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This pandemic changes everything

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Stephen Hume

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ON MY UPPER LEFT ARM, faint now after more than 70 years, is the white scar of a smallpox vaccination required before my entry into Canada.

I am a visitor from the time before the last big North American smallpox outbreak. It began in New York City, now lashed by the coronavirus, not long after I was born, still in the first half of the last century.

That event marked a signature response to the threat of pandemic. Authorities swiftly launched the largest mass vaccination in history—more than 6.3 million people in three weeks. The looming epidemic was snuffed out after just two deaths.

In 1947, American public health authorities were ready, had a plan and a vaccine. A far cry from the 2020 response in which authorities were unprepared and leaders took refuge from responsibility in magical thinking, a fascination with voodoo cures, denunciations of science, and xenophobic scapegoating while the virus marched through America.

I’m old enough to remember the fear of polio, the virus that left withered limbs and condemned paralyzed victims to life in an Iron Lung that did their breathing for them. The fear stalked parents taking their kids to summer swimming pools or sending them to camp and was a national crisis in the mid-1950s.

My mother put on a brave front. She never talked about her concern except to caution her kids about proper pool and playground hygiene. But the worry simmered. Her own father had been partially paralyzed by polio. She’d long lived in its gloomy shadow.

So I recall the sense of relief with which parents responded to a polio vaccine, the apprehensive line-ups for our elementary school inoculation and our sense of betrayal at our parents’ jocular enthusiasm. Now I read stories that ask the question: what if we get a vaccine for coronavirus and half the population refuses vaccination?

I thought about this as I bid farewell to the journalism class I taught at Vancouver Island University this spring, sending them off to complete their assignments on-line from France and India, Wellington and Campbell River.

What began for them as a classroom assignment in early January—find out what you can and write about this viral outbreak in Wuhan, China—had morphed into a major upheaval of their lives. Some raced to get home before national borders closed, others scrambled to find accommodation here before a possible lockdown, yet others worried about money running out.

I thought about how a world had just ended for them and how they would now have to invent a new one.

The principal ending was an assumed certainty. Most of them had never experienced a world in which existential threat lurks in the breath of friends or at restaurant buffets or on washroom door handles or in the seat next to them at a concert or a Mariners basketball game.

Now they are urged to maintain distance even after restrictions ease, to wear masks lest they be a silent carrier of pestilence to grandparents—or to old men like their journalism instructor.

This psychological shift represents a vast lurch backward into the near-forgotten. My own childhood of polio and, beyond that, into the pre-antibiotics childhood of my father—at 96 bearing his lockdown in assisted living with aplomb. Lethal microbes took two of his brothers, a sister, a step-sister, his father’s first wife and an uncle.

We live in medicine’s golden age and yet this tiny virus disrupts everything we took for granted about the economy, the power of science to protect us, our social lives, the institutions that sustain our social order, how we conduct ourselves in public and private.

Those students will return—those who do return—to a reconfigured education in a few months. Most classes will be virtual except for a few—labs, studio work—in which their physical presence is deemed essential.

And that may be only a small element of how the pandemic transforms the world. How will schools cope with social distancing? The guidelines, rendered as a circle, require 12.5 square metres per person but standard classrooms normally allot 2.5 square metres per student. Grade six arithmetic suggests that either classes must be radically smaller or classrooms radically larger.

Then there are the teachers themselves. If the plan is to open gradually while protecting high risk segments of the population, how will the plan address the fact that 38 percent of teachers fall into the high risk group more likely to suffer serious illness because they are over 50?

And how does a professional hockey team that puts 19,000 fans into a 44,000 square-metre arena deal with the fact that under social distancing rules they’ll need a 238,000 square-metre arena?

In this newly apprehensive social order, can air travel return to anything resembling normal? Airlines operate on minuscule profit margins earned by jamming passengers into fuselages which recirculate particle-laden air through passengers’ lungs many times on a long flight. Decreasing density can only mean ticket prices that return air travel to its niche as a luxury service for the very wealthy.

Similar problems beset public transit. Packed buses and trains are the preferred norm. They keep fares low for low income commuters. In Metro Vancouver, public transit moved about 435 million passengers annually to and from work in the city core, university, college and high school campuses and to shopping districts. How travel at that density might continue in the age of social distancing and the coronavirus is a conundrum. And yet it seems impossible for those commuters to move to private vehicles without strangling the city.

As air travel and public transit go, so goes tourism. It produced $1.7 billion in provincial taxes in 2018 and contributed $8.3 billion to provincial GDP. In Victoria, tourism generated about 17,000 jobs, close to $500 million in wages and almost $700 million in GDP. Changes to this sector promise huge impacts on the city’s economic health and well-being.

Work itself seems destined for enormous upheaval.

How many of those forced to work from home during the closing of office buildings, whose tight floor plans and closed ventilation systems work like giant virus distributors, will continue work at home? The arithmetic of social distancing suggests many won’t be going back to the office soon.

That brings its own economic fallout. If corporations aren’t simply to offload office overhead costs onto home officer workers, tax structures must be reworked.

The global economy itself is in the throes of transformation. The half-century mantra of Neo-liberal fiscal austerity in service of globalization seems dead. Governments everywhere suddenly rediscover the virtues of Keynesian spending powers.

And assumptions about the efficiencies of bigness and vertical integration and the inefficiencies of small, local and dispersed now implode in the face of disruptions to global supply chains.

If meat processing in Canada concentrates in three plants and they are contaminated with coronavirus outbreaks, the efficiency of size suddenly transmogrifies into a horrifying inefficiency for the national food supply. The small local and travelling abattoirs that were once common now look like not such a bad idea.

Yes, pandemics change everything, and the world my former university students have just inherited will be extraordinarily different from the one they knew in their December break.

 

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