Souradet Shaw is an assistant professor in the University of Manitoba’s Department of Community Health Sciences, and the Canada Research Chair in Program Science, and Global Public Health (Tier II).
I am an epidemiologist with public-health training. With the understanding that individual health is dictated by a society as a whole, I study how vulnerability to infectious diseases is a product of what people do and their interactions with others.
I am also a refugee. When I was 5, my mother whisked my family out of war-torn Laos. Thanks to her perseverance, we survived two refugee camps, and found safety in Winnipeg; four of her children went on to receive a university education.
Hers is a classic story: of someone who defied the odds and took it upon herself to find a better life. But to view her story exclusively that way would be to ignore the complex web of trajectories, perseverance and happenstance of society as a whole – that helped make her story possible.
Here in Manitoba, Premier Brian Pallister – who recently announced that he would be stepping down at some point before the 2023 election – would prefer to ignore that web. He has explained how his father, a polio survivor, pulled himself up “by his bootstraps,” and through sheer determination learned to walk again. This story was meant to illustrate the individual responsibilities Manitobans needed to uphold for a “post-pandemic” world.
Mr. Pallister’s comments align with the individualistic ethos that has pervaded his government’s COVID-19 response. In this interpretation, Manitoba’s failure to contain COVID-19 was not the result of public-policy failure, but of individuals not being on “Team Manitoba”. In our second wave, Mr. Pallister stated that “a government can’t protect you from this virus.” In our third wave, the province’s deputy chief public health officer suggested Manitobans should “look in the mirror” when asked who was accountable for Manitoba’s overwhelmed ICUs.
Those words made me think, again, of my mother. She worked as a seamstress in Winnipeg’s inner-city. She was paid hourly, with minimal benefits. In the language of today, my mother was a racialized essential labourer, and she would have been especially vulnerable to COVID-19.
I think of the choices my mother would have had to make if she got sick – between making enough to feed her family or staying home. I can’t help but think that the same determination that helped her survive a failed state, and that saw her eventually succeed in bringing her family to a country she’d never even heard of, would have made her disregard any sickness so that she could provide for us. And I can’t help but imagine how she would have felt if our leaders asked her to “look in the mirror” for her decision.
Throughout the pandemic, Mr. Pallister has made individualism his message. Instead of proactively closing workplaces and providing adequate compensation for workers and businesses, his government moved the goalposts in defining workplace risk. Instead of ensuring proper ventilation in schools, Mr. Pallister focused on vaccines. Previously revoked mask mandates were restored on Tuesday, but only after causing confusion and stress to businesses and parents.
Here’s the thing about the story of my mother bringing us here solely through her own determination: It’s a myth. The truth is that we had help along the way. Sometimes, it was invisible, and sometimes, it was even insufficient – but it was necessary. The decisions of governments made our lives more or less precarious, and made our escape more or less likely. We flourished or faltered from the nature and timing of policy. None of this takes away from my mother’s courage.
The polio scourge that affected Mr. Pallister’s father, and its eventual elimination, was itself influenced by government policy. Urbanization in the 19th century saw surges in infectious diseases and increased provincial responsibility for disease control. Polio epidemics in the early 20th century resulted in policy instruments, such as free medical devices, treatment, and posttreatment care, to be adopted by provinces. Federal investment, bold public-health leadership, and sheer luck made Canada central to the development of the Salk polio vaccine. Out of this complexity emerged progressive approaches that informed Canada’s medicare program. That Mr. Pallister’s father’s recovery was aided by many of these forces doesn’t take away from his courage, either.
We do not exist in isolation, either culturally or historically; government wields an awesome responsibility to shape the society we leave behind, and our ties to each other define us. My mother’s journey taught me that – to feel awe of her courage and perseverance, but also to feel gratitude for the help and compassion we received, which sheltered the spark of desperate hope, for a better life for her and her children. Mr. Pallister’s legacy of individualism will look very different.
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