Category Archives: Social Commentary

Convergence—or the upside of the Perfect Storm

Historically (again), it’s worth acknowledging that periods of epidemic or pandemic, such as COVID-19, have often been intertwined with enormous and lasting social changes. Loose threads in the fabric of society tear open, revealing issues of which many of us were not entirely aware. Over the past few months, we’ve seen several of these, including poor quality profit-driven elder care, insufficient supports for poorer and homeless people, issues of racialized injustice bubbling over, and all this straining available mental health supports. As Professor emeritus Frank M. Snowden of the History of Medicine at Yale states: “Epidemic diseases are not random events that afflict societies capriciously and without warning. On the contrary, every society produces its own specific vulnerabilities. To study them is to understand that society’s structure, its standard of living, and its political priorities.”

Epidemics are levellers in the sense that the virus doesn’t care about your income and anyone can become ill; however, what we’ve seen in Ontario and Toronto is that those living in institutional contexts and in poorer neighbourhoods have had much higher incidents of coronavirus infection and death. As History Professor Patrick Zylberman said of the Spanish flu epidemic, “The virus might well have behaved ‘democratically,’ but the society it attacked was hardly egalitarian.”

So what kinds of positive changes might we see in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic? Professor Alexandre White of Johns Hopkins states: “It’s my hope that we can see how public health and socioeconomic disparities are widening as a result of the COVID-19 epidemic. Ideally, this will lead us to create better systems in the future.”

Sociology Professor Eric Klinenberg of NYU suggests that the pandemic’s force in pulling us together as communities to deal with the pandemic may have lasting positive impact. “The coronavirus pandemic marks the end of our romance with market society and hyper-individualism…We’re now seeing that market-based models for social organization fail, catastrophically, as self-seeking behaviours (from Trump down) makes this crisis so much more dangerous than it needed to be.”

Sonia Shah, author of Pandemic: Tracking Contagions from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond, suggests that in the best case scenario “the pandemic will force society to accept restraint on mass consumer culture as a reasonable price to pay to defend ourselves against future contagions and climate disasters alike…In theory, we could decide to shrink our industrial footprint and conserve wildlife habitat, so that animal microbes stay in animals’ bodies.” She finds it more likely, however, that we will instead instill more palatable changes, such as universal basic income, paid sick leave, and a more communal lifestyle.

As Professor Snowden says, “Epidemics are a category of disease that seem to hold up the mirror to human beings as to who we really are…They also reflect our relationships with the environment—the built environment that we create and the natural environment that responds. They show the moral relationships that we have toward each other as people, and we’re seeing that today.”

COVID-19 is shaking us up, but along with the bad, maybe some good can come from this. Let’s stop thinking about going “back to normal” and instead focus on hope and work towards a better future.  

© Catherine Jenkins 2020 all rights reserved

Unprecedented? No.

We’re hearing a lot of rhetoric around COVID-19, including the word unprecedented. Unprecedented means unparalleled, something that has never been seen before. While it’s true that most of us haven’t seen anything on the scale of a pandemic in our lifetimes, to assert that COVID-19 is unprecedented is to ignore centuries of human history and suffering, as well as hard-won knowledge about disease control.

We could go back to various Medieval plagues, including the Black Death of the mid-1300s that killed an estimated 75-200-million people in Europe and Northern Africa over five years. This highly infectious bacterial disease (yersinia pestis) was contracted from flea bites, but could also be contracted via human-to-human contact; the pneumonic strain is airborne. In this pre-antibiotic era, when notions of disease transmission were still unclear, little could be done for those who contracted the plague. Quarantining in houses or away from others, for instance on Lazzaretto Vecchio island in the Venetian lagoon, decreased the spread. Untreated, pneumonic plague has a 100% death rate, while bubonic plague has a death rate of about 50%. While plague can now be successfully treated with antibiotics, the plague still exists. Every year the World Health Organization (WHO) reports a few hundred cases, mostly in Africa and South America.

17th-century European ‘plague doctor’
17th-century European ‘plague doctor’ The beak distanced the physician from the smells of the plague and the stick allowed for socially distanced patient exams.

Evidence of smallpox has been found dating to the third century BCE in Egypt; from here it spread around the world thanks to various travelling invaders and colonists. The Crusaders brought smallpox to Europe in the 11th century; in the 16th and 17th centuries, Europeans brought smallpox to the Americas, decimating 90-95% of the Indigenous population ; in the 18th century, the British brought smallpox to Australia, having a similar impact on the Aboriginal population. Smallpox is an airborne virus, with a death-rate of 20-30% of those who contract it. In the 20th century alone, an estimated 300-million people died of smallpox. Edward Jenner began experimenting with a vaccine in 1796, and published a paper on his success in 1801. It wasn’t until 1959 that the WHO launched its Global Smallpox Eradication Program; when this failed, the program was relaunched in 1967. On May 8, 1980, the WHO finally declared the world free of smallpox.

The most obvious comparison with COVID-19 is the Spanish Flu global pandemic of 1918-19. We now know that the Spanish Flu was H1N1, a strain of flu that still exists and is often part of the annual flu shot. At the time, this too was a novel virus, so no one had immunity. Soldiers who survived World War I subsequently died of the flu in crowded camps while waiting to be demobilized, or unwittingly brought the virus home. Although more was known about disease transmission by the early 1900s, antibiotics still didn’t exist. Little could be done to treat the Spanish Flu other than isolating, quarantining, disinfecting, wearing masks, and limiting crowds. According to the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) as estimated 500-million people, a third of the world’s population, contracted the disease, and an estimated 50-million people died.

1918 Alberta Government Telephones operators in High River wear masks during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.

But as author Ferris Jabr recently suggested, Covid-19 Is Not the Spanish Flu. Although the numbers used by the CDC in their discussion of the Spanish Flu have often been cited, Jabr and others have recently disputed them as mathematically impossible. While it’s fair to assume that the numbers for the plague and smallpox are estimates based on historical data, we would like to think that statistics for something as recent as the last century would be fairly accurate. That they aren’t raises concerns about historical rates of infection and death, but also about current and future reporting of COVID-19 numbers.

The first issue is that not every jurisdiction will test its overall population to the same degree, or using the same type of test, making it impossible to be definitive about the infection rate. Already some countries have recognized that deaths initially attributed to other causes, were actually caused by the coronavirus, but it’s impossible to know whether all deaths due to coronavirus will ever be accounted for. While we may assume that we can be more accurate now than we were earlier in human history, we may be flattering ourselves. While we’re still trying to hit a moving target, what we do have now is greater knowledge and better tools for dealing with a pandemic.

So unprecedented? No. But what we can take away from the history is knowledge about disease spread and control. What is unprecedented is the amount of funding and brain power now focused on the single task of trying to create a vaccine. We’re witnessing science in action, and that will take the time it takes to ensure vaccines are both safe and efficacious. Meanwhile, we’re looking at isolation and hygiene—just like in the old days.

© Catherine Jenkins 2020 all rights reserved

Home(less) is Toronto

According to a recent news release from the Toronto Real Estate Board (TREB), sales are down. They suggest the decline is likely due to the federal mortgage stress test. The stress test means that a home costing between $500,000 and $999,999 requires a minimum 5% down payment on that first $500,000, plus a 10% down payment on the value between $500,000 and $999,999. In other words, home buyers are required to put down a larger down payment than previously.

Toronto Real Estate Trends’ March Housing Market Report quotes Toronto MLS statistics that the average price for a Toronto house is $838,046, with detached homes still averaging over a million dollars.  This means that buying an average home in Toronto requires a hefty down payment, as it falls into this $500,000 to $999,999 range. It also means that new home owners are struggling to make the down payment, and taking on hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, with low interest rates predicted to rise soon.

For now, both mortgage and Ontario’s unemployment rates are relatively low, but minimum wage is currently stagnating at $14 an hour. So someone working a 40-hour week at minimum wage is grossing less than $30,000 a year. By some estimates, the cost of living in Toronto rose from $28,200 a year in 2017, to $32,885 in 2018, and is predicted to go up to $38,572.68 a year for 2019 with no decline on the horizon. So the cost of living in Toronto is already beyond what many people make, and rising far faster than most people’s incomes. Most of this increase is due to housing costs. People don’t just want to survive—they want to thrive! They want to save money towards that hefty down payment. Clearly that can’t happen.

Like it or not, nearly 50% of people in Toronto live in rental housing. But even that’s not simple. According to the Canada Housing and Mortgage Corporation (CMHC), Toronto’s rental market only has a 1.1% vacancy rate, one of the lowest in the country.  Toronto has very limited rental accommodation, and renters are hanging onto their units as they watch the cost of rental housing rapidly skyrocketing. TREB estimates the average one-bedroom apartment is now $2,145, with a two-bedroom at $2,810. Even if you can find an apartment in this competitive market, you still have to come up with first and last, and reliably pay over two-thousand dollars rent a month.

It’s difficult to accurately estimate the homeless population of Toronto, but it’s grown noticeably in the last year. In 2018, a Toronto City needs assessment report estimated 8,715 homeless, with 533 people living outdoors. Although the 2019 figures have yet to be released (we’re still in winter), Toronto’s homeless population averages about 100 deaths per year. If a society is judged by how it treats its weakest members, we’re doing a lousy job.

How do we fix this? It’s a complicated problem, and I haven’t even scratched the surface. But what I do see is that the cost of housing in Toronto is spinning out of control. Few are able to live comfortably in this market, many are taking on debt that they’ll never be able to pay off, many are scraping by month-to-month renting sometimes sub-standard housing, and an increasing number are falling between the cracks and living on the street. Some cities have had good success with housing-first initiatives, wherein homeless people are provided with housing first and then supported in getting back on their feet. It’s also worth investing in more rental units, rather than condos, and keeping rents in a more affordable price range, while also ensuring that they’re maintained.

An awful lot of money is flowing through the hands of realtors and banks. While I have no issue with people making a decent income, I take exception at a very few making a great deal of money from the labour or others who are struggling.  

© Catherine Jenkins 2019 all rights reserved

Winter in Canada

Although temperatures were slow to cool last fall, and have yoyoed up and down the last couple of months, we’ve had a number of Extreme Cold Warnings with temperatures in the -15 to -21C range this January. These kinds of temperatures can cause irreversible harm or death to humans and other animals, especially when accompanied by windchills into the -30C range.

We’ve also recently had the first real snowfall of the season, receiving about 25 centimetres in one storm. Over January, Toronto has accumulated 63.4 centimetres, the most we’ve had in years.  In January 1999, then-mayor Mel Lastman called in the army when Toronto received 38 centimetres in one storm, and a further 27 centimetres ten days later. Toronto became the laughing stock of Canada for this profound overreaction.

This is winter in Canada. We get hit by some version of this every year, yet it still seems to come as a surprise with the shock of an ambush.

This is the time of year when I argue that we should revert to Fahrenheit temperatures for purely psychological reasons. +5F sounds much warmer than -15C, and there is profound comfort in that. I remember going to school when temperatures were in the minus teens and twenties Fahrenheit. I survived. But we’ve become such a risk-averse society. Everything’s become a crisis. As the Norwegians say, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.” If you dress for it, you’ll be fine.

Granted, I have a home to come home to, and although some people in my building haven’t had adequate heat, I’m doing okay. Although the legal minimum in Toronto is 21C, apparently if the building is working on bringing it up, the city won’t intervene.

Toronto’s homeless population has grown noticeably in the last year or so, and these people aren’t as fortunate. Toronto’s shelters are overburdened, so many stay on the street even in these temperatures. According to Toronto city data, about two people died per week between January 1 and March 31, 2018. With the current polar vortex, I expect the numbers for 2019 will be higher. If the measure of a civilization is how it treats its most vulnerable members, then we’re failing.

I hope you and yours have someplace warm to retreat to, and the right clothing for this weather. Me? I’m hibernating as much as possible. Because even though my rent just went up, and ice is forming on the inside of my double-glazed windows, I’m one the the fortunate ones.

© Catherine Jenkins 2019 all rights reserved

Teddy

Dedicated to the memory of Jakelin Caal and Felipe Gómez Alonzo, two children who died in immigration custody after crossing the American border from Guatemala.

Granny gave him Teddy when he was four. She’d patched him together from scraps lovingly sewn with tiny stitches in the dim evening light. He and Teddy became inseparable. But by the time he was five, his life and his world were very different.

Granny became thinner and thinner. The old woman wasted, slowly fading into quiet uninterrupted by breathe. His mother cried, and his father clamped his jaw tight against emotion. The little boy clutched Teddy closer. He always had food, but only years later did he understand that the extra bread Granny had given him wasn’t extra, but her own share of the family’s meager portion. His parents shared whispers in the dark, mouthing thoughts beyond his comprehension.

His mother woke him suddenly in full disorienting blackness, urging him to get up and dress quickly. Fumbling, he did his best, presenting himself to his mother and father with Teddy clutched tight under his arm.

His father took one last look before closing the door of their shack behind them. Outside, the boy became aware of shouting and gunfire and flashing lights in the distance. His parents had packed food and their few precious things into their two sheets. Each carried one. His father, looking wary, took the lead. His mother took the boy’s hand. He could feel her trembling, which scared him.

They walked, blinded by blackness. Quickly at first. Slowing as tiredness approached. They followed a narrow dirt road. Sometimes he tripped, righted by his mother’s hand. When he became too tired, his father lifted him up, cradling him against his strong back. His father smelled of sweat, and something unfamiliar. He clutched Teddy tight to his little chest, sandwiching him safely against his father.

Sometimes, others joined them. Strangers. Sometimes words were spoken. There seemed a quiet reverence in this march. A fear. A dim hope.

Then they came to the fence. They stopped. His father put him down. He looked up and saw his father’s tension. He could feel his mother’s hand shaking again as it gripped his little hand. The fence was taller than his father. It had spiky metal bits on top. All three of them looked up, daunted and fearful. He knew what was going to happen next, and was frightened, although he wasn’t sure why. He clutched Teddy even tighter.

Dawn was approaching. After urgent whispered discussion, and seeking in the dark for hidden dangers, his father quietly climbed, carefully lifting himself between and over the spiky metal bits. At the top, he stopped briefly, again checking the dark around them. He started to climb down, then dropped to the other side. A few shrubs broke under his weight. They waited in tense silence, seeing each other through the separating fence.

His father signaled that it was safe. His mother lifted him and Teddy as high as she could. He clutched the fence fiercely with both hands, feet finding toeholds, keeping Teddy wedged under his arm. Both parents urged him to climb. He was terrified, but knew he had to do what his parents asked. He climbed carefully, trying to be quiet. The fence was so high, his little arms and legs so tired. His mother started climbing too, her presence urging him onward. Eventually, he made the top of the fence. The metal spikes looked even more lethal close up.

His father urged him under the wire. His mother held the wire to make it easier for him. His little body was just small enough to get through, although he felt the sharp scratch though his thin shirt. His father motioned for him to drop. His father would catch him. He took a breath and dropped, landing in his father’s strong arms. His mother was suddenly beside them. His parents ran, his father still carrying him.

Loss. Teddy? Granny? Teddy? The little boy started crying the loud uncontrolled sobs of grief. His parents slowed but could not stop. They couldn’t understand what was wrong. Was their only child somehow injured?

Finding a dense thicket some distance from the fence, they stopped in the shelter of trees. As the boy sobbed and screamed, his father urgently checked limbs and body, finding the bloody slash across his tiny back where the razor wire had assaulted him. Watching in still silence, his mother looked scared. Then she noticed Teddy was missing and told his father what was wrong. Looking back, they could see the tiny shaped rags twisting from the razor wire on the fence top.

His father, aware of the risk of noise, urged for quiet. The exhausted boy was inconsolable. Hurried discussion between his parents. Then his father was gone, vanished into the nearing dawn. The boy, suddenly quiet, peered through the early light to see his father’s furtive glance, before swinging himself back onto the fence. He swiftly scuttled up the vertical metal, then raised one arm to rip Teddy down, before dropping back to earth and running quickly back to his family.

Overcome, the little boy jumped up to greet Teddy and hugged his father. His mother assured him that she would mend Teddy’s arm. But now, right now, they had to keep running silently through the coming day, and for many days to come.

Teddy now sat on his bookshelf. Whenever he glanced at his childhood toy, the events and emotions of that terrifying night flooded him. His mother had repaired Teddy’s torn arm with love and patience, but no access to materials. Since that night, the arm had looked a little thin, wasted like he remembered his Grandmother towards the end. But his mother and father had made it. He’d made it. And his precious Teddy had made it too.

UNICEF estimates that 30 million children are currently displaced by conflict, more than at any time since WWII. Let’s try for a better world in 2019.  

© Catherine Jenkins 2018 all rights reserved