The pandemic has underlined fundamental problems with the basic nature of social economy of many countries including Canada. The polarizing impacts of the Trump presidency in the USA have spilled into Canada and around the world. It has become acceptable to a growing part of the population to spread misinformation, ignore science and deny reality.
The moral decay of the Trump years has been made many times worse by social media corporations who profit from targeted polarization and disinformation that boosts advertising revenue and shareholder profits. The pandemic has become a time of explosive greed with billionaires around the globe increasing their wealth by hundreds of billions, enjoying immense comfort while billions of people lived with basic economic fears and mounting mental and emotional stress, and millions died.
It is useful to start with some statistics just to remember that there really is a pandemic that is killing people, crippling our healthcare system and causing dangerous stress to essential workers, youth and children and millions of ordinary people. The numbers below are as of the end of January 2022.
|Country||Covid cases Millions||Covid Deaths||Population Millions||Deaths per Million||% Fully Vaccinated|
The data is useful as an antidote to the lies, falsehoods and fear swirling around the pandemic and its consequences.
The Pandemic Turned on the Lights
Our world often reminds one of sitting in a dark room where one can see the outlines of our surroundings without really much detailed understanding of anything around us, much less how the various components relate to each other. The Pandemic has had an effect similar to turning on the lights.
With the pandemic’s light it became clear that ‘essential workers’ are not paid as if they were essential at all. Most of those working in healthcare, and especially long term care, are not only paid far less than living wages, they are not even offered full time work so that employers can avoid paying benefits. The majority do not have any sick leave so that staying home when they are ill with Covid meant not being able to pay for food or not paying rent or not looking after their families. This is an economy that does not meet the basic human needs of workers essential to making our economy and society function. Clearly flawed and dysfunctional!
In stark contrast, the pandemic light shone brightly on the wildly increasing wealth of the very richest – our billionaires. Suffice it to say, they increased their wealth by a shocking almost 50% or $78 billion just during the first year. Using data from Forbes’ “real-time billionaires” listing, economist Alex Hemingway found that 47 Canadian billionaires now control $270 billion in total wealth while 5.5 million Canadian workers lost their jobs or had more than half of their hours cut at the pandemic’s peak. “In Canada, during a global pandemic, 15 new billionaires have been minted, and the fortunes of the country’s now 59 billionaires have increased by $111 billion since March 2020, roughly the same amount the Canadian government spent on COVID-19 income support to workers, including CERB and CRB ($109 billion).”
None of this should have come as a surprise, since as the Parliamentary Budget Officer pointed out, in 2016 the wealthiest 20% of Canadians own 73.5% of all Canada’s wealth. Given the growth of billionaire wealth during the Pandemic, the 73.5% number is clearly history and today the percent would be significantly higher. Does an economy that is wildly excessive in meeting the needs of 20% of the people, while failing to meet the needs of most of the remaining 80%, meet any reasonable test of being functional or meeting the expectations of basic common sense?
The spot light of the pandemic also shone brightly on social media. Whistleblower and former Facebook data scientist Frances Haugen testified during a U.S. Senate hearing how Facebook chose profit over the wellbeing of its users. Social media makes billions by being a source of lies, misinformation and polarization, and nowhere has this been more evident than with the pandemic and vaccine information. The more controversy and polarization, the more “hits”. More ‘hits’ mean more advertising revenue. The more lies, misinformation, controversy and polarization, the harder it is to have high vaccination rates. The lower the vaccination rates, the more deaths, hospitalizations and misery for Canadians and people around the world. The billionaires who own social media prosper and the world suffers. Clearly the profit motive that supposedly drives our economy has a powerful impact. The internet that was seen a decade ago as a boost for democracy and information availability and sharing has become a source of polarization, lies, disinformation and oh, by the way, another source of billionaires.
A Complex Mess
Almost 80% of Canadians have accepted the abundant scientific information about the validity of Covid testing, the efficacy of vaccines, the statistics around cases, hospitalization and deaths.
Who are the people opposing vaccination and vaccination mandates? There is no simple answer. People have reached their decisions on different routes and often on several routes.
- The fearful and confused. Falsehoods about Covid and vaccines have spread fearful confusion, bringing profit to the social media giants for whom spreading fear and hate increases their advertising revenue. Parents have been made fearful about long term damage from vaccines for their children and themselves. They simply want the best for their children.
- The misguided. Information has not always been clear and accurate. Information often does not reach many people. The healthcare system communicates better on old style media (radio and TV and newspapers) than on social media. In addition, some old style media like Fox News, parroting Trump’s lies and ignorance, have peddled the same falsehoods and misinformation.
- The alienated. The level of alienation in societies with galloping income inequality has risen as people lose hope. Their perception is that governments do not care, and the increasing levels of inequality indicate a significant level of truth in that perception. Parents are fearful for the economic future facing their children and their children have declining hope for a reasonable future. This is fertile soil for conspiracy theories and extremists, especially those of the extreme right. Big corporations have a vested interest in people distrusting government, but spurring distrust of government means increasing the distrust of government healthcare institutions and those who speak for them.
- Victims of Discrimination. Blacks, indigenous people, people of colour and the poor all have experienced racist and or discriminatory behaviour from our healthcare systems. Asking them to believe in experts is not always a reasonable expectation.
- The Unbalanced – Some anti-vaccine activists in the US have compared vaccine mandates to the holocaust. “To be blunt, there is no comparison between being asked to wear a mask in stores and schools and being forced to wear a yellow Star of David in Nazi Germany.” One leads to temporary discomfort the other led to the death camps. The comparison is unbalanced.
- The Profiteers. Misinformation about adverse health impacts has also been profitable for some individuals who have used it to charge for misinformation sessions and peddled worthless products. Many of the purveyors of lies and misinformation are making a financial fortune from the fear and loathing they spread.
- Conspiracy theorists. As seen with the trucker’s convoy to Ottawa, extreme right groups – white supremacists, anti-immigrant groups, Islam phobic, anti-smites, other purveyors of hate and conspiracy theorists like QAnon – raised funds and helped organize the convoy. They cleverly preyed on the fear, confusion, misinformation, alienation, mistrust and the work of the shameless profiteers. They managed to whip up support for the idea that a few thousand protestors should take over decision making for the nation and overthrow the government. Is it much different to the confusion and hatred spawned in the 1930s in Germany? Incredibly an appalling number of members of the Conservative Party sided with them.
The Extreme Right to Freedom. All of us value our freedom but the reality is that we are social beings as well as individuals. The extreme right sees freedom as something without limits. My right to be able to buy my groceries more safely gets extinguished by their right to not wear a mask to protect others. My right to healthcare is extinguished by their right not to be vaccinated. The right of the vast majority of Canadians to health care and hospital beds and intensive care units is eliminated by the claimed freedom to not wear masks. A real definition of freedom does not include the right to put other’s lives at risk. People must be free to decline vaccination regardless of how good or poor their reason. Having exercised that freedom does not confer the right to then live as if their decision has no impact on the lives of others. Their right not to be vaccinated does not confer the right go anywhere where restrictions are in place to protect others and our healthcare system.
Our reaction to the decisions of others, even when we are convinced they are wrong, needs to be tempered by the humility that we have never met anyone who was always correct, even when we look in a mirror. Deciding not to wear a mask or not to be vaccinated or to hold an irresponsible gathering that will lead to a serious outbreak of Covid or measles defies the vast amount of evidence gathered by science and healthcare organizations. That said, many people are not in a position to have access to or the time to sort out the vast amount of evidence. In almost all cases, we need to respond to those who are afraid with compassion, caring and kindness plus a willingness to provide information.
Yet another lesson
The Pharmaceutical Profiteers. Protecting their patents ensures that vaccine rollout in less affluent countries will take years. It ensures new variants of Covid will proliferate. It ensures ongoing huge profits for the very rich who own the companies. During one week in November when omicron was being revealed, the 8 largest shareholders of Pfizer and Moderna got a windfall profit of $10 billion. Even worse, the governments of Canada and the USA blocked an international move to ‘lift’ the patents and allow companies around the world to produce vaccines.
There is growing alienation. Why do people not trust government? It is because governments mainly serve the interests of the very small elite who own huge corporations. They protect and act in their interests at the expense of their citizens, indeed at the expense of humanity. Canadian interests would have been better served if Canada’s Connaught Laboratories had been kept as a publically owned medicine and vaccine producer. It served all Canadians. Yet it was sold in 1972 for right wing ideological reasons. Now the production of vaccines and medicines serves to enrich a tiny minority while leaving all people in Canada and the world to live through Covid variants thriving as a result of patent protection of vaccines.
In Canadian nursing homes the death toll from Covid was scandalous. Particularly in Ontario the death toll for seniors was higher. The ‘science table’ advising the Ontario government pointed out that ‘for profit’ long term care homes had 78% more deaths than ‘not for profit’ homes. Again it is worth noting that, 25 years ago, it was for right wing ideological reasons that the government of then Conservative premier Mike Harris spurred the shift away from government owned homes to ‘for profit’ homes. Harris’ “common sense revolution” does not make common sense for the families who lost their loved ones. Again big business is served while citizens suffer.
When the pandemic shook Canada, the investor business community (with a few exceptions) offered few solutions. They lined up to gobble up government money intended to protect jobs, often with no requirement to show how well it was used. In Many cases it was used to pad profits and executive bonuses rather than retain workers. Large corporation stores were exempted from lock down measures as “essential” while competing small businesses offering the same services were very often forced to close.
The pandemic had another powerful lesson. The large majority of people stepped up to help each other. In spite of poor pay and high risk, essential workers went to work. People volunteered to drive people to appointments. They got groceries for neighbors or even for people they did not know. They wore uncomfortable masks and got vaccinated, not just to protect themselves, but others as well. Acts of kindness and caring flowed in a torrent. People got together safely obeying restrictions in small groups and their actions made the very difficult more tolerable.
Our economy is organized around the purpose of maximizing the return to those who own the capital. Those who control the economy, with the help of governments, get the lion’s share of the wealth produced by the economy, and yet when disaster strikes they lined up with the poorest with their hands extended looking for government funding. In the face of the pandemic the 80% suffered while to 20% and especially the superrich were safely adding to their already obscene wealth. Some took short rides into space while revenue starved healthcare systems had to cut services. Some purchased yachts while healthcare workers decided which critically ill patient should be allowed to die. Some sheltered in their penthouses and villas while truck drivers took risks to make sure we could eat. Some poured their exploding wealth into speculative investments while workers in services and small business owners watched their life savings dissolve. “No” Prime Minister, we were not all in this together. If the pandemic taught one overriding lesson, it is that the current capital/investor driven economy, and the governments it runs, simply do not serve the majority of Canadians or people around the globe.
 Harris went on to chair the board of a major long term care corporation. https://canadians.org/analysis/mike-harris-raking-profits-long-term-care-system-he-helped-create ; https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/big-spend-long-term-care-aid-dividends-1.5832941
 https://www.theglobeandmail.com/business/article-canada-emergency-wage-subsidy-data-analysis/ ; https://nationalpost.com/news/politics/election-2021/ndp-would-make-companies-that-paid-dividends-bonuses-during-pandemic-reimburse-their-wage-subsidy-cash;