Tag Archive: coronavirus

My latest: washing your hands is smart politics

A press conference.

In the Spring of 2003, the coronavirus variant called SARS was raging, killing many Canadians, making them sick. So Ontario’s health minister, Tony Clement, held a press conference.

Standing in front of the assembled media, this is all he did: he washed his hands.

Washing your hands thoroughly, Clement said, was one of the best ways to keep the virus from circulating.

That’s it. A press conference about washing your hands.

Some of us Ontario Liberals, preparing for an election that was just a few months away, snickered. A press conference to show people how to wash their hands? Seriously?

The next day, we weren’t laughing so much. Our campaign manager – a pollster – told us that the Progressive Conservative government’s numbers, which had been lagging for months, surged after Clement’s press conference.

The Tories became more popular, he said. A lot more popular. Because of a press conference about washing one’s hands.

Voters really liked what Tony Clement did in his press conference, the pollster said. They didn’t think a cabinet minister washing his hands was in any way funny.

“They think it’s what government should be doing in a situation like this,” he said.

Seventeen years later, the question is relevant once again. What is the proper role of government as coronavirus’ variant, CORVID-19, sickens and kills thousands around the globe? What should government, and our leaders, do?

Donald Trump, the titular president of the United States, says the virus will be gone when it gets warmer. His designated fake news spokesperson, Kelly-Anne Conway, says that the sickness has been contained. His vice-president says that a vaccine is imminent.

It’s all lies, however. Coronavirus will not dissipate simply because Winter is turning to Spring. Nor is a vaccine at hand – most experts agree it is more than a year away. And nor has the virus been confined. It is, instead, spreading everywhere: across the United States, people are dying, and states are declaring themselves to be states of emergency.

In Canada, it is slightly different. To his credit, Justin Trudeau has not personally made any dubious or reckless claims. Instead, he has left those to his ministers. His Minister of Health, for example, initially said the coronavirus was not something to worry about. That’s what she said.

“The risk to Canadians is low,” Patty Hajdu said at the end of January. “We’re working with provinces and territories to ensure we’re prepared.”

The risk, however, is clearly not “low.” It is significant, experts say. Coronavirus is like the flu, say the experts, except on steroids. It is far more deadly than the flu, too, and the flu kills about 4,000 Canadians every year. Do the math.

In any event, that’s what Patty Hajdu said. A few days later, she said something entirely different.

Go stockpile food and medicine, Hajdu said. Go hoard it, in effect.

“Low risk,” one day. “Hoard food and medicine,” a few day later.

So, people started to do just that. At Costcos and Walmarts, from sea to sea to sea, some frightened Canadians dutifully emptied shelves of toilet paper and disinfectant wipes and food. They heard what Patty Hajdu said, and they took her advice.

Appalling and foolhardy: the bookends to Patty Hajdu’s communications strategy – which is, distilled down to its base elements, “don’t worry at all but worry a lot” – are simply that. The Canadian government’s approach isn’t as bad, perhaps, as America’s. But it’s close.

Here’s the thing: none of us are experts, except the experts. With people dying, with people getting really sick, it is critical that governments and politicians heed the experts. It is important that they carefully weigh what they say and do. It is imperative that they don’t needlessly alarm people, or recklessly dismiss the risks.

Want to help out, Messrs. Trump and Trudeau? Hold a press conference about how to wash our hands properly.

That, at least, you can do, right?

The racist face of disease

[I literally forgot I wrote this for Maclean’s during SARS, many years ago. A watchful reader posted it on Twitter, so here it is again.]

THE MORNING SUBWAY is usually jammed with bodies. Dozens of Toronto commuters stand wherever they can find a few inches of space, swaying as the train heads south. Seats are hard to come by during rush hour on the Yonge Street line—but not today. In a subway car packed to the doors, there are more than a few places to sit. And all of the empty seats are beside people of Asian descent. An explanation of sorts is found in a tabloid headline, on display for all to see: “FOURTH SARS DEATH IN GTA.”

The unspoken calculus is simple. SARS originated in the Far East; most of those afflicted with it, to date, have been Asian. Ipso facto, empty seats on the crowded subway; once-bustling Chinese restaurants virtually deserted; trips to Chinatown avoided or put off.

Welcome to the SARS Spring of 2003: in Toronto—as in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and New Brunswick, where confirmed or suspected SARS cases have been reported—Canadians seem less preoccupied with faraway Iraq, and more with the affliction bearing the name severe acute respiratory syndrome. “To Canadians, it feels like a dangerous, uncertain time,” says John Wright, senior vice-president of the Ipsos-Reid polling firm. “There is a deep anxiety. When there is a great unknown, like SARS, you will always see great anxiety.”

By now, most of us have read and retained the relevant SARS facts. Over 2,000 cases identified in more than a dozen countries. More than 80 deaths, with China and neighbouring countries hit the worst. Seven SARS deaths in Canada. The Italian doctor who first warned the world about SARS was, chillingly, killed by it. And, as documented in every Canadian newspaper and broadcast, the disease arrived with people who had been in Asia.

Of the little we know about SARS, it is known that it will make anyone sick, given the chance. It does not discriminate. Unfortunately, people do. In recent days, SARS has made life more complicated for Canadians of Asian descent. It is seen in the discreet shunning of people of Asian descent on subway cars, in airport lounges and hospital waiting rooms.

Says Cynthia Pay, president of the Chinese Canadian National Council: “Broader society is scapegoating this as a Chinese disease—and within the Chinese community itself, people are afraid. It’s making Chinese Canadians feel very vulnerable, that they’re not in the mainstream.”

SARS is manifesting itself on the unpleasant fringes of Canadian society, too. The Freedom Site is the principal Internet home for neo-Nazis and white supremacists in Canada. It attracts thousands of cybervisitors every day, drawn by its nauseating menu of Holocaust denial, anti-Semitism, homophobia and intolerance. Operated by a supporter of the pro-Nazi Heritage Front, the Freedom Site has seized upon SARS with a vengeance, pointing to the disease as justification for its anti-immigrant polemics.

In one recent posting, a far-right leader calls SARS “another pernicious Oriental import.” He writes: “Remember next time you’re sitting in an airplane, riding a bus or huddling scrunched in a Toronto subway car and find some Oriental horking or hacking near you. IMMIGRATION CAN KILL YOU!” The white supremacist then goes on to demand “monitoring” of Asian travellers to Canada.

The same tone is being adopted elsewhere. On the largest far-right Web site, the U.S.based Stormfront, a female Canadian skinhead enthusiast writes: “[Close] our borders! This wouldn’t have happened if border security was stronger, and it wouldn’t have happened if there were immigration laws that affected more than whites!”

Fanning prejudice with fears about epidemics is nothing new: disease and discrimination have worked in tandem throughout human history. For centuries, occurrences of leprosy, plague and syphilis have been manipulated to legitimize expressions of hatred against a given society’s favoured victims of the moment. Following their rise to power in Germany, for example, Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party aggressively promoted what they called “racial hygiene.”

A by-product of the eugenics movement, racial hygiene was a pseudo-science that identified and studied biological factors the Nazis felt were potential threats to the purity of the Aryan “race.” Under Hitler’s 1933 eugenics law, thousands of men, women and children were forcibly sterilized (or murdered) because they suffered from schizophrenia, manic-depressive psychoses, epilepsy, Huntington’s disease, blindness, deafness, severe physical deformity, even alcoholism.

The Nazis are largely gone, but the racialprofiling impulse is not. Most recently, gays have been stigmatized due to the AIDS virus, with their access to jobs, benefits and international travel limited. Says pollster Wright: “The perception is that SARS is contained to one group of people. It should be remembered that pathogens know no race or creed.”

Will that fact be recognized? Wright doesn’t know for certain, yet: his firm was awaiting the results of its first poll on SARS.

But one thing is beyond dispute: as we make our way onto the subway or bus tomorrow morning, we should know that SARS is more than a test of our science: it is also, increasingly, a test of our values as a people.

Author and lawyer Warren Kinsella writes often about hate. To respond: letters@macleans.ca