March 23, 2020

We are blessed to live in a time of technological wonders that allow us to stay in touch both with our immediate family and with the broader world. Connection awaits at the click of a button. Even in isolation, screens connect us, enabling us to reach even beyond our circles of friends to endless streams of information and entertainment. We connect deeply in ways in which we are often unaware. The phone rang last night. A friend who had seen Clint Eastwood in a TV Western and wanted to tell me about it. He spoke as if Clint were his best buddy, someone he knew personally. I’ve heard others speak in similar ways about their favourite newscaster or their favourite on-line guru of whatever stripe. While I’m deeply grateful to all who are expressing their concern for my well-being by sending me lengthy articles, U-tube postings, lists of films, on-line lectures, concerts and much else, I’m also finding the sheer volume of material coming at me in isolation to be somewhat troubling.

Photo courtesy Leslie Nelson

How did we ever live before all these distractions became possible? A recent story of two men fighting over the last rolls on toilet paper on a super-market shelf reminded me of my own childhood, and the two-seater outhouse I mentioned in yesterday’s blog. A pile of torn scraps of newspaper sat between the two holes scooped out of the wooden plank. Since my parents did not yet speak English and because we were virtually penniless, I know that they would not have had a subscription to any daily newspaper. “What was the source of these scraps?” I now wonder.  For many a year, that unyieldingly stiff slipperiness was the only paper that my bum ever knew.

Sometimes, indeed, more often as I age, I become aware of the untold blessings that surround us. Blessings we did nothing to deserve. They simply are, and they spring up everywhere, like these trees in the forest where I’ve been so privileged to wander.

Questions seem to assault me on all sides.  How would we cope if the Internet were to crash?  Could that happen? I’ve taken so much for granted, much like the legendary young Perceval, who, in his self-absorption failed to ask his King “What ails thee?”  Perhaps on a broader scale, we have all been too self-absorbed to ask big questions. It was, and for some, it remains a time to pursue complete distraction, as if indeed, there were no tomorrow.

But what if we are called to envision a different tomorrow? There are so many questions that I’ve failed to ask. Who ensures that heat and water and electricity continue to flow into my home, and what if these people get sick? This week, as I passed a gas station surrounded in yellow tape, I realized how little I know of how the world functions. It has become so automatic to fuel up by slipping a card into a slot and pressing a few buttons, that I have not paused to ask questions like “How does gas get to a huge tanker truck whose driver then lifts up a manhole cover, attaches a hose to some gigantic underground tank and fills it up?  Did that tanker truck drive here from Alberta where they have oil as well as some kind of tar-like substance called bitumen that Canada is eager to export to countries who have facilities for converting it to oil, gas, and other useful commodities.? I know so little, and opt to “google” as best I can.

Immediately, this pops up. Did you know that Canada ranks third in the world for proven oil reserves? Yet, in 2018 Canada spent $19.4 billion to import close to 600,000 barrels per day of foreign oil? In parts of eastern Canada, more than half of the oil that’s refined comes from foreign sources – the majority is imported from the United States but also from countries as far away as Algeria, Angola and Azerbaijan. Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and Norway are listed as major sources.[1]

If we are third in the world for proven oil reserves, how can it make any kind of sense to import from Nigeria, Algeria, and Saudi Arabia?  And how can it be cheaper to import from Norway, a highly-taxed, relatively socialist country where nothing is cheap?  Puzzled, I read on.  Google informs me that it’s all about the money. It’s a  matter of profit.  “It’s simple economics for refiners… “to minimize operating expenses and maximize margins”. In other words, it costs refiners less to import foreign oil than to use domestic product.”

Is this a world that makes sense? Maybe getting a greater grasp of how things work rather than constantly distracting ourselves is among the crazy reasons the world as we know it has been brought to a halt. And while I’m questioning things, it occurs to me to wonder what would happen if the flow of oil from abroad were to stop? Where and how would the trucks fuel up in order to deliver food and medicine and those precious rolls of toilet paper?

In a recent phone call, an American friend told me that gun shops in the U.S. cannot keep up with the demand for weapons and ammunition. He claims that some (many?) Americans are preparing to defend their property against a wave of looting that will follow upon foreseeable future shortages. Are Canadians different? I try my best not to think of Gerald Stanley, the Saskatchewan farmer who, in the process of defending his property, managed to shoot and kill Colten Bushie, an 22-year old Indigenous man.

I try instead to think of the good people in my world who are already asking “How will we cope if this continues?” Already, good people are worried not just about the homeless and the hungry, but about ordinary people who are now unable to work. Some will be unable to keep feeding their children and pay the rent. Then what? Could they be evicted? Will governments pass temporary edicts to forbid such action? What if the landlord needs the rent to pay the mortgage? Could governments order the banks not to foreclose? Would people then be seeking to borrow ever greater sums from the banks, forgetting that investors have loaned their money to the bank and may themselves now need the cash they deposited in their account?

Already, I know of people seeking unemployment insurance, and others who are not eligible to apply. What will happen? How do we re-conceptualize EVERYTHING? For centuries, the Western world deemed it acceptable that there be a distinction between aristocrats and common folks. In modern times, that distinction has morphed into the ever-growing gap between rich and poor, between the world’s haves and the have-nots.  Now, it seems to me that this distinction will- and must be called into question.

Today, on my afternoon walk, I noted how many palatial homes have sprung up in my neighbourhood. All within a few blocks of my modest abode that is nonetheless a house, and therefore a luxury beyond the means of many. How deeply will I be reaching into my own pocket for a friend? For a mere acquaintance? For a stranger? Would I reach more deeply into my pocket if I had some assurance that others are doing the same? How will I know whether that is in equal measure? How can I trust that my elected officials (elected at least in part thanks to slick advertising paid for by corporations and major contributors) will do what is right and good for the greatest number? How can I be certain politicians are not first and foremost feathering their own nest? What shall I do with those who claim that all government is a waste of money, and that instead of paying bureaucrats, the private sector needs to take greater responsibility for all things? Can non-profit organizations stretch to include all who are incapable of providing for themselves?   And how shall I conceptualize fairness on a global scale when I cannot even envision it on a small, local level? How, given the collapse of “work” as it was, shall I conceptualize caring for a million or so people in Vancouver? Do I really care about Manitoba, let alone Manhattan or Mongolia?

And yet, something tells me that I must. That each and every one of us must begin to think in greater depth, both locally and globally.  I defy you to read what follows, and then go back to hoping that all these problems will just magically solve themselves:

Mohamed, 4, from southern Somalia, suffering malnourishment, at Banadir hospital, Mogadishu Somalia, July, 31, 2011. (AP Photo/Farah Abdi Warsameh)

“In the current case … it is nearly the entire world that is being struck, and not just a specific community or group. Hence the ethical deficiencies that seem most appropriate to address should also have a global scope.

While there are many issues that affect most of the world, one seems particularly connected with what we see unfolding in front of our eyes. Take this eyewitness vignette for example:

We are facing serious medical shortages that affect how we do our work. Simple things such as gloves, bandages or needles are not easy to get. There are times when I’ve had to operate without surgical gloves. I use the short nonsterile gloves which we use for basic consultations.

Coronavirus-era Northern Italy, Hunan or New York City? No, an average hospital in Liberia before corona.

The above may not surprise you. But what about the fact that a larger percentage of children under five will die of illness simply by being born in Sub-Saharan Africa than will corona patients over 65 around the world? In the poorest countries of the world, what we are seeing in our own countries is the norm on a good day – contagious diseases threatening to get out of control, insufficient medical infrastructures to respond to them and the accompanying economic fallout.

Making this much worse is the poverty of states and citizens that cannot even afford the resources that could otherwise be available. A Ugandan friend of mine recently related how he was fortunate enough to find the $1,000 required by the local hospital to treat his infant son for typhoid, given that the waterholes from which they drink are often contaminated. He continued to explain that the many others who cannot afford it must often resign themselves to their child’s death.

For the first time that I can remember, we are beginning to see at least relatively similar scenes in the wealthier countries. But there is one important difference. As soon as the seriousness of corona became clear, the US government earmarked $ 8.3 billion towards dealing with the new medical challenges posed by the virus. This has been followed by discussion of a financial recovery package that is likely to cost at least $1 trillion dollars, and probably much more. Other wealthy nations have responded similarly. Of course, all of this is as it should be. There is a serious crisis that will hurt many, and it is the government’s responsibility to find and spend the resources needed to address it as best it can.

However, the question I would like us to begin asking ourselves is why a fraction of that sum was not found when it was Africans that were dying.”

Francis Nataf, “Maybe God Is Angry At Us:   The panic corona has created in wealthy countries is an important wake-up call about the worth of human lives, wherever they are. The Times of Israel,

[1] Source: Natural Resources Canada