It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, wrote Charles Dickens in the opening of his novel, A Tale of Two Cities. Those words seem eerily prophetic when read today. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought out the best and the worst in humanity. Every day the news brings us stories of people rising to the challenges to save their communities, to show courage, spine, and care for others; and yet many others falling to their lowest, succumbing to wild conspiracies and imaginary threats, and protesting even the mildest restrictions.
Balanced against the sacrifices made by frontline workers and those labelled “essential” workers who keep our world going while they face greater risks from infection are the acts of the selfish, the conceited, and the downright stupid who protest wearing masks and scream that lockdowns assault their rights to buy doughnuts or get their nails done. And while researchers race to find a vaccine, con artists, Talibangelists, and New Age scammers promote conspiracies, and sell “cures” to enrich themselves while endangering their customers.
“…it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way… “
Anyone who uses social media – and few don’t have at least some connection online – is aware of the madness, the conspiracies, the crazy explosion of paranoia, fear, and pseudoscience on the internet, much of it within political or pseudo-religious (Talibangelist) machinations to further polarize an already confused and divided populace.
It strains every boundary of adult belief to imagine a connection between coronavirus, 5G wireless, and Bill Gates, yet there are many so gullible and evidently dim-witted they believe in these impossible fantasies. Yet gullible fools have even burned down 5G cell towers in the UK and burned or torn down other countries because they believe in this codswallop.
It beggars belief that people would be so selfish and stupid as to refuse to wear a mask for a short shopping trip to a local store when they clearly know the risks that not doing so presents to themselves, to everyone they encounter, and to their family and friends when they return. The mind boggles that anyone is so dim and dense as to label the pandemic as a hoax, as if catching it were no more consequential than getting a common cold.
Trolls in state-sponsored “meme factories” and conspiracy-generating operations in Russia, North Korea, and other (mostly autocratic) nations, feed this madness to keep it going and grow the divisiveness and balkanization of Western cultures. And we buy the dreck they’re selling because culturally we’re easily fooled by shiny trinkets.
The pandemic has seen a dramatic rise in hate groups, domestic terrorists, racists, armed protestors, and pro-fascist movements (the anti-antifa movement). While mostly visible in the USA, these far-right/anti-democracy groups even have Canadian supporters. By refusing to denounce these groups, the Trump administration has empowered and strengthened them.
The pandemic world is increasingly divided by people who care about others and people who care about only themselves. People who wear masks when shopping, people who socially distance (even outdoors), people who accept lockdown restrictions (even when they affect their personal lives), and who show compassion for those have been put out of work from the closures are pitted against those who protest these rules, who demand access to all conveniences, who won’t wear masks or distance, who think more of their own conveniences and pleasures than the risks they pose to others.
We are not merely in the midst of a pandemic: we are in a culture war. The result will define the state of nations in the near future.
While the separation often appears to be along left-right political lines (a split that pits community need against individual want), there is also a division along generational (or maturity) lines: the younger (and the less mature) people seem to be unwilling to accept any restrictions, even the most minor, and won’t cooperate in helping the community where doing so might impinge even minutely on their personal convenience or pleasure. It’s not an us-them division as much as an us-me split.
People are ignoring the restrictions, the distancing, the science and the medical experts because these impose upon their pleasure-seeking and convenience. Nearby, flocks of covidiots filled the beaches in Wasaga Beach in defiance of common sense, conscience, and caring (few, if any, even wearing masks). Our increasingly inept premier has refused to close the beaches despite the risks of these covidiots.
Premier Ford is not the only politician who has fumbled their response to the pandemic. The COVID-19 response has also brought out the best and worst in our political leaders, and polarized many parties and politicians. In most democracies, social media has already created a divisive political environment, but the pandemic has exacerbated it. One only need to look at the USA to see this writ large, but the situation and toxic politics in four democracies are similar (as noted in The Wire):
Four democratic countries – the United States, Brazil, the UK and India – are among the top five in the world in the infections league table (Russia being the fifth)… These four countries taken together account for 46% of those infected globally and 48.5% global deaths… The leaders of these countries – Trump, Bolsonaro, Modi and Johnson – from different continents, heading very different countries, and with different political, economic and social backgrounds, share their identification as “populist leaders” of functioning democratic systems… They are essentially divisive persons. Their key strategy… is “dividing citizens against each other and blaming minorities for all sorts of problems”. Their core support base is founded on a narrow and specific communitarian basis that is then clothed in a unified, monolithic, undifferentiated “cultural” ethos. On the same lines, “the Other”, unified on race and/ or faith basis, is also shaped as monolithic and defined by essential negative traits – criminality, lack of patriotic ardour, gross misconduct, and even poor personal hygiene.
These and other rightwing leaders and their followers have positioned pandemic restrictions as assaults on “freedom” – ignoring the fundamental concept of the greater good. In Florida, for example, angry antisocial, anti-mask protestors shouted at a protest to their municipal councillors how any law requiring them to behave civilly and help protect their fellow residents was tyranny.
These protesters, as well as those who have ignored restrictions, or who have hoarded goods, or who believe in the outlandish conspiracies around COVID-19, have all been aptly dubbed “covidiots” by the media.
Rightwing protesters easily find champions among anti-science Republican politicians (yes, that’s a truism…), like uber-covidiot, Senator Paul Rand, who despite actually getting COVID-19, publicly stated “We shouldn’t presume that a group of experts somehow knows what’s best for everyone… It’s important to realize that if society meekly submits to an expert, and that expert is wrong, a great deal of harm may occur.” Rand’s earlier public behaviour while he was waiting for test results has been criticized as irresponsible and reckless. But then, like all Republicans, he cares more about money than people.
Rightwing protestors push individual “rights” (rights to behave as they see fit, without regard to the health or safety of others) over any, even modest collective effort to flatten the curve and limit the spread of the disease.
Similar fights have been (and are still being) fought against wearing motorcycle helmets or seatbelts, against smoking, against vaccinations, against gun control – often fought by the same people who would institute draconian controls and restrictions on women’s bodies, reproduction, and abortion, or who want totalitarian (pseudo-Christian: i.e. Talibangelist) laws against any of the LGBTQ.
Rightwing leaders also decry the lack of business and income that lockdown and distancing incur; this exposes their fundamental belief that, for the right, profits are more important than people. They happily accept the spread of disease and the subsequent deaths and stress on the workers and healthcare systems as long as the money rolls in.
They also resist paying workers extra for having to be at their beck and call in businesses open to the public (in a similar vein, neoliberals (more properly called neolibertarians because they are spawn of the vapid Ayn Rand ideology ) resist paying workers a liveable minimum wage).
These leaders in the four nations mentioned above also attempted to deflect blame from their own actions by pointing at others – the World Health Organization (WHO) for example,. That’s the act of a weak, irresponsible, and immature leader, but it’s hardly the first example of that in their behaviour.
To say no nation was prepared for the pandemic, and excuse these leaders from the blame of their abysmal, floundering responses is itself inexcusable. There have been plans and preparations for this sort of event since the 2002 SARS outbreak – the USA has had a playbook for pandemics since George Bush, updated during the Obama administration. It, like the advice of numerous medical and epidemiological experts, was simply ignored (the Republican party has gained the nickname Repugnican for its vile toadying to Trump’s inept and dangerous actions over the pandemic and other issues).
In Canada, we have been reasonably fortunate to have a centrist government concerned about the welfare of the nation. That doesn’t mean that the governmental response has been perfect or flawless; just that the effort by the Liberals (attempting to work in collaboration with the other parties) have been focused mostly on protecting and improving the health and wellbeing of the Canadian people, rather than fretting about how they affect poll ratings and ideology (as in the USA). Our Conservative opposition has, predictably, used the time not to offer supportive suggestions or constructive counterpoint, but to bitch, whine, moan, and criticize the government at every step, mostly about the loss of profits and business rather than the loss of lives. Such is the way the right has also devolved in this country: profits before people.
Not that Canadians have responded individually much better than their American counterparts. While young people in the USA hold COVID-19 parties with a cash reward for the first one to get it (infected people are being encouraged to show up so everyone can get it), Canadians flocked to popular vacation spots like Wasaga Beach and acted just like their neighbours down south: irresponsible, selfish, and inconsiderate. Stupidity and selfishness aren’t limited to Americans.
The biggest failure in Canada, I believe, has been not to pass more stringent restrictions and requirements at all levels of government, from municipal through provincial to federal. A federal mandatory mask policy would have saved hundreds, if not thousands of lives had it been implemented quickly (similar seatbelt laws have saved thousands of lives since they were passed by the provinces – 1976 in Ontario, but not until 1987 in Alberta). The too-soon opening of some industries and public spaces has proven disastrous in the USA – but most Canadian governments seem not to be learning from those mistakes. Still, Canada’s situation is vastly better than that of the USA, even when measured in a per capita basis.
Although a mask requirement could have been province-wide, the provincial government failed our residents by refusing a request by mayors to make it so. Toronto, so far, is the only Ontario municipality with a mask bylaw. It’s doubtful that smaller municipalities like Collingwood will get such a bylaw because that would require strong, focused, civic-minded leadership by our representatives. And a basic understanding of things like biology and medicine.
The pandemic has underscored the lack of leadership, lack of planning, and egregious lack of scientific or medical intelligence in many municipalities. Our councillors were not elected for either their brains, their knowledge, or wisdom, of course, so they didn’t have particularly high expectations to live up to. Still, the floundering and stumbling in a time of crisis only exacerbate their embarrassing flaws.
Every time I go to buy groceries, I see the division: the caring, considerate wear masks, avoid getting too close, obey the one-way signs in aisles. Some wear gloves, too (although the efficacy of gloves is still debated). The selfish, inconsiderate, the immature, and the irresponsible brazenly show they don’t give a damn about others by not wearing one. It’s that simple.
Wearing a mask has become the visible symbol of social responsibility, maturity, and caring. It’s also an IQ test; not just for the pandemic, but for people’s awareness of science, medicine, politics, and how the world works. Smart, caring people wear them. Covidiots don’t.