia, will increasingly challenge the U.S.-led liberal international order.

However, often laden within such views is an implicit assumption that China will continue to rise. But what if China’s ascendance doesn’t continue, and what if China’s rise begins to dramatically slow or stall altogether?

This potential reality is not given enough attention in current strategic thinking. Yet, the results could be just as dangerous as a world where the expansion of Chinese power continues, further contesting U.S. dominance.

Consider six internal and external factors that might abate China’s ascendance in the coming years:

  1. China’s economic growth in the last 30 years has no doubt been impressive. But the tendency to focus on the topline GDP numbers can mask how far behind China is compared to the United States in other important economic measures. While the overall size of China’s economy is now larger than the United States by some estimates, when comparing living standards (GDP per capita), the two countries are not even close. In 2020, the United States had a per capita GDP of over $60,000 (in 2017 international dollars). On the other hand, China’s was a little over $16,000 in the same year, which is less than that of Mexico. At the same time, Chinese economic growth is, in fact, slowing, dropping from over 10 percent in 2010 to less than 6 percent in 2019. These growth rates may still be higher than in the United States, but the downward trajectory should raise serious questions about just how much China’s economic heft will continue to expand in the near future.
  1. This leads to the second factor working against China’s continued ascendence. That is, China’s turn towards an even heavier hand of government in directing the economy. The story of China’s economic miracle is one of unleashing the power of markets and expanding global trade. Yet, under President Xi Jinping, China is heading in the opposite direction. In recent years, the Chinese state has brought in several new regulations on private firms and entrepreneurs, increasingly restrained the ability of Chinese firms to attract capital, and expanded the role of state-owned enterprises, all to assert further political control over the economy. This will not bode well for China’s future economic growth potential.
  1. A third internal force working against China is the continued and, in many cases, worsening state repression of the Chinese people—be that against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, the people of Hong Kong, or countless others. The Chinese state appears to be maintaining control for now. But it is unclear how much the Chinese people will tolerate such repression in the future and what effect this may have on China’s internal stability.
  1. Switching to the external environment, another factor working against China’s rise is the fact that the U.S. still maintains a preponderance of military power over China. The United States continues to spend more on defence than the next 11 countries combined, and it remains unmatched in its ability to project power at sea, in the air, or in its ability to “command the commons.”
  1. Before China can become a genuinely dominant global power, it will first seek to become dominant in the Indo-Pacific region. This will be no easy task. China is surrounded on three sides by other great powers, namely India, Japan, and Russia. Each of these countries has its own strategic interests in the region, which will increasingly clash with China’s expansion. Japan, for example, has actively indicated that Taiwan’s stability is in its own security interests, and just this past week, Japan and Australia signed a new defence pact. India and China have also recently clashed over disputed territory along their Himalayan border, resulting in casualties on both sides. Since then, China and India have increasingly militarized the region, and the dispute remains unsettled. China will have its hands full managing great power politics within its own region before expanding its power too far abroad.
  1. Finally, as China seeks to compete with the United States, it will be hard to do so unilaterally. The U.S. has a robust alliance network that President Biden is working to repair after the damage caused by the Trump presidency. Yet as analysts Ali Wyne and Ryan Hass make clear in a recent article, “China’s diplomacy is limiting its own ambitions.” Indeed, Xi Jinping’s “Wolf Warrior Diplomacy” and its tone of more assertive Chinese nationalism is not engendering China with allies. Canadians know this well, having experienced China’s “hostage diplomacy” in the case of the two Michaels.

If the above forces stunt China’s ascendance, we would be remiss in thinking that such a world is immediately safer than one where China continues to contest American dominance, although one would hope.

Internally, suppose the reality of Chinese power doesn’t match its expected role of regional or global dominance. In that case, this could prompt China to become more aggressive economically and militarily, recognizing that its time to be dominant may be running out.

Externally, there is a risk that the United States overestimates the threat from China by responding more aggressively to its rise than is necessary to secure its interests. Overly aggressive action by the United States that China perceives as threatening its security and survival could, in turn, provoke a military confrontation.

This recognition of the threat from overestimation should not be taken as a suggestion that China’s rise poses no threat to the security, economic standing, and liberal values of the United States, Canada, and their allies. The threat is real and well documented, and it’s one that the Canadian government appears to have not yet come to terms with.

But policymakers should be skeptical of the most hawkish hawks and the most dovish doves when thinking through how to respond to China’s rise and increasing assertiveness. In international politics, overreaction to threats can be just as deadly as underreaction.

At the very least, policymakers need to be increasingly cognizant that China’s continued ascendence is not guaranteed. When paired with the ongoing dynamics of great power competition, this reality means that the coming decade will likely be turbulent, and unlike anything seen in a very long time.