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Dispatch from the Front Line: Scaring people works until it doesn't
It's time to bring the skepticism back
We at The Line must occasionally combat our worst impulses. We spent quite a bit of time trying to come up with a joke to cover off the entirely coincidental fact that Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, consort of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, and DMX, American rapper, died within hours of each other. But nothing really came to mind, and maybe it would have been tone deaf, anyway.
This Moscrop guy, though. He can do it for us!
A little more seriously, though your Line editors wouldn't describe themselves as ardent monarchists, we do believe that we shouldn't invest much time and energy into trying to fix what ain't broke. Canada's system of government doesn't always deliver optimal outcomes — we mean, look around, folks — but it is stable, reliable and proven. Given our track record at big new policies, those are three things we have absolutely zero confidence any successor system to the monarchy would be, even in the fantastically unlikely chance we could design and implement one.
Is it weird putting a ton of our reserve powers and our very sovereignty inside the living essence of an old woman on an island across the ocean? Yes. Does it work? Also yes. Would we botch any effort to replace said old lady with literally any other system? A resolute yes. The monarchy is weird, and it’s not how we’d design Canada if we were starting Canada from scratch today, but it works, folks, and these days, there’s not much else we can say that about. Further, it's hard not to like Her Majesty. Our thoughts are with her today. Whatever your qualms with royalty or the royals may be, surely you can spare a thought to a woman who lost her husband … oh, who are we kidding? Lots of people can't or won't.
Now, to the meat: if you will indulge us, we at The Line would like to start today's dispatch by playing a little game. This game is called head vs. nut. (Don’t get any dirty ideas. It’s a journalism game.) We will take the headline of an article and compare it to the actual data provided within the story. Got it?
OK, let's begin.
Alberta's Chief Medical Officer of Health, Deena Hinshaw, has pointed to a recent increase in outdoor transmission to urge people to maintain their vigilance. Her office declined to provide more details, including the numbers of outdoor infections identified through contact tracing and how much that has increased.
Note from The Line editor: from the Globe and Mail, March 31, 2021.
Headline: Canada's hospitals deploy artificial lungs, scramble for staff as COVID hits younger patients
Last week, there were a record 19 ECMO patients at UHN, 17 of them with severe COVID-19. When the sickest COVID-19 patients’ lungs fill with fluid and mechanical ventilators can no longer do the job, artificial lungs can save lives.
By Monday, doctors had weaned some off the machines and were down to 14 ECMO patients, 12 of them with COVID-19….
With many seniors vaccinated and new, far more contagious coronavirus variants circulating widely, younger patients are increasingly arriving in intensive care.
Note from The Line editor: This story simply notes that there are 19 patients on ECMO machines. It provides no age breakdown of who is using the ECMO machines, thus conflating an increased need for artificial lungs with an increase in young people in ICU beds. It doesn’t tell us how many young people are actually in ICU.
It also notes that this increase may be an artifact of our vaccination efforts: vulnerable older people are increasingly protected from COVID-19. Young people are not. More young people in hospital is the sort of thing we would expect to see as our compliance breaks, and our vaccination efforts succeed in shielding the most vulnerable populations from COVID-19.
And now, our hospitals are stretched beyond their capacity. According to Philpott, Kingston’s ICU is already beyond 100 per cent occupancy, with 17 COVID-positive cases in critical care in Kingston as of Thursday, April 8, 2021, with six more cases expected that day, and continued transfers over the coming weekend.
Note from The Line editor: 23 COVID-19 cases are stretching Kingston Ont.’s ICU beyond capacity. Kingston has a population of 137,000 people.
Betcher said 17 of the 20 beds normally in the ICU currently have patients with COVID-19. An additional 10 surge beds have been brought in to expand the capacity and all are carrying COVID-19 patients.
"We're at about 115 per cent occupancy right now," Betcher said. …
Last week, health officials said that of the 10 people most recently admitted to the ICU in Regina at that time, five had been younger than 40.
Note from The Line editor: At least five young people are in ICU in Regina with COVID-19.
ICU occupancy in Ontario has hit a record high, and more than 150 doctors have penned an open letter to the province's medical officer of health to stop basing COVID-19 restrictions on available ICU beds. …
This doesn’t mean that should you require urgent care, the hospitals in Ontario won’t be able to provide that care to you.
Note from The Line editor: Last week, more than 150 Ontario doctors signed a letter calling on immediate restrictions in the face of an expected increase in COVID-19 patients. This story is typical of media coverage — in that there’s not a single even skeptical voice in it. ICU capacity is not at a “record high.” It’s at about 80 per cent. Of the 2,300 ICU beds available in Ontario, roughly 500 are filled with COVID-19 patients. Hospitals are bracing for a surge by cancelling non-essential surgeries, and re-allocating resources — which is exactly what they’re supposed to do in the face of a short-term crisis.
These legitimate concerns with ICU capacity aren’t presented with historic context: namely, that Canadian hospitals are not uncommonly over capacity, particularly during flu season. If we start tying lockdowns to our very limited ICU capacity, we’ve set the bar for restrictions awfully low.
This is just a smattering of examples we at The Line encountered over the last week or two in which a COVID-19 story left us with more questions than answers. We are not trying to make an argument against lockdowns — that’s not a position we’d take in a Friday dispatch. Nor are we trying to downplay the serious problem COVID-19 and its variants represent to ourselves or our health-care systems.
What we are pointing out is that our daily coverage of the virus is unacceptably woolly. The top-line claims are disproportionately alarming in comparison to the actual data presented within the stories themselves — and that’s when these articles can be arsed to present hard data at all.
We at The Line struggled with our role when COVID-19 began. Our job is normally to be hyper-critical and skeptical of government claims. Yet when this pandemic started, we had to confront the possibility that expressing doubt and questioning authority could put lives at risk. So our role shifted. Our biases moved us toward risk aversion and precautionary communications; it’s safe to criticize government for not doing enough, but pushing the other direction could put lives at risk, and nobody wants to be responsible for that.
So for a while, we began to see our duty as less to question expert opinion, and more to simply relay it to an anxious public. The more fatalistic that expert opinion, the more our own assess were covered in the event of mass casualties. But in doing so, we’ve trapped ourselves in the easy story: disaster porn. Daily case counts. The culture war fight over maskers vs. anti-maskers. Lockdowns vs. anti-lockdowns. Condemning #Covidiots. Meanwhile, the deeper problem appears to be that we’re running our ICUs so close to the margins that a handful of COVID-19 patients is all it takes to throw the entire health-care system into a panic. And after 14 months into this pandemic and billions spent on disaster relief, our country appears to be incapable of meaningfully expanding that capacity to cope with a short term crisis. The great war, this is not.
Here’s the other problem. A lot of those experts we have deferred to over the last year got some very basic things wrong; from early catastrophic models of death tolls, to reluctance to shut down travel, to botched early detection, to mask wearing, to vaccine allocation. There is a benefit to being trained to cynicism and skepticism. There is a role us non-expert journalists have to play here, and (with some notable exceptions) we aren’t doing it very well.
The first story from the Globe listed above is an egregious example of a story that would not have passed journalistic muster in the Before Times. Outdoor transmission of COVID-19 is an extraordinary statement — one that defies most of our understanding of how this disease spreads. If Deena Hinshaw wants to claim that hanging out in a park is a serious and significant vector for transmission of COVID-19 variants — and if the Globe is going to put that in a headline — she needs to provide data to back it up. She didn’t. The Globe ran the story anyway.
Public-health experts and doctors are not neutral, infallible creatures. They suffer from their own biases, and they operate with their own agendas — and sometimes that agenda is at odds with a journalistic one. If a public heath expert believes that scaring the bejesus out of young people will keep us at home, thus buying time to ramp up a vaccination campaign, then that’s what they’re going to do for the greater good.
But our job isn’t to parrot that agenda uncritically, it’s to assess their claims, weigh the evidence, and communicate what we believe to be true. The evidence that appears to be at hand is this: while variants do represent an increased concern for young people, the actual risk of serious illness is still very small, and those young people most likely to face dire consequences are those with significant co-morbidities like diabetes and obesity. That’s why we’re vaccinating this cohort now in many provinces. Of course, there are going to be exceptions to this — young, healthy individuals who wind up on ECMO machines — but these cases still appear to be lightning-strike rare.
So while we’re not going to advise anybody to defy local public-health authorities, we will note that scaring the hell out of people is not the pathway to maintaining compliance for more lockdown measures, especially after a year in which trust in public health and media has already been so perilously eroded.
Your Line editors were intrigued to see a recent thread on Twitter from the effectively stillborn HuffPost Canada union, which emerged into this world just in time for BuzzFeed, HuffPost’s new owners, to shut the entire Canadian operation down. The thread lays out a long list of grievances. Some of them, especially denying severance to contractors retained through an agency, are harsh and unflattering, but (to be blunt) routine. Other allegations, including denial of appropriate severance to salaried employees, is more interesting. Were termination terms not laid out in their employment contracts?
We don't mean that flippantly. Any now-former HuffPost staffers can contact us at the email below. But your Line editors have been through some, ahem, employment status transitions during their time on this little blue marble, and we've definitely seen shenanigans from media company HR types. A lesson a friend of The Line, herself an HR professional, taught us years ago is that you should always remember that hiring someone is entry-level HR work. It's happy! People are excited and in a good mood. Firing someone, though, is senior-level HR work, because everyone is miserable and stressed out and angry. And those more senior HR types try to get the best deal for the company that they can. They aren’t there for you. They’re representing the person slipping the proverbial nose over your head. That includes making lousy "offers" they hope you'll sign even if they're for less than what you're contractually owed.
The lesson here? Never sign anything on the spot. They'll ask you to. Maybe even insist. Tell them to fuck off and walk out with the papers. Go home, order a burger, call your partner and your parents, get tanked that night, sleep in the next day and then read their offer. Dig out your old contract, too. Maybe you signed a lousy deal. Journalists for hire don’t go into negotiations with a lot of cards to play these days, and it’s very possible they've got you over a barrel. Or maybe they're just hoping that you'll sign their new offer because you're too shellshocked to realize it's less than what they already agreed to give you.
Trust us. There is no sweeter revenge than telling them to honour their own friggin’ contract.
Our last line in this dispatch comes to us courtesy of the fine flaks at the MLI, who are increasingly getting shirty with the eye-brow raising opinions of a media-adjacent international relations figure whose opinions sound just a little too consistently like they belong on an RT news panel.
Mr. Paikin is, of course, free to play whatever role he pleases in the coming multipolar world he envisions — up to and including offering apologia for the Holodomor. Or suggesting that we should form a strategic partnership with Belarus.
No one sane — including those institutions funded by our Department of National Defence — is under any obligation to take this man seriously, however.
It was all-COVID all-the-time for this shortened week. Except for Tuesday — on our first day back from Easter weekend doom, we ran a truncated policy paper from Alberta big wig Rainer Knopff. He made some trenchant observations about the oil-and-gas-but-not-coal coalition assembling itself in Alberta — and it’s filled with more Conservatives than the UCP might have expected.
New contributor Don Young really misses meetings. Yes, those terrible, stupid, bad-coffee, make-work, time-wasting meetings. Perhaps some hope for those pining for a return to the days of long commutes and florescent lights. You are not alone.
Whatever you may think of meetings, Line favourite Ken Boessenkool has no kind words for fellow churchgoers who flout COVID in their search to praise the Lord. In particular, Boessenkool expressed support for Alberta Health Services, which recently shut down serial rule-breaker Grace Life Church. “But what if the point isn’t to protect religious liberty but rather to use Grace Life Church as a performative stage in the broader culture war? One hero of the leadership of Grace Life Church has provided the template for promoting anarchy through civil disobedience. Actually, it’s worse than that. He used a lie get others to engage in civil disobedience.”
A few weeks ago, Line writer Kareem Shaheen noted that he was dead tired of liberal media disaster porn. Well on Friday, we offered a corrective: an op-ed by noted anti-lockdown doc Matt Strauss. He had some good news! The vaccines are having their intended effect. Despite our lackluster rollout, even a few hundred thousand jabs have dramatically reduced the death toll from COVID-19 — and as that line goes down, so too does the justification for strict lockdowns begin to diminish.
And with that, your Line editors do promise to go back to being sick about COVID-19. Just not before we offer you a few more fine plates of contempt for governmental failure, served between the Plexiglass of a socially distanced patio.
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