Rex Murphy: Governments have caused us to lose faith in our pandemic response

The inconsistencies, the varying advice, the poor examples set by some of our leaders, the on-again off-again openings and closings have placed heavy burdens on the public

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It was almost a full year ago that due to the carelessness of Chinese government authorities, the SARS-CoV-2 virus was let loose upon the world. Some could argue that “carelessness” is a kind word and suggest a more dire description. I wouldn’t summon much energy to argue against that assertion.

The People’s Republic of China is neither a republic nor is it the people’s, but then it has almost always been the practice of the most totalitarian regimes to attempt the thinnest of camouflage in their nomenclature.

China, as most of the world agrees, was the origin of this plague and either blocked or impeded the news of its outbreak. It also clouded the World Health’s Organization’s response to it. The very earliest moments of any epidemic are by far the most crucial. China’s ruthless practice of withholding news about COVID-19, and its active persecution of its own medical authorities who were brave enough to issue warnings, were the great trigger for all the suffering and associated burdens that followed.

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In February and March, as the news of COVID-19 became clearer, there was naturally great shock. There was also a widespread belief among public health experts that drastic measures such as government-imposed lockdowns, rationing of health services and public information campaigns could put a bridle on the outbreak.? The phrase of the day was “flatten the curve,” which for a while had something of a talismanic ring to it.

But as is almost always the case when governments or political parties, with the aid of their “communications teams” (a term that should always have scare quotes), settle on some neat and ready catchphrase, the tagline is there mainly to buy time, deflect from the complexity of what is being faced and, after due exposure, be silently abandoned.

Originally, “flattening the curve” was meant to cover a two-week quarantine, or near-quarantine, just enough time for hospitals, in particular, to ready themselves for the demands that the outbreak would surely bring.? Now, months and months later, there are still lockdowns, lockdowns that get lifted and lockdowns brought back again. It has also been the case since the beginning that advice to the public has wandered, as Stephen Leacock’s famous Lord Ronald was said to have done, madly off in all directions.

Even on the most basic of prescriptions such as mask-wearing, governments have gone from saying that they are not useful or are inadequate, to most certainly necessary and subject to fines if ignored. Advice on public gatherings, along with the imperative for what we call “social or physical distancing,” has been either inconsistent or woefully contradictory.

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The most blatant twist comes with the parlous matter of public gatherings. On the personal or domestic level, it is urgent, all are told, to limit the numbers and keep within a family or close social group.

However, when whole multitudes of people, not related to each other, emerge to answer the summoning trumpets of social justice and congregate on public streets in the thousands, or cordon off whole blocks of cities and work ritual mayhem, it is tacitly overlooked. Some health professionals even tried to justify the protests.

An eerie letter from the University of Washington’s division of allergy and infectious diseases, with over 1,000 signatures attached, criticized those who protested against the lockdowns, but did “not condemn” Black Lives Matter protests “as risky for COVID-19 transmission,” because, “We support them as vital to the national public health and to the threatened health specifically of Black people in the United States.”

Yet however some wish to view the cause at stake, the idea that the cause of a very large public gathering somehow exempts it from all the dangers that attend any other public gathering is ridiculous.

We even had a quite peaceful protest here in Canada, which included large numbers of people, including our own prime minister, wearing a mask and taking a knee, gathering together. Yet people strolling on a beach or playing a ball game in a park has been the subject of fines in many parts of the country.

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Other inconsistencies are almost as striking, such as what businesses count as essential. A small shop selling knickknacks is too risky, but a big box store selling the same items is perfectly fine.

The inconsistencies, the varying advice, the poor examples set by some of our leaders, the on-again off-again openings and closings, the constant and sometimes contradictory decisions and revisions and, above all, the duration of this new regime, have placed heavy burdens on the public. It seems very likely that Christmas itself will be cancelled this year, which is very far from the “two weeks to flatten the curve” message we received in the spring.

Dealing with COVID is complex and difficult. There are no easy solutions. That said, the inconsistent messaging, the exceptions granted to certain activities and the disparity of its impact on private-sector workers compared to those in the public sector have broken the faith citizens had in our overall response. The common spirit that was present at the beginning of this crisis is not there now. The rules change constantly, worry over the economy approaches worry over the epidemic and people are extremely weary.

National Post

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