Dispatch from The Front Line: Getting off the fear bus to enjoy a fresh mug of piss
And if Canadians thought they were done with Afghanistan, it’s clear that Afghanistan isn’t done with Canada.
This is the funniest stock photo we could find for “fear bus.”
Well, OK, I guess this election is gonna happen. But first, a message from us, to you.
The Line has read all the same stories as the rest of you, and we’ve spoken to our friends. This election wasn’t a guarantee two days ago. Up until the middle of this week, there really did seem to be some hesitation among senior Liberals. The polls look good for them. The road ahead will only get harder as the post-pandemic economic fallout lands, and the after-action reviews lay bare some of the major failures in the federal effort. So there’s an obvious reason to go now.
But there are real reasons not to go now — there’s risk in a minority calling an early election. The pandemic ain’t over yet, and a case surge may leave the Liberals looking even more opportunistic than normal. Plus an NDP that seems in much more robust shape than last time. A strong NDP squeezes the Liberals on both flanks, unless the Tories totally shit the bed … which, alas, cannot be entirely ruled out.
But, alas, they’ve decided to go and do it. So here we are.
This is forcing us at The Line to make some changes, too. As we’ve taken pains to note in recent dispatches, we’ve literally just turned one. We’re into our second year, and that means some changes will be come. We’d hoped to have the rest of the summer, when we’re at a slower pace of publication, to firm some stuff up, but hey. It’s an election, baby. All hands on deck and all that.
So what we’ll have to do is put off some of the stuff we wanted to do until after the campaign, so we can focus on politics. But there is one exception: we now have enough subscribers signed up that we feel justified beginning to put some content behind our paywall. We’ll make a more targeted appeal for all you deadbeat freeloaders — whom we love — to sign up for a paid subscription. But we’ll do that later. For now, to all our readers, this is your official warning: in one month, we’ll start moving some content behind our paywall, starting with these weekly dispatches.
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And now a brief buzz by Alberta. After enormous public backlash — including a politically motivated rebuke by federal health minister Patty Hajdu — Alberta is pausing its plans to ease almost all COVID-19 restrictions. Mandatory isolation for positive cases, mandatory masking for transit users, and symptomatic testing on demand will all remain in place for another six weeks, until Sept. 27. The province will continue with its previously announced plans to abandon most contact tracing — no surprise considering that system effectively collapsed months ago.
We at The Line previously noted that we thought Alberta's plans were aggressive, but not crazy. The core problem was not that rescinding these measures would dramatically alter COVID spread one way or another, but rather that the population was psychologically unprepared for the shift in messaging. We went from "COVID is a deadly global pandemic" to "COVID is another flu" in the midst of a Delta-driven spike in cases, and a full-blown social panic about COVID deaths in children. It's no mystery why people were upset. Therefore, it's no particular wonder that the government would stall, citing two data points. Firstly, health chief Deena Hinshaw noted that non-ICU hospital admissions were higher than anticipated (there are 146 hospitalizations and 36 ICU admissions as of Friday.)
Secondly, Hinshaw noted, COVID hospitalization of children is increasing in some southern U.S. states.
Now there are a lot of reasons why the U.K. offers a better comparison to Alberta on the COVID file than, say, Arkansas; Canadian provinces are wealthier, healthier, have universal access to health care, and are much more highly vaccinated than any of the states that are recording increases in pediatric cases.
Further, those increases should be examined in perspective. Poke through the CDC hospital admissions data yourself. There absolutely has been a spike in hospitalizations for children between the ages of 0 and 17; from a recent nadir of .07 per 100,000, to a height of .36 per 100,000. That's concerning!
But it's also not trend-defying; most hospitalizations for COVID remain, as ever, overwhelmingly concentrated among the old. The increase in child hospitalizations are in proportion to the increase in hospitalizations in the population as a whole — and children still make up a tiny slice of the overall number of people who are hospitalized with COVID.
In other words, children sick with COVID are not driving the Delta variant. Rather, the Delta variant is ripping through under-vaccinated states, and we're seeing a relatively small, proportional rise in pediatric hospitalizations as a result.
Now, the fact that there is any increase in a younger demographic at all indicates that there is a trend here that merits caution and monitoring — but not panic.
Data from the U.K. suggested that Delta, while being more infectious, wasn't necessarily more dangerous to children than previous versions of COVID.
"Of 3,105 deaths from all causes among the 12 million or so people under 18 in England between March 2020 and February 2021, 25 were attributable to COVID-19 — a rate of about 2 for every million people in this age range...and about half had conditions that put them at a higher risk than healthy children of dying from any cause."
This is cold comfort, but your child is statistically more likely to die by many other terrible and tragic means before we get to COVID. And it's not close.
That said, if that spike in pediatric cases in the southern U.S. continues, that may indicate that Delta is, in fact, behaving more aggressively in children, and that would warrant more concern. So, we will watch it.
In the meantime, Alberta doesn't seem all that alarmed, because as it was backtracking on its earlier easements, it concurrently released a back-to-school plan for September that consists of treating COVID-19 much like any other respiratory infection. No province-wide mask mandates in school; no requirement to inform schools about positive COVID cases; and no negative test needed to return to school after being off sick. Individual school boards remain free to build on those requirements if they so wish.
At least, that's the back-to-school plan so far.
We have no doubt that parts of it will be modified after a goodly amount of outrage and Helen Lovejoying. That just seems to be the way things are done in these parts because what these guys don’t seem to get is that you can’t claim to be making science-based decisions one week, and then backtrack due to public pressure the next. Either these decisions are science-based, or they aren’t. And if they’re science-based, no amount of public pressure should matter. Constant flip-flops destroy credibility, and frankly, there’s not enough of that left in our premiers’ offices at this point to ratchet the COVID fear down to a manageable state. Our leaders — and we're not just picking on Alberta, here — none of these people are capable of driving the fear buses of their own creation.
Not since March 2020 have we ever been more objectively safe from COVID-19, and yet paradoxically the terror and hysteria remain higher than ever before. We're all strapped into the same bone-adorned apocalyptic low-rider, holding our breath as we hurtle toward another spike before crashing into the inevitable valley beyond. The ride never stops, baby, nobody is at the wheel, everybody in the back is screaming, and there is no off-ramp in sight. That bus is also hurtling toward an election, so take quiet stock of who is trying to accelerate the fear, and who is trying to downshift.
We expect most of you have figured this out, but it still needs saying. There just isn't going to be a satisfying symbolic end to COVID-19. This isn’t a war. There will be no fireworks, no victory parades, and no street parties. The virus is endemic, and once Delta passes, there will be Lambda, and Epsilon and so on and so on, indefinitely. This moment, right now, is as close to the End of the Pandemic that we're going to get for the foreseeable future.
So if not now, when do we say "stop"?
When the kids are vaccinated? That may never happen. COVID vaccines might fail clinical trials for children. Then what?
And if you've stayed on the bus over the past 18 months, through all of the previous times we've moved the goalposts for “getting back to normal,” how can you be so sure you're going to get off then? Won't there just be another variant, another breakthrough case, another study about Long COVID, another spike, another risk, another metric to meet?
There will always be something else to fear, because there is always something else to fear. Fear is an addiction. In short doses, it drives necessary changes. But chronic fear is maladaptive. Keep strapping in, and you will continue to experience its highs, and lows, the gifts of its outrage, its moral certainty. Fear drives us to avoid grief and pain by seeking control, and it assures us that control is achievable, if only we do this or that. If only everyone else would simply conform.
Like any addiction, fear lies. It stunts our perspective. It turns us against one another. It makes us vulnerable to manipulation. Fear damages us. It damages our critical thinking, and it damages our ability to enjoy the finite moments of our lives as we have them.
We can do our best to mitigate risk. Get vaccinated. Don't cough in people's faces. Wear a mask if you feel the need. Avoid huffing glue with confirmed cases.
Otherwise, the course of the virus is beyond our ability to control. The fear, on the other hand, that lives in us. If you are looking for an invitation to get on with your life, we are offering it to you.
You can stay for the ride, or you can choose to get off the fear bus at any time. Grab a coffee, and chat with a friend. Host a BBQ. Eat a sandwich by a window and watch people fill the streets again. Let the children throw sand at each other. Feel joy. Take a breath of the warm, clear air. Walk in the rain. Come back to life. When you're ready.
On another vaccine/election note: We couldn’t help but take note of this Globe column by Peter Donolo, a former Liberal flak now working for H+K. He seems convinced that vaccine passports are the path to a Liberal majority. Most Canadians are vaccinated, and therefore won’t object to them, and those who do object — Conservative troglodytes, obvs. — will paint Erin O’Toole into a corner, allowing prime minister Justin Trudeau the opportunity to emerge as the enlightened anti-COVID PM.
There are a few stunningly obvious problems with his logic. The first is that the vaccine hesitant, who are presumed to be overwhelmingly opposed to passports, are presumed to be unduly concentrated in the Conservative camp. This does not appear to be the case. According to Abacus polling — a shop not known to be Liberal unfriendly — the typical vaccine hesitant individual is a 42-year-old Ontario woman who votes Liberal.
This does not tell us anything in particular about deep-seated Liberal antipathies toward vaccination. It simply indicates that vaccine hesitancy is surprisingly widely distributed across the political spectrum. It’s particularly well distributed among Green Party fans, though that should come as no great shock.
The second obvious problem is the assumption that the 80 per cent of eligible Canadians who have received a vaccination would have no moral or philosophical objections to turning the country into a “papers, please” society that dramatically restricts movement for the minority of individuals who can’t or won’t be vaccinated for any host of reasons, sane or otherwise.
A vaccine passport issued solely for international travel is no great problem. They’ll increasingly become normalized as other countries demand to see proof of vaccination for our citizens. Fine.
There is no real objection to vaccine passports intended to help Canadians cross an international border, but rather with the notion that we should need one to cross the street and sit in a restaurant. One does not need to take the trek into bonkers-ville to be creeped out by such a prospect.
There are any number of reasonable objections; 1) a domestic vaccine passport is wildly disproportionate to the scale of the risk COVID poses to a heavily vaccinated society and it will damage efforts to normalize the risk that COVID presents to the population. 2) It’s a punitive measure that will disproportionately target people of colour, the poor, and those who have historical or medical reasons to be vaccine averse. 3) Vaccine passports are vulnerable to mission creep, and will become permanent fixtures of civil society. 4) They won’t actually curtail lockdowns, because lockdowns are driven by social panic, not actual risk assessment. 5) We’re too incompetent to pull them off in a reasonable timeframe anyway. And 6) Shouldn’t we have been talking about vaccine passports six months ago?
Hell, we at The Line are actually pretty agnostic about a vaccine passport and we just came up with those objections off the top of our heads. We’re sure as hell not convinced these are the slam-dunk policy wins that Donolo suggests, especially in a society that is growing less trustful of government, and more concerned about “temporary” quasi-authoritarian measures.
The last hole in Donolo’s logic is that this will be strategically box in O’Toole. We think the Conservative leader gets out of this trap pretty quickly. “We support vaccine passports for international travel in line with global norms; How these passports are used within Canada is a matter for the provinces to decide.”
The first Conservative swing at this was, a miss, alas.
It’s not what that they said was wrong, it’s that it’s wildly insufficient. It’s an obvious attempt to evade substantive comment on an issue the Liberals are going to talk about incessantly from now until … well, until Trudeau’s victory party, if the CPC doesn’t figure out a better way to reply to this. The Tories don’t need to adopt the Grits’ position entirely, but … that … ain’t gonna cut the mustard.
Because, look, we’re not saying that the Conservatives are full of closeted anti-vaxxers. But the Liberals sure as hell will be. Like, gosh. Way to talk into that trap, fellas.
So the CPC needs a better answer than that. The campaign hasn’t even started yet. They have lots of time to regroup. And as The Line’s Matt Gurney noted, well, there’s a lot of mugs of piss between now and election day.
On a last, grim note: We are exactly four weeks shy of the 20th anniversary of the terror attacks of 9/11, and Afghanistan, the launchpad of al-Qaeda, is once again in the hands of the Taliban. Well two thirds of it anyway, and it wouldn’t surprise us if it turns out that they are simply waiting until the anniversary proper to take Kabul and re-establish the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
The Afghanistan shitshow is so complete, so all-encompassing, so overwhelmingly depressing that it is really hard to know where to start. But let’s get one thing clear: this isn’t a case of Afghanistan reverting to its “natural state” of raw tribalism and civil warfare, nor is it a further example of Afghanistan’s graveyard-of-empires unconquerable character. These and similar lazy, cynical and world-weary reactions have been all over the place in recent days, and they’re pretty much BS.
What is true is that Afghanistan has for a very long time been a client state, serving as a buffer between empires, or as an instrument of someone else’s foreign policy. And what is going on in Afghanistan right now, with the U.S.-supported government collapsing and the Taliban rolling up the major cities one at a time, is simply a matter of one controlling state leaving and another taking its place. Even before Donald Trump forced his crazy peace deal on the Afghan government, the US had made it clear that it didn’t have any interest in staying on as Afghanistan’s financial backer, political big brother, and security failsafe. After Joe Biden decided to stick with Trump’s plan and exit the country, Afghanistan’s fate was sealed, and it is bizarre that anyone in a position of responsibility might have thought it would have turned out otherwise.
Because all that has happened is that a new controlling power has stepped into the vacuum left by the departing Americans. The Taliban are, and always have been, a product of Pakistan and the instrument of its security service. That the Taliban-led Afghan “insurgency” is effectively a Pakistan proxy war is well-established; nobody seriously disputes it, not even the Pakistanis themselves. Having spent the better part of the last two decades in official denial of this basic element of Afghanistan’s strategic geography, it probably isn’t surprising that the Americans might have convinced themselves that the country was capable of standing alone as just another normal constitutional democracy.
So what does it all mean? There will be lots — LOTS — written on this in the weeks to come, but we would like to flag a couple of issues that Canadians might want to think about as the country heads into a federal election.
The first is Canada’s collective amnesia over our involvement in Afghanistan. Ever since we stopped the fighting mission in 2011, and pulled up stakes entirely in 2014, Canadians and their governments have done their best to pretend we never went there in the first place. That worked well enough as long as the Americans were keeping a lid on things, but as the situation started to destabilize earlier in the summer, some of the Afghans who worked as interpreters for us started to point out that their lives were at risk from the Taliban. As with most things that require a combination of moral clarity, strategic thinking and logistical effort, the federal government had to be dragged kicking and screaming into doing something to help them. The fact that Canada has committed to bringing in up to 20 000 Afghan refugees doesn’t change the fact that we spent over a decade basically telling many of our former Afghan allies to pound sand.
The second is the question of the Canadian military. One thing that it is important for Canadians to realize is that, as far as the military is concerned, the Afghan mission was a resounding success. Yes, 158 soldiers died and thousands more were wounded, but the Afghanistan mission served two vital purposes for the military: it spurred its recovery, both reputationally and operationally, from the “dark decade” after the Somalia affair. More importantly, it re-established the CAF as a reliable partner in the eyes of the Americans. But that success was made possible in large part because the military leadership escaped the constraints of civilian oversight — something that official Ottawa remembers very well, though never talk about. But if you are looking for an explanation of the chaos in the CAF leadership right now, and the apparent indifference of the political leadership to that chaos, at least part of the answer is that many powerful people want to see the military brought to heel.
Afghanistan was the main show in Canada’s response to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and for many of us 9/11 remains the single most important geopolitical event of our lifetime. But Canadians stopped paying attention to Afghanistan because there was no obvious cost to doing so — it is worth bearing in mind that two decades is a long time by any human measure, and it’s an eternity in democratic politics. But if Canadians thought they were done with Afghanistan, it’s clear that Afghanistan isn’t done with Canada. Our involvement there continues to haunt our politics, and will do so for years to come.
Well on that cheery note, we expect our vacations to come to an end on Sunday with a writ drop and a Sept. 20 election. As such, we gave ourselves an easy week, and published just this piece from freelancer Daniel Tencer. His response to the crushing problem of unaffordable housing: Build More Cities! It’s the kind of fun, optimistic and innovative piece that cries out for a soul-crushing rebuttal. We’ll leave it to you, dear readers. Pitch us.
The Line is Canada’s last, best hope for irreverent commentary. We reject bullshit. We love lively writing. Please consider supporting us by subscribing. Follow us on Twitter @the_lineca. Fight with us on Facebook. Pitch us something: firstname.lastname@example.org