Canada’s COVID-19 Experience in Perspective

The lady was not happy. There was no mistaking that as she angrily asked the policeman why he was blocking the road she wanted to enter. Cars were lined up wanting to do the same but the policeman was adamant even as she told him in no uncertain terms how upset she was at tourists also being blocked from heading down said road.

If it’s so dangerous why are we still here? I think this whole thing is ridiculous!

COVID-19? No. This actually happened 40 years ago. The road in question led to Mount St. Helens, an active volcano in the Pacific Northwest region of Washington State.

The lady must have been thanking her lucky stars that the policeman prevented her from being anywhere in the vicinity when, at 8:30 the next morning (18 May 1980), the volcano erupted sending, spewing a “hurricane of pulverized stone” that caused 57 deaths and flattened trees 220 miles away. Geologist, David Johnston, who was monitoring the mountain at the time and managed to send a message to the Vancouver (Washington) monitoring station that “This Is It,” was one of the victims. The eruption, the most violent in 32,000 years, “released energy greater than any known atomic weapon” and caused the “largest landslide in recorded history.” according to the guy who wrote the book on it, Steve Olson, who was interviewed on last Sunday’s CBS Sunday Morning.

Some of the victims might have survived had a piece of legislation, expanding the boundaries set by geologists, been passed rather than left on State Governor Dixie Lee Ray’s desk while she attended a Rhododendron festival. The debate, as it is today in many places, was whether to “protect people’s lives or their livelihoods.”

 

Fifty-seven deaths, even such horrible deaths, pale in comparison to what the whole world has been faced with for months now and yet, the rules and regulations put in place in an attempt to “flatten the curve” have unfortunately inspired, in some, the very same attitude displayed by the Washington woman whose life was probably saved by such rules.

In many cases, anti-lock down proponents have been vociferous in the battle against their loss of liberty and their right to decide for themselves whether to wear a mask, respect social distancing or self-isolate, a phenomenon that, while more evident in the United States, has definitely become a problem in good old, law-abiding Canada. Concern for their families, friends and neighbors seems non-existent in these groups, wherever they call home.

Rohingya Camps in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, 2018

Rohingya Camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, 2018. (Photo by Tauheed, CC BY-SA 4.0)

When we consider how little is being asked of most of us, especially with the amounts of government money being made available to various sectors of the population (and yes, I realize, there is probably some fraud being committed and there are still those, the homeless especially, in need of further assistance), we are actually so fortunate in this country when we take a good hard look at how people in other areas of our world are suffering.

The first case of COVID-19, for example, hit the crowded Rohingya refugee camp in Cox Bazar, Bangladesh on May 15, and while spokeswoman for the UN Refugee Agency, Louise Donovan says teams have been “sent in to treat patients and trace people they may have encountered” (and just how you avoid “encountering” people in such horribly close quarters is another story,) 18,863 cases and 283 fatalities had already been recorded in Bangladesh but numbers are not totally accurate given that testing facilities are “inadequate” in the country of 160 million people.

Cox’s Bazar, is one of 34 camps in the country, each housing up to 1 million refugees, who live in plastic shacks barely 107 square feet in size, with as many as 10 to a room, in smothering heat, with limited access to clean water, unable to practice self-distancing as they stand in line for food distribution.

 

Let’s just put that in perspective whenever we begin to think that life is hard because we must stay at home watching TV or Netflix, Zooming or posting on Facebook, perhaps baking up a batch of bread or trying out a brand new recipe.

Imagine, for example, being one of the 40 million garment workers in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Vietnam and other countries who supply western brands with the clothing so many of us wear every day. With “a shortage of raw materials and with declining orders from western clothing brands,” according to the Guardian‘s Annie Kelly, writing on March 19, workers who are paid low wages to begin with face layoffs or isolation should they contract COVID-19 and who could hardly survive on their regular pay, will have no money at all coming in and no doubt fall into deep debt.

Under Cambodian law, for instance, “employers must seek government authorization before suspending workers and pay them 40% of their $160 per month minimum wage for up to six months. Instead, many workers had already been let go without pay. According to Scott Nova, director of the Worker Rights Consortium, part of the Clean Clothes Campaign (a coalition of groups) that fights for garment workers’ rights, “poverty wages, unsafe and unsanitary workplaces and poor health already makes the garment workforce highly vulnerable to the worst effects of COVID-19.

 

I imagine you are getting the message that so many people across the world were in such dire conditions even before the virus that our problems hardly rate in comparison. But just in case it hasn’t yet sunk in, consider the plight of migrants and refugees in Greek camps on the Aegean islands of Chios, Kos, Levos, Lesbos and Sambros.

Human Rights Watch says that as of 20 April 2020, there were 34,875 migrant and asylum seekers, six times the capacity of the islands, living in those camps. Belkis Wille, senior crisis and conflict researcher with that organization, said that conditions in the camps indicate the Greek government was “not complying with minimum preventive and protective measures against the virus.” There were no masks and “handwashing and social distancing are impossible in these circumstances.”

Seashore refugee camp, Chios, Greece, 2016

Seashore refugee camp, Chios, Greece, 2016. (Photo by Mstyslav Chernov / CC BY-SA )

I do not, of course, mean to downplay the situation of those for whom the mental health or economic impacts of the lock down have been more severe, but Canadians as a whole have to admit that while our lives have been upended in many ways, most of our situations are manageable, especially if we remain virus-free. Although confined to our homes, we are safe and secure. It’s fine to hope for a return to what we consider normal, although there are those who contend that “normal” won’t be what it used to be, but it’s also a good thing (as you-know-who would say) to acknowledge that what most of us have been through over the past few months really doesn’t warrant the kind of behavior that could very well endanger others, even those closest to us.

Whining and complaining is okay in small doses, but accepting our situation for exactly what it is and no more, while giving thanks for all those who have done so much to fight the battle of the virus on so many fronts, is the absolute least we can do.

 

 

Dolores Campbell, a lifelong resident of Sydney, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Cape Breton Highlander, the Nova Scotian, Cape Breton Magazine, Catholic New Times and The Cape Breton Post.