Dispatch from the Front Lines: We go on holiday for two weeks and THIS happens?!
Hey, does anyone want to educate our children?
Hello there beloved Line family. We hope you had a relaxing, disconnected holiday with your friends and family, as did we. We're sure we didn't miss too much over the brea … oh dear God.
Sigh. Buck up. Let's get to it.
In addition to welcoming you back into the ceaseless churn of a news cycle that seems to be growing incrementally and maddeningly worse with every passing week, we'll start with a little housekeeping.
Firstly, we would like to thank you for being here — and to welcome all our newly paid subscribers. Our holiday sale did so well that we're going to extend it by one week, and one week only. If you're a free subscriber and enjoying our content, please consider paying a little of the freight. Your Line editors don't make a mint doing this, really just enough to consider it a part-time job, and we're generally happy with continuing to build the Line's reputation and audience gradually. But as more subscribers sign on, we can afford to devote more time to growing, paying for more writers, and better analysis and reporting (and eduhting halp fore are tiepos). Every little bit helps, and this sale won't come again any time soon.
Now, let's dive into the chaos.
Please enjoy this special-edition video of your Line editors trying to figure out what the hell to make of all of … this. We are aware there are audio issues. Our apologies.
In our last dispatch before the break, we noted two plausible outcomes for the then-pending Omicron apocalypse. (Ompocalypse? Aponiclypse? Sorry.) It was already then clear that the new variant was astonishingly contagious — we’re talking among the most contagious viruses known to our science. That was known. But what it was going to mean was not. In the best-case scenario, Omicron would spread through the population like wildfire on a be-droughted plain, but be so mild that it wouldn't overwhelm health-care systems. In the worst-case scenario, Omicron would spread through the population like wildfire on a be-droughted plain and even if less serious than previous variants, it would prove so infectious that the number of people who would require hospitalization would scale to disastrous proportions — a milder virus would, in effect, make it up on volume. There was also the unpleasant possibility that in either of these two scenarios, so many people would be required to isolate due to illness or exposure that certain essential services required to sustain, uh, civilization itself, would be periodically and unpredictably unavailable.
The good news is that we can tentatively suggest that, globally, we're on track for the better scenario. Not a “good” scenario, but reports the world over are confirming that Omicron poses a significantly lower risk of severe illness than earlier variants. Case rates are insanely high, and yet no country is reporting health-care systems overrun to the point of collapse — to date. For example, hospitalization rates in the U.K. have increased by about 20 per cent over a month ago. This is concerning, but rates remain at about one-quarter of the last wave’s peak. In France, a similar story: hospitalization rates are trending higher, but still less than half of historical peaks. These jurisdictions began their Omicron waves earlier than we did. They are our leading indicators.
Alas, Omicron is not benign. It will certainly send some people to hospital, and worse. Milder does not mean harmless. Canada is in a particularly parlous state simply due to the fact that our health-care system has proven to be incredibly fragile, lurching ever closer to the abyss over the strain caused by a few additional dozen or hundred Covid patients in any given system. We were warned, over and over, for years, that our health-care system was too lean before Covid came along, and we didn’t listen. We’re all paying the price for that now (and for some, that price is steep).
We don’t know what the week ahead will bring. But Omicron is a tamer beast than what we dealt with before, and that has to count for something. So must our vaccines. We ask our readers at the start of 2022 to do much as we did at the end of 2021: be smart, take reasonable precautions, keep your wits about you, and remember that while we are recording dizzying daily COVID case records, these numbers appear to be materially decoupled from deaths and serious adverse outcomes. Places with low vaccination rates and lots of pre-existing medical conditions (ahem, America) are certainly faring worse than other locations, without doubt. Our fragile, tiny hospital system remains a real vulnerability that we will really need to start addressing at some point. But on the whole, the relationship between case rates and severe negative outcomes are not what they were during previous waves, and Canadians have done their duty and gotten vaccinated at high levels.
So while we cannot rule out the possibility that our hospitals are going to be swamped by Cron patients in the next few weeks — it could definitely happen, and we are watching carefully — every day in which we record seven-digit COVID rates globally without concurrent reports of idling refrigeration trucks and mass graves is a good day.
Meanwhile, our ability to even track this stuff is, uhhh, eroding. Testing capacity has maxed out like that great “3.6 roentgen” scene from HBO’s Chernobyl: It’s a lot more radioactive than that in the control room, but the radiation detectors don’t go any higher than 3.6, so that’s what they believe they’re absorbing. Our testing systems are similarly maxed out, which means that our recorded cases are likely a fraction of the actual number of people who actually have Covid (which should give us greater confidence that this strain is, indeed, very mild; although the absence of data to hand isn't comforting).
Oh, and the isolation problem has been "solved" by simply reducing quarantine requirements in order to keep the trains running, though this too bears watching.
As Anthony Fauci put it on CNN last week: "With the sheer volume of new cases that we are having and that we expect to continue with omicron, one of the things we want to be careful of is that we don’t have so many people out...I mean, obviously if you have symptoms you should [be out], but if you are asymptomatic and you are infected we want to get people back to jobs — particularly those with essential jobs to keep our society running smoothly.”
In short, the wildfire is not yet spent, but on the virus front, we find ourselves more optimistic than we were prior to the break. Do we think the weeks ahead will be painless? No. But there is good news to be found — Omicron is milder, our vaccines are working, and our hospitals will hopefully not have to contend with as large a surge as in prior waves.
It’s not the best good news we’ve ever had, but we take what we can get in the year 2022, don’t we?
Our cautious hope is not widely shared in the corridors of power, though. In B.C., schools are beginning a phased return. The Christmas break has been extended in Alberta; and Quebec is implementing an aggressive new round of health restrictions, including a curfew. But we're going to direct our ire specifically on Ontario, which announced another round of Covid closures Monday, in an often bizarre press conference that went so badly for Premier Doug Ford that he is now being mocked by a pizza franchise.
The new restrictions are not quite a lockdown, a term that has been overused, sloppily, by too many people during this whole thing. But they're the real deal. Indoor dining is closing. Theatres are closing. Gyms are closing. Indoor sports programs are terminated for at least three weeks. Retail stores will have limited capacity. Hospitals are delaying all but critically urgent life-saving surgeries, which will cause death and suffering for many somewhere down the line.
Oh, and the schools are closing again.
Deep breath. In, hold, and out. In, hold, and out. And back to writing ...
Your Line editors try to be both humble and generous. We don’t expect any of our political leaders to bat a thousand. Omicron is a different challenge, and uncertainty is unavoidable. But we are reacting to this variant as if this is March of 2020 all over again.
And it isn't. We do not — say again, do not — deny that there is danger and risk. But is there literally no other way to meet the challenge than doing almost the exact same things we did before a sky-high vaccination rate?
The outrage is particularly acute for parents of young children (raises hands). If there has been one slogan that has been repeatedly offered and yet never even remotely honoured, it's that "schools must be the last things to close and the first to open." And yet, here we are, again, not doing that. For millions of students, it's back onto Zoom and Google Classroom. But retail remains partially open. You'll find more kids in shopping malls than schools come Wednesday morning.
We are adults. If we have to close schools, okay, but tell us why. Why are we denying an education to the cohort least likely to be harmed by this virus? What is the specific purpose of the school closure this time? What specific broader public objective is it serving? And importantly, is there a reasonable chance that the school closure will achieve that specific objective before Omicron's shockingly fast spread swamps the province anyway? Closing schools buys time, in theory, to vaccinate more children and boost more adults — worthy goals, certainly, but how much time? Weeks? Days? This matters. You cannot do a cost-benefit analysis if no one in the know will tell us the expected costs or the hoped-for benefits. We're just being told, sorry, break out the Chromebooks again, and brace for impact. (Really. Ford said "brace for impact." Thanks, Doug.)
Absent these answers and any sense of the goals, we cannot begin to assess whether closing all the schools makes sense. Further, we have absolutely no idea what will make the schools safe to open again. The Line's children are still young — none has reached double-digit ages, but they still rolled their eyes at the notion that this will be over by Jan. 17, as Ford and his team weakly suggested Monday. Our kids believe in Santa and the Tooth Fairy, but they've clued into what Doug Ford means when he says it'll only be two weeks before they see their teachers and friends again.
A magical man sneaking into the house to put presents made by elves at the north pole under the tree? Sure. Checks out. Whatever Doug Ford just said? Don't bullshit us, dad. We're smarter than that.
We noted above the staffing challenges Omicron is causing, by putting large numbers of workers into isolation at the same time. There are concerns about schools running out of teachers. Fair enough. Shutting down schools with too few staff to open makes vastly more sense than shutting down the entire system pre-emptively. We believe that every day a child is in a classroom is valuable. While some closures are undoubtedly unavoidable, in what possible universe is that a reason to close all the schools?
Indeed, it's interesting to see how little anyone has considered other options. Did anyone propose allowing vaccinated kids back into in-class learning immediately, with all children returning as conditions improve? Did Ontario consider bringing back the younger grades for in-person learning? Did we consider opening the schools in sequence as they host on-site vaccine drives for the attending students, allowing the safest schools to reopen first? Did we think about literally anything we could do other than what we're doing? The Line's Andrew Potter wrote a column here in August of 2020 about the shocking lack of creativity in adapting schools to the crisis. It has aged depressingly well.
The Line understood the earlier lockdowns, not because we enjoyed them — we did not! — but because they were a means to an end. When COVID first emerged, we were completely unprepared and didn't even know if vaccines were possible — they certainly weren't imminent. When the virus began surging again in parts of the country in late 2020 and early 2021, vaccines were on the horizon, but were not yet available to Canadians in quantity. By the time of the third wave in Ontario and Quebec, the vaccine rollout was just gathering steam, and though the early prioritization of the most vulnerable — health-care workers and long-term-care-home residents — was a policy success, blunting much of the wave’s feared deaths, there were still more than enough unvaccinated adults to feed the flames and cause a crisis. In each of these cases, you could make a fair, reasonable case that a lockdown — a school closure in particular — was worth the awful cost, because we just didn't have any better options and the time gained was necessary to do big, complex things.
But now? No one can say what the school closure will accomplish, how much time will be gained by it, or what the time gained will be used for. Ford can't tell us how long it will last, or what must happen before they can reopen again. All his government can tell us is "Don't send the kids to school." This all feels a lot more like Doug Ford trying to buy himself some political cover ahead of his re-election campaign come June than a proposal to combat a public-health emergency in his province. And he's buying it with the education and emotional wellbeing of children. Oh well. See you at the mall.
Now, onto anything but Covid. We at The Line would like to welcome a new member to the growing clique of Disaffected Substack Writers; Canadian Broadcast Corp. veteran Tara Henley made her Substack debut with a bomb of a piece on Monday, one which rapidly made the rounds for articulating what many CBC listeners have observed or, at a minimum, sensed.
"In a short period of time, the CBC went from being a trusted source of news to churning out clickbait that reads like a parody of the student press. Those of us on the inside know just how swiftly — and how dramatically — the politics of the public broadcaster have shifted," she wrote in her Substack, Leaning Out.
"To work at the CBC in the current climate is to embrace cognitive dissonance and to abandon journalistic integrity."
There is obviously much more that could be said about the internal goings on at the CBC; your Line editors have heard more than they are at liberty to divulge. So let's begin with this caveat: The CBC is not one monolithic entity. It's a gigantic, bureaucratic, multi-headed hydra filled with silos, factions, and internecine office turf wars. Some people thrive in that kind of environment; others flee it and start their own Substacks. Regardless, Henley's experience may not be reflective of every CBC employee's tenure. However, she is certainly not alone. Her observations ring true.
The CBC has changed. Its listeners and consumers have noticed it. Those of us who have paid attention to the frustrations of some of its employees have heard it. And while that shift is broadly reflected in newsrooms around North America — see the many previous Dispatches we've written on various internal ideological battles pitting the new expectations of "moral clarity" against more traditional standards of liberal journalism — the drama at this organization in particular appears to be deeply set and profound.
Not for all the tax juice in Ottawa could you pay us enough to work as a manager in those halls.
That said, it's one thing to quit your job two middle-fingers into the air (as we could tell you), and another entirely to build a paying audience large enough to cover a mortgage payment. How much appetite is there for rants about mainstream media? How is Henley going to position herself in a media market well-served by red-pilled journalists? Will she be able to capitalize on her moment of virality in the long term?
It's a risk. It's always a risk.
For those who would critique her public resignation letter as a grift, we'd like to disabuse you. The easy money for Henley would have been to maintain a steady, taxpayer-fattened income at the CBC. The subscription model is a high-risk, high-reward play, especially for a writer with a comparatively small profile.
We wish her nothing but luck. More importantly, we hope someone senior at the CBC is reading her comments section.
Lastly, a final note about Joe Rogan, whom we imagine requires no introduction. Last week he cancelled his sold out Vancouver show, citing uncertainty around his vaccine status. While Rogan may be one of the most responsible humans alive for America's comparatively dismal vaccination rates — his comments about vaccine and bonkers treatment protocols for Covid have been demonstrably problematic and unwarranted — we have to admit there's a bit of procedural absurdity at play.
Rogan has had Covid. He recovered, publicly. He could certainly afford to take a test proving the presence of antibodies. And given how rapidly Omicron is spreading everywhere, how serious a risk could recovered Covid patients possibly pose?
The point isn’t to wade into the specifics of Rogan or his cancelled visit — we don’t hate ourselves nearly enough to get into the culture-war trenches with either his critics or boosters (we fear some of both will find us here anyway). Our point is more basic: what should our policy be for people who ridiculously refused to get vaccinated, but then got and survived Covid? Sooner or later, we’re going to need to exit this pandemic, and these are exactly the kind of “mopping up” questions we’ll have to contend with when we do. We can start now, or, in typical Canadian fashion, we can wait until Covid is over, and has been for months, and all our allies have already answered these questions, and then convene a task force to eventually answer them for us.
OK, well, that’s it for this special dispatch. We are back in business for 2022. Please take this last-chance opportunity to subscribe at a discount, and expect fresh content in your inboxes from here on out.
And a reminder — from now on, some of it is going behind the paywall. Fair’s fair for our paying customers.
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