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Coronavirus information
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Arthur Schafer is founding director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba

Telegram: “Start worrying now. Details to follow.”

That classic Jewish joke sums up our current state of knowledge about the COVID-19 pandemic. The list of unknowns is long: Will the virus peak this summer? Will there be a second wave? Will the hoped-for vaccines work? And: For how long will Canadians (and others) accept closed schools and universities, offices and factories, concert halls, sports arenas, restaurants and much else?

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To the scientific questions the answer is: We don’t have the data at present to predict whether this novel virus will behave a lot (or only a little) like seasonal flu and common colds. Because there is so little reliable scientific information, advice and predictions keep changing.

Equally difficult to predict is our social response to the public health measures. At present, to protect themselves and their neighbours, most people seem to be following recommended protocols. But the conduct of a heedless minority might require drastic coercive measures.

The loss of close contact with friends and loved ones is an inescapable consequence of the government’s current social isolation strategy. Ironically, at just the time when bonds of community are most needed, we are forbidden to hug or even to shake hands.

Moreover, the preventive measures we have adopted threaten millions of Canadians with loss of their main source of income. Western governments solved the financial meltdown of 2008 by bailing out the banks. Ordinary people were sacrificed and the resulting alienation and anger are still with us, fuelling populist movements. It seems unlikely that such a grossly unfair policy choice will work again. So, if the social fabric is to be preserved, our governments will have to deliver income support to millions of Canadian families for the duration. That will require, in turn, a massive and unprecedented redistribution of economic resources from the few to the many.

Social resilience is going to be sorely tested. If we cannot sustain the spirit that “we’re all in this together,” the crisis may so erode social cohesion that collective action becomes impossible. Without strongly redistributive economic policies, we could experience something like the world described by Yeats in The Second Coming: “things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; anarchy is loosed upon the world”.

Margaret Thatcher famously opined that “there is no such thing as society” and her government duly proceeded to promote the privatization of schools and hospitals, prisons, railways and public utilities and to cut back on vital social services – measures which might be seen as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Nor can we pretend that Canada has been immune to the global movement away from collective provision towards letting individuals fend for themselves. There are already cracks in the social fabric which could, under severe stress, split us apart.

It’s a sign of the times in which we live that some entrepreneurs are able to perceive in the pandemic a silver lining. The media recently carried a story about a couple who mass-purchased Lysol wipes from Costco in Vancouver to sell them online, at inflated prices. It’s a hopeful sign that this kind of opportunism has been met with near-universal public anger. The couple’s Amazon account was eventually blocked by the company, which also stated: “There is no place for price gouging on Amazon.” Those who attempt to exploit the health crisis to enrich themselves will not win any popularity contests.

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Canadians are quickly coming to recognize our vulnerability in the face of global warming and novel viruses. So far, most people are responding in pro-social ways. Neighbourhood support groups are being formed to help those who are especially susceptible to the pandemic and to social-isolation. The better angels of our nature, fellow-feeling and compassion, prevail, at least for now, against the pressure to “look out for number one.” But that could change.

In 1968, social psychologists from Columbia University conducted a wallet returning experiment. They dropped wallets on the streets of Manhattan and then monitored the percentage that were returned to their owners. Over a period of months, the average return rate was 45 per cent. Then, on June 5, Robert Kennedy Jr. was mortally wounded. On June 6, not one of the wallets was returned. Only gradually did the rate return to normal. The bullet that killed Robert Kennedy also killed social trust, for a time at least. The experiment suggests that demoralized individuals become socially irresponsible.

If our governments can create and sustain public morale over an indefinitely long period of time then it’s possible we will emerge from the pandemic as a stronger, fairer and more cohesive society. The alternative is frightening to contemplate.

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