Cole Hartin: The speed-limitification of our COVID-19 emergency measures has begun
Some risk of living with COVID-19 will become normalized, as some risks of speeding have been normalized. People will follow the rules more or less, increasingly less.
By: Rev. Dr. Cole Hartin
I used to feel a certain moral panic driving on Ontario’s Highway 401, especially when I was a newly licensed driver. I had taken some drivers-ed where I learned about the seriousness of speeding. I had seen, many, many times, cars (well, usually trucks) pulled over at the side of the road in front of cop cars, with police officers issuing tickets. I could read the speed limit signs posted along the way: 100 km per hour.
And yet I found that not only were the vast majority of drivers going far above the limit, but that sticking close to 100 km usually earned me some prolonged honks from the cars behind me, even when I was driving in the right-hand lane.
This is where the moral panic came in. I really felt like I should be obeying the law which was precise and communicated clearly. On the other hand, it seemed like all of the drivers in southern Ontario had conspired to maintain a minimum of 10 km above the limit, and many got away with a good 30 km above on their daily commutes.
In time, I learned to relax a little bit and recognized that when it comes to speeding on the 401, it’s the spirit of the law that matters. While it’s true that a police officer would be within her rights to pull me over and ticket me while I am trudging along at 110 km per hour, the reality is that speeding is a kind of open secret, and unless one is going significantly faster than other traffic, weaving in and out of lanes, chances are that keeping the pedal to the floor won’t be a problem.
This phenomenon is interesting because it’s one example of the way that a restriction is openly flouted to a degree and enforcement is usually not applied unless one goes way beyond social convention. I am starting to wonder if the same phenomenon is occurring in response to ongoing COVID-19 restrictions.
Back in March 2020, or even in December 2020, restrictions to limit the spread of COVID-19 were vital to deal with a novel virus of which we knew very little and for which there was no cure or vaccine. People made tremendous sacrifices, distancing themselves from loved ones for prolonged periods. We collectively held out hope for a brighter future that would be ushered in with an effective vaccine. Now, 20 months or so on, the vast majority of Canadians have been fully vaccinated, we understand the virus well, and our medical systems have much more experience managing this disease
And yet, in many places, like in much of New Brunswick where I now live, we are seeing government mandates calling for further restrictions, not only on public life, but also calls for circuit breakers during which New Brunswickers (even those who are fully vaccinated) are forbidden from having friends and family into their homes, with certain exceptions. In other parts of Canada and the U.S., restrictions are ebbing and flowing according to case spikes and hospitalizations.
While I am not here arguing for or against the implementation of these kinds of restrictions (though I do have a problem with the way they are communicated in a kind of moralistic and pedantic pep talk), I suspect that increasingly, these calls for continual sacrifice of social goods will be treated like the speed limit of the 401.
As a pastor, I’ve honestly tried to honour these calls to the letter because I am conscious of the different levels of risk tolerance in my congregation, and I don’t want to cause anyone undue distress.
My sense, however, is that people are increasingly unwilling to sacrifice yet another weekend with their parents, yet another coffee with their best friends, yet another playdate for their children after they endured the past year and half and did their part by being vaccinated.
I also suspect that as the COVID cases continue to rise and fall and the vaccines’ efficacy wanes over time, there will be increasing calls for restricted living. I just don’t think people will have the stomach to honour them with the same zealousness they did a year ago.
This is not a call for civil disobedience. Nor am I questioning the effectiveness of preventative measures. I am simply pointing out that eventually the heightened adrenaline that comes with a state of emergency will start to flag. People will become fatigued. Some risk of living with COVID-19 will become normalized, as some risks of speeding have been normalized. People will follow the rules more or less, increasingly less.
My prediction is that though government communication will be precise and clear, most people will aim to keep the spirit of restrictions without following them to the letter. For example, calls to stick to one’s household will lead to people reducing their contacts in their home without eliminating them. Or, renewed mask mandates will be met with loose compliance, with folks wearing their masks around their chins as much as over their mouths.
Like drivers on the 401, I think people will increasingly feel the need to bend the rules. Enforcement will likely continue but will probably focus only on the most reckless and visible. Safety officers will fine those who gather in large groups, such as churches who flout all restrictions. But they will leave the few families gathering for Sunday dinner alone.
I may be wrong. But this is where I suspect things are heading.
The Rev. Dr. Cole Hartin is assistant curate at St. Luke's Anglican Church in the Parish of Portland.
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