Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Former National Post & Toronto Star columnist, past vice president of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. New posts: Mondays & Wednesdays.
Rather than quarantining travelers, our leaders chose a course of action that led to entire countries being locked down.
By the third week of January, the entire world knew the Chinese government was so spooked by a lethal, never-before-seen virus that it had locked down Wuhan. That city is home to 10 million people, about the same number as reside in Paris, London, and Chicago.
Back in January, Wuhan had a shortage of hospital beds and a shortage of doctors. Medical personnel from other parts of the country had been deployed, but the caseload remained overwhelming.
In January, the entire world knew flights from Wuhan to other parts of China had been halted. Highways were being closed. Soldiers wearing face masks were barricading the train station. Because the virus was raging in a particular locale, it was eminently sensible try to prevent its spread within China.
Elsewhere, governments watched these events unfold. Rather than safeguarding their own citizens and their own economies, rather than taking immediate, concrete steps to prevent the virus from spreading beyond China, they indulged in magical thinking.
If only they avoided doing anything discriminatory, all would be well. If only they walked on eggshells, careful not to fuel anti-Asian stereotypes, this infectious disease would apparently evaporate of its own accord.
Thus, a medical problem connected to a specific geographical location was transformed, reconfigured, and repackaged. Journalists, left wing media outlets, and petty politicians accomplished this in a trice.
Politically correct thought is rote dogmatism. It is non-thought. It is knee-jerk, censorious, and uncharitable. But its grip is compelling. In January 2020, among Canada’s political class, fear of being labelled a racist far outweighed anyone’s fear of a deadly virus. Please read that sentence again. We desperately need to learn this lesson.
while the virus can be traced to a province in China, we have to be cautious that this not be seen as a Chinese virus…At times such as this, we must come together as Canadians and avoid any hint of xenophobia, which in this case can victimize our East Asian Chinese community…Situations such as these can regrettably give rise to discrimination based on perceptions, stereotypes and hate. [bold added; see here, here, and here]
Heaven deliver us from elected officials who imagine their job is to instruct taxpayers on how to think or speak about any issue. In the Canadian political system, school trustees are bottom of the barrel. This is a part-time job in which budgets are overseen, and parental concerns are addressed. Trustees are not priests, and have no business preaching morality to anyone.
Concerned parents, many of whom were Asian, were told by Nathan not to send their children to school with face masks, even though classmates had just returned from visits to China. Parents were told mask wearing “heightens anxiety.” In the words of Nathan:
Wearing a mask really singles out some kids in the classroom when they don’t need to and that’s what we’re addressing at the moment – just having those conversations to give knowledge to the parents why they don’t need to at this moment.
And so it went. Leaders of the world’s most advanced economies assured the public the risk was low. We were told to wash our hands, that seasonal influenza was more dangerous, that everything was under control.
But things weren’t under control. Flights from China were not halted. Nor were flights from other hot spots. Travelers returning home weren’t required to self-quarantine until it was far too late.
An information sheet published by the Canadian government on February 24th didn’t instruct returning travelers to self-quarantine. Rather, these people were asked to monitor themselves for “fever, cough and difficulty breathing” and to “avoid places where you cannot easily separate yourself from others if you become ill.”
Self-isolation was recommended only if they developed symptoms. Since many infected people suffer no symptoms, mild symptoms, or symptoms other than those listed by the Canadian government, such measures were wholly inadequate.
Weeks ticked by. Thousands of international flights continued to take off and land. People visiting China, Iran, and Italy brought the virus back home with them. To Seattle. To New York City. To Brazil, India, South Africa, Australia, and to Canada (see here, here, here, and here).
By the time they were diagnosed, some of these people had infected those who’d shared the same flight or the same airport shuttle. They’d spread the virus at their workplaces, on public transit, at houses of worship, birthday parties, and funerals. As late as March 22nd, the Times of London ran a story about Heathrow airport, headlined Coronavirus: Flights from Italy, Iran and China still landing.
Today, four months after the lockdown of Wuhan, a grim milestone will be achieved. The number of Americans who’ve died of the coronavirus is expected to surpass 100,000.
Here in Canada, 6,400 people have perished so far (back in 2003, SARS claimed 44 Canadian lives).
Between them, Italy, Spain, and France have lost 90,000 souls.
In Brazil, where the virus is still gathering steam, the death toll exceeds 22,700 already.
Public health officials, including the World Health Organization, let this happen. Politicians let this happen. There was a time to take targeted action. There was a time to respond strategically and decisively. They failed.
The sorrow associated with those hundreds of thousands of corpses is just the beginning of this disaster. Entire populations have spent weeks to months confined to their homes, harassed by the police for walking their dog. The economic damage is monstrous – for individuals, business, and nations.
Disruption. Job loss. Home repossession. Despair.
Rather than shutting down a few flights, our leaders chose a course of action that led to virtually all flights, everywhere, being grounded. For goodness knows how long.
Rather than quarantining a subset of travelers for a couple of weeks, our leaders chose a course of action that led to entire populations being locked down. For goodness knows how long.
This is where politically correct thought leads. This is where our ugly, destructive preoccupation with hints of xenophobia takes us.
Legitimate concern about the spread of a pernicious virus was silenced. Leaders who wanted to do the right thing faced serious social disincentives. No one wants to be called a racist.
Going forward, we can live in a community in which our leaders think clearly and act sensibly. Or we can stifle other important discussions – and pay a terrible price.