Dismissing pandemic fears shows smugness, not nuance
Since the beginning of 2022, certain public figures have commented on the Canadian media’s coverage of the COVID-19 Omicron variant and its effects. Voices like Jesse Brown and Jen Gerson have echoed the sentiment that pandemic fears are overblown, that lockdowns are unnecessary and “a minority of zealots kept us from herd immunity.” Whether this sentiment gains widespread traction or not, I want to comment on the pitfalls of such a mindset, especially when espoused on public platforms.
Admittedly, backlash to the proposed Omicron “fear-mongering” is somewhat understandable. Studies suggest Omicron is less severe and measuring the pandemic by hospitalizations and ICU numbers instead of case numbers can be a good argument (especially when testing has been restricted). There’s even meaningful analysis by Brown that the latest COVID-19 wave has simply continued to expose the frailty of our government institutions. Nora Loreto also has a cogent critique that I will get to later in this piece. In short: declaring “widespread panic is bad” is a fair sentiment in the same way that “we should all love each other” and “war is hell” are fair sentiments. They’re broadly acceptable, but they erase the realities of the world.
Furthermore, the broader argument boils down to a uniquely liberal attitude toward public health at this stage of the pandemic.
Freddie DeBoer, in a substack article shared by Gerson, offers a perfect example of the mixed-bag approach that this attitude entails. After a strange introduction comparing people who disagree with his opinion on the pandemic to people demanding everyone condemn Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, the piece manages to offer some salient points.
However, the article quickly devolves into half-baked opinions and justifications for the author’s laissez-faire approach to the pandemic. DeBoer employs classist “redneck” stereotypes to argue the futility of vaccine mandates in the US, cites studies from pro-capitalist institutions on the inefficacy of lockdowns and throws up his hands to state that maybe, just maybe, “the universe decided that a terrible disease was going to sweep through the world and kill millions of people,” and there was nothing we could do to stop it. Applying this logic to other natural events, I doubt DeBoer would agree that we should just leave the victims of the vicious tornadoes and their communities to their own Hell. But it’s what the universe decided, so there’s no point in attempting to mitigate it.
“In plenty of places it would be the dopey sheriff coming to a house and saying ‘Now Cletus, we talked about this,’ and the unvaccinated guy saying ‘now Jethro I done told you I weren’t gonna do it!’ and sheriff Cletus is like ‘well now listen here, I’ll tell you what, I’ll be back here in a fortnight, and if you ain’t vaxxed by then, I’m issuing a citation’”
-Fredrick DeBoer, shortly after discussing the Syrian Civil War
Anyone reading this incoherent argument from someone who claims to be a Marxist would be forgiven if they assumed DeBoer was a Democratic Party strategist and briefly excused themselves to vomit. The issue with addressing the pillars within these arguments is that their validity varies on a case-by-case basis. For example, it’s important to state there are studies that lockdowns can in fact work to save lives, but the argument that the USA does not have the infrastructure to employ effective vaccine mandates is valid (to which I would respond: build the infrastructure).
The article also discounts any other measures to keep people safe, preferring to offer a helping hand into the grave. Before Omicron, measures implemented in Vietnam resulted in safety for its population. After Omicron, details in the country are scarce, but Ho Chi Minh City is at least looking after recovering COVID patients. After 20 cases were detected in Tianjin, China is testing 14 million people. So far, Cuba has vaccinated over 90% of its population, aiming to get boosters to cover the country by the end of January, without any new lockdowns.
But addressing the article on these terms seems faulty, as DeBoer doesn’t actually seem to be tackling these issues head on and even sidesteps the purpose of his article in the final words (“start telling me what you want us to do” is the subheader and… well Fred, you insisted). Instead, he seems to be merely defending himself from personal attacks:
“But I’m not judging them for being scared. That’s a perfectly legitimate attitude to have in the middle of all of this. I am judging them for insisting that the rest of us be scared too. Because being scared never saved a single life.”
-DeBoer, unaware of the evolutionary purpose of “fear”
If I were responding solely to DeBoer’s argument, it would be frustrating on its own, but then Gerson felt the need to lend her support, even saying that there are “good odds” that Omicron will be our last wave of COVID-19. Despite the fact that an informed argument requires the burden of proof to be on the one making the argument, the only source I could personally find for this claim was this National Post article (not provided by Gerson), including informed speculation from Denmark authorities, citing herd immunity.
Herd immunity, also directly referred to by Brown, has been one of the oft-cited buzzwords used by politicians to justify the worst of their pandemic failures, as well as a sign of hope for the general population of a pandemic endpoint. However, at this stage, herd immunity looks to be increasingly unlikely. A mere 8.9 per cent of people in low-income countries have received one dose, only seven countries in Africa have reached the 40% threshold recommended by WHO.
At this rate, experts are predicting world vaccination in 2023, giving us another full year of new possible variants to take hold. Does this mean there will be undoubtedly be more waves? Not necessarily, but the rate at which variants emerge certainly doesn’t suggest Omicron is the last. Unvaccinated people in the global north are not responsible for the pandemic even though liberals like to pretend they are. Beyond this narrative, there also needs to be a decoupling of “unvaccinated” from “antivaxxers.” Work that, confusingly, Jesse Brown has also helped to do.
However, the issue is not just global. Nora Loreto, in a sobering half-agreement to these fears said on a December edition of CANADALAND‘s Short Cuts podcast that there is a distinct lack of public experts in the media’s reporting who can put the Omicron variant and its effects in perspective, pointing out that the Canadian news media instead chooses to favour scientists and their statements out of context.
“There’s no discussion about ‘what does increased virility mean for apartment dwellers?’ Which, almost half of the Canadian population lives in an apartment of some kind… or this is still a virus that disproportionately impacts disabled people, racialized people and poor people. Again, no conversation about what that then means…”
“It’s going to target individuals who were targeted from day one in the pandemic.”
Loreto is correct, and certainly the most credible of those pushing back against the “fear” being spread by media. But contrasting this with Brown, who hosts the episode, we see the underlying contradiction in calls for calm. What reason is there to be calm about Omicron when the government response to the pandemic has been catastrophic, marginalized people are being left by the wayside and the media has not held systemic failures to task?
Again, I feel the need to stress that these sentiments are not inherently dangerous, but I want to highlight that the reassurance these public figures are offering leads to dangerous outlooks.
Using Ontario as a case study, let’s review the systemic response. The milder symptoms in Omicron are paired with elevated transmission, but asymptomatic people can still spread the virus. Right now, they’re locked out of PCR testing in Ontario outside of a hospital or long-term care scenario. Ontario also followed the widely derided reduction in isolation from 10 days to five days that the CDC recommended. Yes, Jesse Brown is right to deride lockdowns when they ignore workplaces, choosing to focus on shutting down gyms, restaurants and movie theatres (a discussion on how to improve lockdowns to actually make them effective when they’re needed, however, is missing). Ontario still only supplies a minuscule three sick-days for workers, reimbursing the companies by providing them with public money. CERB is nowhere to be seen, replaced by a largely reduced Canada Worker Lockdown Benefit, which only provides $300 a week for a smaller pool of eligible candidates. Indigenous communities are being racked with COVID, and the government response has been predictably lackluster.
That’s not to mention the incredible strain on our health institutions. In some cases, ambulances are unavailable for up to an hour, healthcare staff are being worked beyond their limits, Bill 124 caps their wages and surgeries that could save lives are being cancelled.
There have also been studies that show, even with mild COVID, long-term effects have been reported in 25 per cent of cases. Omicron has the capacity to be a mass-disabling event, and with measurements being based on hospitalizations rather than case numbers, we may not be able to grasp the full picture of “long COVID”.
Beyond the direct effects of COVID on people’s livelihoods, there’s the ongoing eviction and opioid crises currently taking place, exacerbated by the pandemic. Problems which surely must elicit some form of urgency.
The news gets worse, because of course it does, as it was reported that Ontario schools may not notify parents if their child tests positive for COVID.
It’s also incredibly important to stress Loreto’s point that disabled, racialized and poor people are disproportionately affected by Omicron, like the rest of the COVID-19 pandemic. Are we to remain calm because this particular wave of the pandemic is also less likely to kill able-bodied, wealthy white people? Are Brown, Gerson and DeBoer so unafraid simply because they are in a low-risk group? While this is not being explicitly said, calls to “calm down” without acknowledging dangers posed to these populations equates to leaving them behind.
I don’t mean to spread terror, fear and a defeatist attitude with these facts, most of which probably wouldn’t be subject to dispute by these voices. But these are the facts. Faced with this overwhelming news, what human’s natural response wouldn’t be dread, fear, anger or any mix of these emotions?
Brown’s view is certainly the most tolerable of the three I’ve evaluated (I hope it’s clear Loreto’s is not included), but his opinion becomes the most frustrating upon learning that once raising the issue of Omicron panic and validity of reporting case numbers, he hasn’t addressed the devastating effect to our health system. Just an episode questioning the utility of reporting case numbers, and an approving “Good” to learning CBC British Columbia won’t be doing so. No mention of the previous issues I listed here.
If the sentiment I’m responding to could be boiled down into one sentence, it would be something along the lines of “It’s all well and good for you to be scared, but I, a smart person, am above that.” This sentiment which has been a pillar of liberalism the past century is finally seeping into discussions of the ongoing pandemic. Caring is fine, but don’t be too vocal or too negative about it.
These negative feelings exist even before addressing the amount of Canadians proudly posting their vacation getaways on social media amongst this chaos. While I don’t blame individuals for the failures of the system, I can understand why the story of influencers partying on a plane got so much negative attention. Many Canadians have been in a position to be as safe and reclusive as possible, choose to do so, and are confronted with those who choose the opposite. Discarding the validity of negative emotions of the pandemic, in a way, allows people to take part in an arrogant vacation of partying and carelessness without critically examining the results it brings.
One could argue the utility of feeling these negative emotions, and hope to direct them to action that would combat these measures, or lack thereof, imposed by our governments (I’m in this camp). But the voices demanding calm are instead aiming to discard them in favour of an unhelpful smugness that only serves to reassure those who are lower risk that their thought bubble is the correct one to be in. Gerson claims “panic and outrage are a performance; indicative of moral character and status,” then continues to perform the role of the measured, finger-wagging authority figure, telling the us that only some will be hospitalized, disabled or die. Please get back in your seats and live your life, your exhaustion and dread is annoying.
Symptoms of depression have skyrocketed in Canadians since the pandemic started. Those suffering while doing their best to highlight the system’s failure are doing so in the only ways they know how. They deserve more than to be derided and mocked for correctly not trusting our governments to protect us. Panic is likely not the most helpful response, true. But characterizing population’s fears as mass-hysteria, ignoring listener’s important rebuttals, then moving on to interviewing grifters speaks of the blinding ignorance afforded by privilege. These are the trappings of a comfortable mindset that feels reassuring, but in reality endangers our most vulnerable. Maybe a little fear is understandable right now.