There Oughta Be A Law

The prowling panthers pose an existential threat to the almost two hundred ostriches inhabiting the colony.  The panthers, in their single-minded quest for food, are indifferent to the fate of the ostriches they are stalking.  The hapless birds represent only one thing to the powerful predators—survival.

The bigger, more powerful ostriches will flee in face of the threat, and most will make good their escape.  And once removed from danger, the threat will be dismissed from mind.  Others will attempt to fight back, but only a very few will emerge without lingering wounds, damage that may eventually prove fatal.

Still others among the colony, refusing to acknowledge the threat at all, are reputed to bury their heads in the proverbial sand.  By making the problem invisible, by denying its existence, they must think (if they think at all), they will render it harmless.  The panthers feast on those misguided birds, of course, and the ostrich colony is diminished in the ensuing slaughter.

Among the inhabitants of the ostrich world, there are none so blind as those who will not see.

If you were there to witness the panthers’ predatory onslaught, you might well turn away in horror, exclaiming, “This is terrible!  There oughta be a law!”

To which I would reply, “There is a law.  It’s the natural law of survival of the fittest, immutable and eternal.”

On a global, human scale, political corruption, pestilential pandemics, and pernicious climate change are but three of the menaces currently posing an existential threat to the almost two hundred nation-states inhabiting our planet.  These plagues, in their single-minded quest for domination, are indifferent to the fate of the human species they are stalking.  We hapless human beings represent only one thing to these malignant marauders—survival.

The richer, more influential among us will avoid such threats, at least for a while, by cloaking themselves with their wealth and power.  Others, less fortunate, will fight back, but despite their defiance, many of the resisters will nevertheless fall prey to the pervasive perils.  Those who overcome, if any, will inevitably be victimized by such lingering maladies as political oppression, ongoing illness, or severe-weather calamities. 

Still others among us, refusing in the face of all evidence to acknowledge these threats at all, will bury their heads in the proverbial sand.  It seems they believe that, by ignoring the clear and present danger such threats present, by denying their existence, they will render them harmless.  The mindless scourges feast on those misguided souls, of course, and the human species is diminished.

There are those among us who, witnessing the onslaught of rampant corruption, emerging pandemics, increasing climate danger—not to mention scores of other existential threats—react with horror, exclaiming, “This is terrible!  There oughta be a law!”

To which I reply, “There is a law.  It’s the natural law of survival of the fittest, and it’s immutable and eternal—unless, that is, we as a species take immediate, concerted action to change it.” 

“We’ve been trying that,” some protest.  “Doesn’t work.”

“Nevertheless,” I counter, “we are one colony on this planet, despite the fact we live in almost two hundred distinct nation-states, and our very survival depends upon our willingness and ability to work together.”

“We’ve tried that,” some say again.  “Didn’t work.”

It seems such a shame that, despite the magnificent evolutionary journey our homo sapiens species has carved out during our two million years on the planet,  we appear doomed to bring it to a premature end ourselves, through our wilful ignoring of the empirical dangers we face right now—burying our heads in the sand.

It seems such a shame that there are none so blind as those who will not see.

The Simpler Option

Growing up, my brother and I slept in twin beds in a shared bedroom, an arrangement that worked well for the most part.  But both of us suffered from seasonal allergies, he more than I, and as little boys, those caused a few summertime disagreements between us.

As we were trying to fall asleep, I’d often hear my brother sniffing repeatedly in a vain effort to stop his nose from running.  I’d try to block out the sound, even burying my head under my pillow, but to no avail.

“Blow your nose!” I’d hiss.  Another annoying sniff would be my answer.

“Stop sniffing or I’ll smack you!” I’d threaten after a few more minutes.  “Just blow your nose!”  Another sniff would invariably follow, and then a few more for good measure.  My brother was stubborn, if nothing else.

So in a rage, I’d bound out of bed and follow through on my promise.  He’d yell angrily and punch back, and we’d end up rolling and thrashing on his bed until my father arrived to administer a small rat-a-tat-tat on our backsides with the short, leather strap kept for such occasions.

These episodes always ended with my brother and me, both crying, back under the covers, and my  father warning us there better be no more fighting.  “And blow your nose!” he’d order my brother, handing him a tissue from the box on the table between our beds.  Chastened, my brother would do as he was told.

Falling asleep a while later, I’d wonder resentfully why he’d never comply when I told him the same thing.  So much anguish and pain would have been spared us both if he had chosen the simpler option.

“He’s so stupid!” I’d tell myself.  Things seemed simple when we were little boys.

But almost seventy years later, I find myself wondering the same thing about our population at large with respect to the SARS-CoV-2 virus that’s been afflicting us over and over and over again since late 2019. Viruses like these evolve their genetic codes over time through mutations or recombination during replication of their structure, and COVID-19 is no exception.

SARS-CoV-2 variations have been grouped by medical trackers into four broad categories: variants being monitored, variants of interest, variants of concern, and variants of high consequence.  The latest VOC lineages are Omicron BA.4 and BA.5, with a newer one on the horizon, BA.2.75.  Epidemiologists, immunologists, and virologists tell us these variants demonstrate transmissibility increases; more severe disease manifestation, as evidenced by increased hospitalizations or deaths; a marked reduction in protection from antibodies generated during previous infection or vaccination; and a reduced effectiveness of treatments or vaccines.

Sounds clear-cut to me—we’re becoming increasingly less-able to withstand the onslaught even as the viruses are mutating to avoid our defences.

Based on everything I’ve read from reputable sources—i.e. those whose mission is to present public health information based on evidence, as opposed to those who take a more relaxed approach based on political considerations—there are several practical measures we could be taking to mitigate the effects of the metamorphosing virus across the population.  Such measures require a degree of self-discipline and consideration for others, however—attributes that, so far, have been missing en masse.  Perhaps that’s why we have been singularly unsuccessful in reducing the disease to more a manageable endemic status.

Such simple mitigations have been grouped by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) into three types: personal controls, administrative controls, and engineered controls.  The first type requires each of us to assume responsibility for our own health by obtaining vaccinations and keeping them up-to-date, masking when in large groups indoors, testing when symptoms appear, informing those with whom we may have been in contact when we test positive, and isolating for ten days once afflicted.

The second type includes such measures as government mandating of up-to-date vaccinations for people wishing to attend certain venues and activities where others gather, and mandating mask-wearing for those same venues and activities.  These measures do not force people to get vaccinated or wear a mask, but they do establish those actions as prerequisites for participation.  And that only serves to protect the general welfare, surely a primary objective for any elected government. 

Enacting minimum requirements for paid sick-leave among the work-force would be another example of how administrative measures could work to reduce the spread of the disease.  Also, a greater commitment to communicating information about such measures to the public, coupled with more effective methods of doing so, are surely measures any responsible government would want to implement.  No?

The third type, engineered controls, would include, among other things, improving ventilation in buildings where the public gathers; providing ample supplies of testing kits and masks to public agencies; maintaining and improving the supply chains that keep our economy running smoothly; and planning intelligently to forestall the inevitable rise of future pandemic diseases.

Which situation is worse, I wonder?  Is it one where an economy slows precipitously because small businesses have to shut down for want of customers objecting to vaccine and mask mandates?  Or is it one where an economy slows ruinously because too many customers, not to mention employees, of businesses, hospitals, and other essential services are absent due to sickness?

Both are bad, but the first less so, if the simple mitigations described earlier could be put in place to ensure a shorter period of deprivation for all of us.  We could take advantage of that option if enough of us would decide to adopt the preventive measures that will forestall an endless repetition of SARS-CoV-2 surges, one after the other ad infinitum.

It’s unfortunate that too many of us, like my stubborn brother so many years ago, will not follow the simpler option.  The long-term consequences of their intransigence will be far worse for our collective well-being than the short-term pain inflicted by that leather strap on our tender buttocks was for my brother and me.

Versions of History

Historians play a significant role in describing the thin veneer of civilization under which we live, in that their stories of our past colour the perception of our present and shape the direction of our future.  But the history of which they write—that is, the actual unfolding of events—comes to us in three broad forms: 1) the unvarnished facts, the scarcest type; 2) the more palatable account-of-record, the most frequent type; and 3) the revisionist version, the most recent and pernicious type.

Take this example of the first type, the actual events.  A young boy, often bullied at school, brings his new yo-yo to the schoolyard.  While showing it off proudly to his friends, he is accosted by a bigger boy who takes the yo-yo, dazzles the assembled kids with a flourish of tricks, then claims it for his own.  To forestall any backlash, the bigger boy gives the smaller boy his old yo-yo, along with a threat that he will be beaten if he complains.  The smaller boy, unhappily accepting his lot, would likely write the history of events like this.

The second type, a more palatable account if the bigger boy writes the story, might read like this.  A young boy, often bullied at school, brings a new yo-yo to the schoolyard as a gift for the bigger boy who, he hopes, will protect him from his tormentors in exchange for the gift.  The bigger boy graciously accepts the new yo-yo, agrees to defend the smaller boy, and in a spirit of generosity, presents him with his old yo-yo.  The smaller boy gratefully accepts his lot.

Both these versions take on added import if I mention that the smaller lad is an Indigenous boy from the rez, or a Black boy from the wrong side of the tracks, while the bigger boy is the scion of an influential White family from the better part of town.

The third type of history-writing, the revisionist version, might present the incident like this.  A White boy who brings his new yo-yo to school to show it off to his friends notices an Indigenous boy, or perhaps a Black boy, eyeing the yo-yo enviously.  Being a compassionate soul, the bigger boy generously gives his old yo-yo to the smaller kid, who is overjoyed to accept it from his munificent benefactor.

These made-up examples are just that, intended to illustrate the differences among the three versions of history we encounter.  But only the first example is a true account of what actually transpired.

I—like most of you, I suspect—grew up being taught the second type of history at school, the palatable account-of-record.  I learned, for instance, that Columbus discovered the Americas in 1492, and that great European nations such as England, France, and Spain undertook to spread the Christian gospel to the heathens who inhabited those vast, new lands.  I was taught that Christian evangelizers, in their zeal to spread their religion and culture, gathered Indigenous children in schools far from family and home to provide them an education. 

I did not learn in school that the original inhabitants had lived on those lands for millennia before the arrival of the White colonizers, nor did I learn that the invaders brought disease and death to the original peoples whose gold and furs they coveted.  I did not learn in school about the horrors of residential schools for Indigenous children, nor about the treaties our government agreed to and then broke.  Those learnings came much later.

That more palatable version of history also taught me in school that anti-Semitism was an integral part of the Kulturelle Überzeugungen of the wicked Nazi regime during WW II, and that the Japanese devils waging unprovoked war in the Pacific were spawned by an evil, expansionist empire that had to be destroyed.  Both these facts were undoubtedly true.

But I did not learn in school that my own country, in a burst of anti-Semitic fervor, turned away a boatload of Jewish refugees in 1939, people fleeing the Nazis.  Nor did I learn of the internment camps in my country to which Japanese-Canadian citizens were exiled during the years 1942-1949, their homes and possessions stripped from them.  Those learnings, too, came later.

The revanchistes among us, those who would revise our history, try to tell us now that things like this did not happen—or if they did, it was for the best of reasons.  They tell us the people making the decisions in such matters were ‘men of their times’ acting under the moral imperatives of the day, and should not be caviled or condemned by woke commentators holding them to account under today’s standards, standards which have changed radically over the intervening years.  These revisionists, it seems, don’t want our children to learn unsavoury truths from our history, lest that knowledge corrupt the pristine past they prefer to present.

The problem is, although neither the palatable or revisionist versions of history accurately reflect what actually transpired, they can and do obscure or even alter the truth, affecting our perception and understanding of past events—and thus, perhaps, shaping our future actions.

As Winston Churchill famously wrote, Those who fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it.  His countryman and frequent foil, George Bernard Shaw, wrote, We learn from history that we learn nothing from history.

Regardless of which of these men is closest to the truth, what I have learned is that our history-of-record is, for the most part, what the powers-that-be in our society want it to be.  Moreover, that record can change to accommodate the whims and needs of the present realities as perceived by those powerful influencers.  We are not, for the most part, presented with the unvarnished facts from our history.  And that being so, it is not possible that our present and future behaviours can be shaped for the better by learning from our past.  

We fool ourselves by thinking otherwise.

We save ourselves by seeking the truth.

Still Wearing a Mask?

“How come you’re still wearing a mask?”  The question came out of nowhere from the man sitting at the other end of the shopping-mall bench.  I was waiting for my wife to exit one of the shops, and I assumed he was waiting on someone, too.

“Why do you care?” I replied, touching my mask self-consciously.

He shrugged.  “Don’t really care, I guess.  None of my business, really, but I’m just curious.  You’re ‘bout the only one in the whole mall who’s wearing one.  They say Covid’s over, right?”

I followed his gaze, noticed a few maskers among the passers-by, but not many.  “You really want to know?” I asked.  “Or are you just trying to hector me?”

“My name’s not Hector,” he said with a tiny grin, and we both laughed.  “Hey, I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t want an answer.”

“Okay,” I said, encouraged to engage.  “You ever been hit by a train?”

“A train?  Not that I recall, and I think I would.  Why?”  The grin lingered.

“Do you ever walk along rail-lines or across trestles?” I asked.

“Of course not.  Train-time is anytime, right?  That’s what the signs say.”

“Would your odds of being hit by a train be higher or lower if you did choose to walk the tracks, ignoring the signs?” I asked.

He looked around for a moment, puffing his cheeks.  “Higher, I guess.  What’s that got to do with wearing a mask?”

“I think my odds of catching Covid are higher if I don’t wear a mask,” I said.  “I’ve never been hit by a train, either, and like you, I don’t tempt fate by walking along the tracks.  Nor have I had Covid, so I’m just looking to lower the odds of catching it.”

“You can still catch it, even wearing a mask,” he said.

“You can,” I agreed.  “Even though, as you mentioned a minute ago, they claim it’s over.”

He looked at me, didn’t reply.

“I’m not sure who they are, but despite what you might’ve heard, Covid is not over,” I continued.  “According to what I read, it will never be over, just like smallpox, cholera, diphtheria or polio aren’t over.  Those viruses will always be with us, and it’s up to us to protect ourselves.  Vaccinations and masking are two of the best ways of doing that.”

“You vaxed?” the man asked.

“Four times,” I said.  “And I’ll get another shot when my doctor recommends it.”

“Me and my wife are double-vaxed,” the man said.  “They told us that’s all we needed.”  He smiled as he said it.

“I know vaxes and masks don’t guarantee I won’t get it,” I said.  “But I think they affect the odds in my favour.”

“Some people think the government’s got no right to make everybody wear masks,” the man said.  “They say it’s a free country and they got free choice.”

After pondering that for a bit, I said, “I could agree with them, I suppose.  You’ve made your choice, I’ve made mine, and both of us have the right to do that. But we will face the consequences of our choices.  Still, nobody has the right to infringe on the rights of others, either.”

“Meaning what?”

“You ever get on an empty elevator and smell cigarette smoke?” I asked.

“Not lately,” he replied.  “Can’t smoke indoors now, remember?”

“But what if some jackass doesn’t follow that rule?  What if they do smoke in an elevator, and then you get on after they’ve left?  You enjoy the smell of second-hand smoke?”

“I gave up smoking years ago,” the man said.

“Okay, good!  Now suppose that guy, instead of being a smoker, has Covid,” I continued.  “He’s on the elevator you’re going to get on, maybe on his phone, so the droplets and aerosols from his talking and breathing are being released into the air.”

“Yeah, so?”

“So those aerosols hang around when he gets off,” I said.  “Like second-hand cigarette smoke, except you can’t see or smell them.  And science has told us the Covid virus is attached to those aerosols, which is how the disease spreads.  You breathe them in, even if the sick guy has gone, and next thing you know…”

“If that’s how Covid spreads, why are they always telling us to wash our hands?” the man asked.

“Exactly!” I exclaimed.  “Why do they tell us that?  Hand-washing is good for overall hygiene, no question.  But that’s not how Covid spreads.”

“How do you know?”

“I know because I choose who to listen to, who to read,” I said.  “Epidemiologists and immunologists are more reliable, as a rule, than politicians or others with vested interests.  I could follow all the advice from the best experts and still get Covid, I know that.  But again, it’s all about rigging the odds in my favour.”

“So you don’t think Covid is over?”

“No one thinks it’s over,” I said.  “Even they—the people who keep telling us we don’t need to mask up—even they don’t think it’s over.  Instead, they tell us it’s time to get on with our lives, learn to live with it, make our own risk-assessments.  The problem is, they no longer provide us with the information we need to assess our risks effectively.  No testing and no reporting, even though they know the Covid variants are here to stay, in one mutation or another.”

“Yeah, I’ve heard about variants,” he said.  “What one are we on now?”

“Based on what I’ve read,” I said, “the dominant variants here now are Omicron BA.4 and BA.5, which are highly transmissible and perhaps as severe as the original BA.2 variant.  Rather than attacking the upper-respiratory tract, they go deeper into the lungs like that variant did, and they’re more likely to evade immunity.”

The man watched the people marching past us for a few moments.

“I agree we do have to learn to live with this disease,” I said, “because it’s not ever going away.  And until we achieve some sort of immunity, if we ever do, wearing a mask is one excellent way I have to protect myself and others around me.  Staying up to date with vaxes is another, and testing is a third.  And when I do any of those things, it doesn’t impinge on your rights at all.  But people who don’t do any of those things, if they become ill, can infect others around them—which is an infringement on the rights of those affected.”

“I can see that, I guess,” the man said.

“And contrary to what people might tell you,” I said, “you can get re-infected—more than once—and the effects of long-Covid are only now beginning to be realized.  The consequences of ignoring simple precautions like masking can be awfully severe.”

“So how long are you going to keep wearing the mask?”

I shrugged.  “How long are you going to refuse?”

He shrugged, too, the tiny grin returning.  “Until the facts convince me it’s best to wear one, I guess.”

“Same here,” I said, rising to join my wife who I’d spied coming out of a store, bags in hand.  “I’ll wear it until the facts tell me it’s not needed anymore.”

The man waved farewell.  “Thanks for the TED talk,” he grinned cheerfully. 

“My name’s not Ted,” I said, and we both laughed again.

As I walked away, I heard him start to cough.