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Janet Bufton: The pandemic shows we expect too much of governments and too little of ourselves


The saying in early 2020 was that there are no libertarians in a pandemic. 

It’s been a disappointing time to be a libertarian. It’s not that there are no libertarian responses to a public health crisis like the Covid-19 pandemic. But those responses turned out to be unpopular, even where they seemed realistic.

The political right, including many libertarians, embraced the idea that Covid-19 is not a serious enough virus to warrant a serious response. The political left had no time for the idea that there was any role for individual responsibility. And an opportunity for libertarians to contribute meaningfully was squandered. 

Mandates to the left of me, minimizing to the right

Since the beginning of 2020, I’ve changed my mind about how much Canadians are willing to give up to help each other. 

Skeptics of big, active government should acknowledge that there are problems that don’t have individual solutions and need collective action to respond. The Covid-19 pandemic is an excellent example: Even if I have the resources to wear high-quality masks, to stay home when sick, and to test diligently, I depend on other people to do the same. 

But I was unrealistic about how much even people who want society to respond together will do voluntarily to help each other if that help costs them something unless everyone is forced to do it together. As though nothing any of us does on our own matters at all. 

It’s normal and necessary for individual action to support collective action. We have municipal waste collection and municipal workers who clean our streets and parks, but we’re still expected not to litter, and we act as enforcers when we call out people who do. We live in a democracy, so we need to convince others to support policy changes if we want those changes to stick. Sometimes government policy change helps persuade people, but this time it didn’t.

By relying almost completely on mandates, especially in Ontario, we’ve sidestepped important parts of social change that would have supported “living with Covid.” We didn’t update “what’s normal?” or “what’s polite?” We let bylaw officers show up instead. It’s no wonder that masking disappeared so quickly when mandates went out the window.

Almost as troubling was how the attitude of “mandates-only” contributed to politicizing the pandemic. If the only response to a dangerous virus is government mandates, then the stakes of politics become very high. 

On the political Right, we’ve seen a rise in those who deny the severity of the virus as a way of denying their responsibility to do anything about it. I think the belief at the root of this response is the same as the belief that supports mandates: if Covid-19 is a public health threat, then sweeping government mandates are needed to fight it. Those who buy that but don’t want to change their own behaviour have a strong incentive to believe there’s nothing to worry about.

It has been maddening to see those who take up the call of “Freedom!” deny that there’s any problem worth worrying about. There is nothing small-government about the position that when there is not a problem, the government shouldn’t do anything to solve it. The case for libertarianism rests on the belief that hard, important problems need individual action, innovation, and buy-in. Not a belief that we live in a world without hard, important problems.

The polarization of pandemic issues is so severe that we can’t even agree on what “doing something” or “moving on” look like. Wearing a mask, testing a few times, and working remotely when sick but otherwise returning to normal could qualify as either to the right person. The inability to agree makes it harder to be anything but angry at each other. 

Voluntary responses are good, even if they’re not sufficient

What would have been libertarian policy responses to the pandemic? First and foremost—though some might not call it a policy response—is significant voluntary mitigation for the sake of one another and especially for the sake of the most vulnerable. 

It sounds unrealistic now, but the remarkable solidarity shown in the early days of the pandemic suggests that Canadians had the capacity not so long ago to do on our own what is generally considered prudent mitigation now: masking in certain scenarios, testing appropriately, and staying home while sick. We were also willing, not so long ago, to accept that those who can most easily make changes should take on the burden they can for the sake of those with fewer options, whether for socioeconomic or medical reasons. 

Somewhere along the way we flipped the onus. During lockdowns, many who could continue earning an income from home, or whose childcare or education was not disrupted, seemed to many more concerned with implementing the right policy response than about those whose lives were upended. When lockdowns ended, those who had weathered them well felt like they’d done their part, while those who suffered were desperate to return to normal. Today, people with many options are getting “back to normal,” while those who cannot take time off work or for whom the virus is the most dangerous feel left on their own to navigate the continuing pandemic.

If you’re more Covid-cautious, you’ve probably experienced the awkward feeling of asking someone to act differently to match your comfort level. It never became a matter of politeness to ask what someone is comfortable with or to mask or cancel plans even when it’s inconvenient. In a near-universe, it’s a faux pas to wrongly assume someone is as relaxed as you are, and internal feelings of shame help keep everyone safer. Mandates can’t go on forever. But politeness is not only lasting but self-enforcing. 

That near-universe is a more humane one. We’ve expected too much of governments and too little of ourselves.

Second, public health measures should never have been so politicized. It’s easier, when you believe that people can—and more importantly, will—meaningfully respond to a community problem, not to worry about what you imagine will be the implications of a recommendation to public policy

N-95 and similar masks have always been the best option for protecting yourself and others, even when they were in short supply. PCR and molecular testing are important for understanding how many infections are in the community, while at-home rapid testing—a poor way of checking for infection—can help us test for infectiousness and decide what to do. More and ongoing voluntary testing and isolation should always have complemented public health efforts to understand the virus. Air quality, exchange, and filtration matter, probably not only for Covid-19 but for fighting illness generally, even if updating it is expensive. Plexiglas is as useless at stopping Covid-19 from spreading through the air as it is at keeping cigarette smoke in a restaurant’s smoking section, even if we’ve installed it everywhere. 

Today, public health advice doesn’t aim to guide us to make the most informed decisions based on what’s realistic for each of us but presents a single guideline of what’s considered reasonably informed, motivated by government policy. For example, instead of encouraging repeated at-home testing to support individual decision-making, Ontario has shifted away from testing at all and now provides guidance based on symptoms, which are not necessarily tied to infectiousness, because the government changed public testing policies.  

The solidarity that motivated almost all of us to stay home and look out for each other early in the pandemic and the effectiveness of what we’re doing to fight the virus going forward have both been undermined by the polarization of acceptable public health responses. 

Finally, policies fast-tracking the development of vaccines, tests, and therapeutics while still ensuring their safety should have been kept in place and should be the focus at this point. The mRNA vaccines are medical miracles that have saved millions of lives. But they are not sufficient for getting “back to normal.” Keeping people alive and out of hospital is obviously important, but it’s not good enough. Even when Covid isn’t dangerous, it’s often disruptive and miserable. 

We need vaccines that stop not only severe illness but transmission, and we need them as quickly as possible. We need better and more widely available therapeutics that help people feel better and stave off long Covid. And testing should by now be cheaper, more available, and less invasive. That we don’t have these things is a policy choice, not an inevitability. Some people will worry about the speed of development, but many others would be eager to adopt new pharmaceutical responses, providing real-world evidence that they are safe and effective. Voluntary adoption supported by less political public health messaging would help depoliticize vaccines and treatment. 

These are suggestions libertarians should embrace, but they don’t have to be implemented as a libertarian would. They would all support and could be supported by government policy responses. Paid leave would allow more workers to stay home when sick. Government-provided testing could support people testing to return to work, school, or childcare. Public health could shift its focus to messaging on gold-standard behaviour (with variations based on life circumstances) and to the relatively intensive process of reaching people hesitant about vaccines and those who do not have easy access to them. 

And governments don’t only have to get out of the way when it comes to more and better pharmaceutical responses. They could support new drugs and vaccines with research funding or rewards. Operation Warp Speed might have been the only good thing to come from Donald Trump. Compared to lockdowns, crippled hospitals, sickness, and death, it was also the cheaper option. 

All of these changes, both government and voluntary, would support a better pandemic response. Whether or not you believe voluntary action could ever be sufficient, increasing our willingness and ability to rely on it would make our response to public health problems more durable, more robust, and more humane.

Jerry Amernic: Forgetting to remember


A number of years ago I had this idea for a novel about the last living survivor of the Holocaust. He’d be a 100-year-old man born in Poland in 1939 which means the novel had to be set in the near future. In 2039. And that’s what I did. It was called The Last Witness, but the kicker is that in the year 2039 people are so ignorant of past history that they know little or nothing about the Holocaust.

I didn’t go about this blindly. I wanted to learn first-hand about the experiences of child survivors and got involved with a group of them at the Baycrest Centre in Toronto. One of the women I met just happened to be in a famous photo of children who were liberated by the Red Army at Auschwitz in January 1945. In the photo she was nine years old.

Over the years I have read a great deal about World War II, Nazi Germany, and the Holocaust. Probably the most notable book was Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer, a 1,500-page panoramic history of Hitler and the Nazis which I went through at least three times. But I only began to write my novel after reading Sir Martin Gilbert’s The Holocaust.

Gilbert, who passed away in 2015, was not only the official biographer of Winston Churchill but an eminent British scholar widely considered to be the world’s foremost historian of what happened to European Jewry in the 1940s. Indeed, you don’t get knighted by the Queen for plagiarizing the work of others. I even met the man, and not once but twice.

The first time he was teaching at the University of Western Ontario (now called Western University) in London, Ontario and I took advantage. I attended his lecture and then asked if we might go for a coffee. And we did. His wife also joined us. At this meeting I was already well into my novel and told him about the premise which by the way he bought hook, line, and sinker. He even gave me an idea I wound up using. He said to “create” an event prior to 2039 which would further advance the hopeless ignorance of the masses. Presto! The Christian Holocaust of 2029 in which Islamic fundamentalists in Syria wind up killing thousands of Christians.

Fast forward to a writers’ conference in New York where I met a literary agent from California. He read the manuscript and signed me up but after a year of rejections from mainstream publishers he wound up publishing it himself through an imprint he ran. One publisher who turned it down did so because their senior editor didn’t buy my concept about people knowing so little about the Holocaust in the not-too-distant future. And so I made a video.

A videographer and I did the proverbial man-on-the-street (today it would be gender-free individual-on-the-street) interviews with university students at a Canadian institution that would go unnamed. I asked them questions not only about the Holocaust, but World War II, the Allies, D-Day, what have you. The upshot of all this was that most of them knew next to nothing. How many Jews perished in the Holocaust? No idea. When did it take place? Nope. You ever heard of Mengele? Who? How about the Final Solution? What’s that? They didn’t even know who FDR and the aforementioned Churchill were, and if I asked them to rhyme off the names of the Allied nations I might get responses like “Germany and Russia.”

For me none of this was surprising. I had spent years as an instructor at Humber College, Seneca at York, and other post-secondary educational institutions and was aware that young people know virtually nothing about history. And there are reasons for this state of affairs. Yes, I realize there is only so much time in the day, and the young—Millennials, the X, Y, and Z generations, and even generations that don’t yet have a letter of identity ascribed to them—are busy with lots to do and all that. But the number one reason they are so ignorant of the past is that our school system has largely abandoned the teaching of history, not to mention other things like geography and grammar, but those are subjects for other articles.

Well, my video ran just under nine minutes and went viral. When I last checked it had been downloaded 100,000 times all over the world. Organizers for a major conference about the Holocaust that would take place in Poland showed it to kick things off on the first day. Yad Vashem, the centre of Holocaust education in Jerusalem, put it in their film library. I have had writer friends with many books to their name who themselves initially questioned my idea about people knowing so little about the Holocaust who were absolutely shocked when they saw the video.

It is a sorry state we’re in when one can read about a young person who dresses up as a Nazi at a Halloween party and fails to see anything wrong with it. I seem to recall that Prince Harry (is he still a prince?) did something like this when he was a teenager.

It is a sorry state we’re in when someone with a Master’s degree no less can run for a major political party in a federal election in this country and post jokes about Auschwitz and they too don’t see anything wrong with it.

It is a sorry state we’re in when a pathetically large segment of the population questions the veracity of the Holocaust in the year 2022, and I won’t bore you with countless surveys by the likes of the Gallup organization among others that bear this out.

The situation with young people and what they know of history is pathetic and even more than that it’s dangerous. Dangerous because we can all take the prescient wisdom of George SantayanaThis statement has also been attributed to Edmund Burke and others. who said that those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.

The eminent military scholar and historian J. L. Granatstein is a contributor to The Hub. His book Who Killed Canadian History? was first published in 1998 and I can only imagine things have worsened since then. But this is what Granatstein said about history and the young at that time:

Most young people cannot place important global historical figures such as Winston Churchill or Franklin Roosevelt. Hitler is all but unknown, and Stalin and Mao Zedong are names they may have heard once or twice. Few are able to give the dates of the First or Second World War, or the combatants, or even which side we were on. And beyond this century, their ignorance is complete. In effect, most students are culturally illiterate about everything beyond their generation’s immediate experience.

Which brings me to today. November 11th. Remembrance Day. No doubt there are countless young people wearing poppies because they know they are supposed to wear them so they don’t forget. But how do you forget something you never learned in the first place? Unfortunately, many of them haven’t the foggiest clue what those poppies are all about and that is very sad.

If I were a soldier today I would take whoever it is who puts the school curriculum together and sit them in a chair. Then I would show my video and ask them to account for themselves. In fact, I would take the entire group of these people from every province and territory in this country, and let’s include every elected minister of education in Canada as well, and wait to see what they have to say. I wouldn’t be alone. I would be waiting along with our war dead, not to mention their surviving family members, and that goes for all those who perished in the Great War, the Korean War, Afghanistan, and World War II.

“Do you know what happened at Normandy on D-Day?” It was a question I asked in my video of two first-year university students, graduates of the Ontario high school system which we all support with our taxes.

“No,” they said.

Lest we forget, indeed.