Amir Attaran, professor of law and public health at the University of Ottawa, made a somewhat startling and also cogent point on last night’s TVO exploration of the strength of democracy in its attempt to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The virus is not the cause, rather the strength and resolve of government is the ‘agent’ of the pandemic.” This penetrating perspective, turning the public lens away from the virus, a mindless, imperceptible, valueless, amoral, ideology-less, indifferent piece of biology to the “agent” in the human, global landscape, that confronts the virus, seems to offer both a profound critique of the various roles played by governments of various ideologies in different nations. Human agency, in the face of any kind of ‘enemy,’ is essentially the core issue in any discussion of any conflict, drama, success, already embedded in the history books, and about to be embedded in history books in the future.
After the virus was unleashed, however that happened, (whether through accidental, or nefarious and cynical deployment), we have to take a serious look at the Attaran point that human stupidity, trying to ‘cut a deal’ with the virus, is at the heart of how the virus has killed, or not, hundreds of thousands of human beings. Attaran reminds us that the business of government is ‘cutting deals’ and that to apply this to the pandemic, is bound to fail. If the pandemic, as Attaran asserts, is fairly predictable, based on the uncanny clarity of mathematical models, then whether or not specific leaders, governments, public health officials, or pundits, take an aggressive, or passive, or indifferent posture in their assessment of the risk and in the need for specific measures is at the core of the “agency” that impacts with and confronts this scourge.
Attaran goes further in his scathing criticism of the low ranking of the scientific competence (and also a secrecy about this scarcity), especially in the Canadian government and public service, as another component of our political “stupidity” trying to cope with the virus. Having studied and worked in several countries, Attaran’s critique has the credibility of experience-based observations and evaluations. He argues that we spend very little on scientific research, that we have very few “public voices” with a scientific background, and our collective silent complicity in this “resistance” (or whatever impulses lie at the root of our shared cultural legacy) can be detailed as an integral part of our success/failure in coping with the pandemic.
Tonda McCharles, senior reporter at The Star, argues on the same TVO special program, too, that the failure in communications on the part of the public figures in addressing the various issues, numbers, spread, and mediation of the virus. Included in that failure of both commission and omission, she cites the absence of a professional scientist from the federal government’s public ‘face’ of their response.
Addressing the communication gap, too, Attaran, points to the “loss of hard bastards” replaced by social scientists, who, rather than taking a heavy hand in the crisis, have attempted to persuade, cajole and urge, and motivate the public into compliance with pandemic preventive measures like masks, social-distance, and even isolating in order to retard the spread. Discerning the difference between dictatorial and “hard bastards,” Attaran believes that, for example, the history of having taken a similar approach to cigarette smoking, over a protracted period, the public health professionals have be resistant to putting a hard edge of “mandatory musts” on their professional counsel.
It was, however, the attribution of the word “contrarian” to professor Attaran, by Ms McCharles, based on the indisputable evidence that when he appears at a parliamentary committee ‘sparks will fly” (Ms McMcharles’ words) that really irked this scribe. A government that is either complicity in playing down the significance of the scientific competence, and also generating a culture inside committees, in which Professor Attaran ‘ignites sparks’ only exposes the cozy, comfortable, risk-averse, politically correct and potentially intellectually indifferent or worse, lazy, at the heart of the federal government. And this culture cannot and must not be laid, exclusively at the feet of any political party, given that, collectively, the Ottawa ethos pervades and infuses all political operatives, conversations, expectations and also results emanating from the body politic.
(A couple of personal anecdotes: When presenting and proposing a “FreshStart” program to reintegrate displaced tech workers at the beginning of this century, to an Ottawa bureaucrat, after designing and writing the program, in northern Ontario, the first question out of her mouth, was, surprisingly, not even focused on the merits of the program, or the difficulties of implementation, but rather, “Why cannot we have a program written here in Ottawa?” I guess only thoughts and ideas, for her, in order to be worthy of consideration, had to originate inside the city limits. Another example of ingrown “myopia” emerged in a recent conversation with a business consultant familiar with government contracts, at all levels, municipal, provincial, and federal: that only business consultants who have previously been engaged in a government contract are eligible to submit proposals for new contracts. Leadership, one would have thought, can only be effectively, ethically and efficiently pursued, and certainly achieved, if and when minds, hearts, persons with authority and responsibility show courage, leadership, and openness to ideas that do not come out of the brain-trust-establishment that seeks to serve as the national government. A closed system is constitutionally, intellectually, and pre-determined to follow in the foot-steps of other closed systems…thereby digging that uroborus snake “circle” in which it continually circles around the same “ditch”.)
The world wants to focus on the massive and perhaps criminal negligence of the trump administration in their deplorable failure at mitigating the COVID-19 pandemic. However, there are other nations, including Canada, where the results are far less than they could/would have been, if the government had exhibited some civic muscle, drawn on the “hard bastards” (as Attaran describes them) that would have put a very different stamp on ‘mediating’ and ‘moderating’ and ‘mitigating’ and even ‘blocking’ the spread of the virus. History books and doctoral theses will be written to dissect the specific failures, for example, in long-term-care facilities, and in closing/opening economic activity, school-openings-and-closings, the psychological impacts on children of how we dealt with the pandemic.
However, our shared ‘thumbing’ our noses at the original declarations of “global pandemic” from the World Health Organization, and our shared complicity in following, compliantly, and in some considerable confusion and thereby enhanced anxiety, and now, in tolerating the libertarian strain of narcissistic egocentrism, highlighted by the despicable “theatre” comments by Senator Rand Paul, himself an ophthalmologist, when confronting Dr. Fauci in a Senate hearing yesterday, “If you are vaccinated and unable to spread the disease, and you continue to wear a mask, then that is only theatre!” Fauci instantly retorted, I completely disagree with that…and he pointed to the rising number of variants, for which there is still far too little known about their lethality, and their capacity to spread, not to mention the scarcity of data on immunity among those already vaccinated.
In fact, we are at a point, most scientists argue, that we are in a race between the marathon of herd immunity through 80+% vaccinations in all communities and the proportion of variants that dominate various populations. And the dumb, unconscionable, indifferent, narcissistic, hubristic, and libertarian aardvarks in the political world, (think Bolsonaro, trump, Cruz, Nunes, Fox news) all of whom refuse, avoid, deny and absolutely reject all “cajoling” and persuading and even incentivizing toward taking a vaccination) are already threatening to render all legitimate efforts at herd immunity as null and void. And the implications of that “personal freedom” that ought to stop at the line where everyone’s compliance is a step either toward or away from accomplishing the goal of returning to what once considered normal, including open schools, open main streets, open church services, sports events, concerts, picnics and community barbeques. Human rights, including free speech, freedom to worship, freedom to carry a gun…these are all NOT absolute, in any jurisdiction. It is the attempt of those who claim that they are absolute that the rest of us will have to endure for generations.
The minimal limitation of one’s freedom, through wearing a mask, is not only a tolerable limit to my freedom, given that, in doing so, I impair and limit the freedom of both myself and any others in my space, from spreading a blind, indifferent and imperceptible virus that can and does kill. The minimal limit to my freedom, to step aside, at least six feet if and when I meet another on a daily walk, is not only tolerable but actually worthy of social and political and public health mandate. The minimal expectation that I refrain from entering social groups, for the sake of everyone, my family and the families of those in the larger group, while perhaps in the long-term is irritating, depressing and sad, is nevertheless a reasonable, legitimate constraint on my personal freedom, for the sake of the community prevention of deadly sickness, especially when no one can know who is infected or infectious.
The social contract is not violated if and when the public health authorities mandate measures in the best interest of most people in the community. It is violated, however, if and when a minority of individuals deliberately defy those same public health measures. And there can be no doubt that Attaran’s call for “hard bastards” not only among public health leaders, but also among politicians, educators, civic leaders, and even ecclesial leadership, is worthy of note, and also of amending, if each community is going to restrict the mortality rates among their boundaries, limit the spread of the virus, and, hopefully, buy enough time for not only herd immunity, but also vaccines and treatments that have the scale and effectiveness of those measures that virtually eliminated small pox and other lethal diseases.
It took “hard bastards” to grab the leadership, to set the tone, to provide the beacon of light in the darkness of those pandemics. They were not tyrannical’ they were not dictatorial. They were not evil, or indifferent to individual personal freedom. They were pragmatic, professional health-care exponents, incarnating a depth of commitment, conviction and ethical discernment that seems to Attaran, and others, to be sadly missing, in proportions required in the current circumstances. Of course, there are exceptions, but too many of those exceptions are bully-shouts, and edicts from the side of those who denigrate the virus, who defy all public health limitations and who seem to be carrying the day in far too many jurisdictions. From some provincial premiers whose determination to “open the economy” prematurely is far too risky a political act, dependent first on their political fortunes, to state governors, to national leaders who ought to be held accountable for crimes against humanity, given their blatant and tragic failure to carry out their civic responsibility.
Would they have been able to get away with such defiance if there were to have been a larger voice in public opinion that provided a unified and science-based argument for limits to public freedoms, as a global initiative, based on reasonable, enforceable and responsible public health measures? Doubtful.
Would such an example offer to the world, evidence of the need for and the advisable of pursuing enhanced collaboration in the search for, and the discovery of public leadership that, at least in the public health arena, would and could be proud to wear the “hard bastard” moniker advocated by Amir Attaran, the international legal-public health scholar born in the United States, of Iranian parents, who has a unique and valid and somewhat unconventional international perspective.
His perspective does not merit “contrarian” so much as “healthy truth pursuer” in the interests of humanity, including Canadians. And we need many more Amir’s!!