Saturday, July 2, 2022

Covid and Climate Change: Similar Rationalizations, Different Intensity

I was searching through YouTube looking for things to include in my career retrospective, mainly looking for a clip of an old CKCO show, What's Your Point/The Final Round, from March 28, 2009, filmed at my school. Four teachers were set up to argue on various random issues, and Brent Hanson provoked us to argue with a poke in the back to indicate when we should each talk, and I'd jump in as commanded, which made it sound like I was intentionally interrupting people! By a student vote, I won the debate. Unfortunately (or not) that clip appears to be lost to the ether. But I did come across an old CTV newscast about an Earth Day festival I used to put on, and it has interesting connections with my reaction to our current Covid crisis. 

Back in 2010 (at 1:30 min. in), I said, "The feeling with a lot of my students, maybe 30% or so, is that this is all a conspiracy, that we're fine, we've done nothing to change the world, and some crazy environments are making us think that we did."

Sound familiar? 

I've been an environmentalist my entire life, raised into it, and I'm used to the feeling of being baffled by how easy it is to make many little changes in our lifestyles that could go such a long way to helping us live a longer life - well, doing our part to reduce GHG emissions here can help people in other parts of the world who are being hit hardest by climate change -- and how few people actually give a shit to make the tiniest effort. Yes, of course we also have to protest and advocate for policy change if we want to get anywhere, but it's both/and, not either/or. It's hard being that person who still cares about preventing transmission of Covid, and I'm also that person who still tries to reduce my GHGs. Environmentalism taught me that most people don't want to have to care about the world, so we need strong policies to help us do the right thing! It definitely can't be left entirely to individual action. As Dr. Ranu Dhillon said, "Imagine if once John Snow found the source of cholera, instead of removing the pump handle, he told people to sterilize their own water with no mandate for public venues to do so. That's what we're doing with Covid. There's scant action to clean the air and prevent it at its source."

I'm relatively comfortable going against the grain. I mean, I don't like it, but it's preferable to losing all integrity by following what's popular instead of what's right. I'm the person who inspires eye rolls from colleagues as I walk in a room: "Marie's here; now we have to recycle." Of course you do! But you should recycle and use the other side of that paper first and drive less and eat less meat and do all the things when I'm not here too!! For the record, I never admonished anyone for tossing stacks of perfectly good paper in the garbage, but they know I care about stuff like that, and they feel a measure of shame when I'm around, like they've been caught doing something wrong even though I say nothing. 

But the Covid reaction is a different beast. 

With environmental action, people seem to understand what they should be doing and recognize that they're often just being lazy or careless when they ignore it all. They get, in some deep internal place, that it's going to harm our fragile ecosystem if we keep going as is, but they find creative ways to rationalize that they're just one in almost 8 billion, so whatev's! I'm used to not having many allies and being that weirdo who thinks every little bit helps; the clubs I ran at school helped me find connection with like-minded students, at least. 

With Covid, the reaction to me isn't just eye-rolls, but unfettered rage. People get angry that I keep wearing a mask and dare to suggest that we should all be wearing masks. Recently even a friend of mine asked me what I'm so afraid of since it's really not a big deal to get it! I said little because it makes people upset to remind them that their vaccinations are waning and less effective against BA.5, that having it once makes it so much worse to get it again like playing a game of Jenga that gets more and more precarious as the virus strips our immunity, that it resides in every organ for months and months and months (according to Dr. Pat Soon Shiong), that up to 30% of people have major lasting problems like organ failure or serious cognitive decline - the lowest estimate for LongCovid in fully vaxxed people is 16%, and about 3% of people die, even formerly young and healthy people. Some people have a sense that none of that could possibly happen to them, and I wish I could get a piece of that illusion of immortality. But they also don't worry about spreading it to other people, either, as if they can't feasibly be tainted with disease. So here we are with a continuing mutating virus, uncontainable because we're tired of trying to stop the spread with a simple yet effective mask. 

It's the refusal to be concerned with the effect on others that most bothers me. If you feel like you're ready to die and don't care how disabled you might be for your remaining years, so aren't at all worried about getting it, then that's your business. But as soon as you leave your house and show up indoors unmasked or get very close to people who don't choose to take on that risk, then you're crossing a moral line. It's the difference between not wearing a seatbelt and refusing to fix your brakes. Trusting vaccines alone is like wearing a seatbelt in a dangerous vehicle -- it might help once you've been in a collision, but it does little to prevent the collision in the first place.

Nobody wants to feel bad for doing something they shouldn't, and there are two solutions to mitigate feelings of guilt or shame: change the harmful behaviour or attack whatever provokes those feelings. It's the crabs in a bucket effect that provokes a defensive internal dialogue: "I don't want to do what's necessary to avoid it, and somewhere inside I'm upset with myself for that, but that feels too crappy to handle, so I'll direct my anger outward instead, at the people reminding me that this virus still exists."

The anti-maskers are similar to anti-environmentalists in that they seem to think a mask prevents any enjoyment of life, so it's not worth it. If you think masking affects your quality of life, consider what having LongCovid will do to you! But live fast and die young is the mantra of our time, for the middle aged as well! Environmentally, they might be the same people who drive short distances because they think they're too busy not to - they have too much to get done to make it a priority to reduce any harm they might cause in the world. The rationalizations are similar. But the anger is different, frighteningly so.

Since having early menopause inflicted on me by surgeries, I've had ridiculous hot flashes that suddenly drench me in sweat, so for years I've had my window open a bit in class, in all weather, and students have always been very understanding. Now with Covid, it's more important to bring in some fresh air to reduce the CO2 levels in the room, but suddenly it's intolerable. This year I sent out a survey to students about the course prior to our first day together, asking if there are any concerns with that practice, and found none. Then, on the first day of class, I asked the kids if they were okay with the window opened, and they all consented to that crack of fresh air in class - especially after I explained how high the CO2 is in the room after lunch, triple what it should be, but apparently at least one student wasn't a fan. One day an angry parent threatened me with "a lawsuit that will ruin you and destroy your family" for that half inch opening to the outdoors. He made it clear that he's not vax'd, doesn't mask, and hasn't gotten sick because covid's all a big lie, and he'll not have me spreading this bullshit to students. STOP LYING TO THE KIDS!! 

We're losing our civility, regressing to the age when you can pitch a fit in public without a hint of embarrassment - about age three or four. As a child, I was sick one time and being demanding, and my mom told me, "Even if you're not feeling good, you can still be polite." Civility is MORE vital in times of chaos. 

My admin sided with the parent, "Students can't learn if they're cold." I know I'm not the only teacher who let in some outside air in the room after lunch, but I seem to be the only one who was targeted for it. I'm small and quiet and a little bit broken since having cancer, so I think I'm an easy target for a take-down. And then admin noticed my Corsi-Rosenthal box and had me remove it immediately. At least nobody ever stopped me from wearing an N95 even though they could have. Always a silver lining. 

So that's weird, though, right? With all my environmental efforts, I've never been threatened about it, never had admin visit my class repeatedly to actually stop me from reducing GHGs or insist I only use one side of the paper for better learning or make me drive to work - although one once balked at the thought of me ever being a department head because I can't possibly get to the board office without a car, apparently completely unaware of all other means of transportation. The measures taken, over and over, to prohibit prevention of transmission of this collection of mutated viruses makes it feel like there are orders from on high for a cull. Reduce the population to reduce unemployment! Mass disabilities will break our spirit enough to be easily led as we beg for scraps. I hope I'm very wrong, but I've been struggling to find any other explanation for the removal of mask mandates that could prevent transmission and mutations of a life-altering disease. Comparing the two issues has helped illuminate another possibility.

I left my career earlier than intended because I couldn't focus on students when I was spending so much energy ensuring adequate airflow in the building and being threatened or stopped at every turn. I couldn't do my job because the government, school board, and admin weren't doing their jobs to ensure the safety of our kids. At the very least, they should have been fielding the screaming and threatening parents so I didn't go home weak-kneed and completely shaken quite so often.   

But it's fascinating to me that there's no feeling of shame with not masking or not ventilating our rooms adequately. None. It's not like the response people have after being seen throwing paper in the garbage or driving a hummer to the corner store for a loaf of bread. We all seem to get that our behaviours add to climate change, and every little bit helps, so we're at least a little sheepish about cranking the A/C on a warmish day. That sheepishness, or any internal acknowledgement that not masking during a pandemic risks transmitting a fatal or disabling disease, doesn't exist in the same way. Instead people are emboldened to insist that, "Masking is a choice, and choices have to be respected!!" The language of discrimination is being used as if people who don't mask are victims of attack in being reminded of the virus by radicals like me who... want to stop a disease?? 

As I've explained before, it's like people who are about about to drive drunk might feel like victims of friends who insist on taking their keys so they don't end up harming themselves or others. They might thank them in the morning, but they just as easily might still be mad at that paternalism, that someone thought they weren't making the right decision, despite the fact that their friend was right. We hate being told

Even back in the day when most people didn't believe in climate change, they could often be convinced, at least, that it doesn't harm anything by walking to the store, that it can be fun to ride a bike again and healthier for you to do anyway just in case it's all real. But reminding people that, even if Covid isn't real, ventilating and wearing a mask can keep them from getting a cold or flu doesn't sway them. Imagine never getting sick again! 


Covid is too close. The actions we take for climate change action will affect people twenty years from now. The responsibility is ours, but it's watered down, and it's impossible to say that my trip to Costa Rica a few years back is the thing that did us in. With Covid, we can see the effect of our actions, often able to directly trace contacts to find out where we caught it. I had friends over on my porch on Thursday to congratulate me on retiring: some masked, and some refused to mask or stay distanced despite my strategic furniture arrangement. So now I'm isolating from my family for five days before testing to make sure I don't spread anything to my kids. If I have it, I'll know precisely where I got it. That knowledge raises a level of defensiveness that doesn't happen with climate change. 

So here's another possible reason to remove mask mandates besides willingly provoking societal destruction for some kind of profit: If we all stop masking, then it's harder to point a finger at who spread the virus to us, who made the baby sick or caused a teenager to drop out of school because they can't get out of bed or left a grandparent intubated in the hallway of the hospital. And then we can relax that nobody will find out if it was ME that caused the problems since we're ALL causing the problem!! The anger at mask-wearers is almost an unspoken accusation of, "Do you think you're better than me by trying not to get sick?" found in tandem with the mantra, "We're all going to get it anyway!" and "It's not my fault."

The language used by governments and schools furthers the divisiveness by presenting it as a lifestyle choice rather than a health and safety measure. In the announcement about dropping mandates from WLU and the University of Waterloo, they implored people to "respect the comfort levels of others who may still choose to wear a mask." The universities, who are supposed to be full of smart people, are making it clear that mask-wearers are the odd ducks because they have some bizarre concern with BA.5 disabling a good quarter of society. The rest of society just doesn't care - or won't until it's too late, until they experience it directly or close to home. The message, "Wear a mask if you're worried about it" is patronizing. If we're remotely responsible citizens, aware of how infections levels put everyone at risk, then we should all be wearing a mask.

If I'm shown that my information is inaccurate, that people aren't developing long-term disabilities that prevent them from living an enjoyable life, if people aren't actually committing suicide because their life is so bad after getting LongCovid that they can't take it, if it's not true that the vaccines given last January won't do much for us now especially against new mutations, if it's not a threat to our society and communities and families, then please show me that it's all fake, and then I'll happily take off my mask at the store like everybody else! 

In the words of Dr. Andrew Murray: "A new pathogen evolved. Humans adapted remarkably quickly with remarkably effective vaccines. It was not quick enough; the virus adapted faster. Now, having failed to make ourselves immune to the virus, we are trying, desperately, pathetically, to make ourselves immune to reality." We need to stop contributing to an aesthetic that suggests the pandemic is over or inconsequential. Vaxing, masking, and ventilating IS learning to live with Covid instead of surrendering to it. 

I was so proud of how well I was able to shift gears over and over during these past few years, to move online as needed, happily working 16-hour days putting my entire course on video, filming on weekends when it all started because we weren't allowed on zoom for privacy concerns, and then spending evenings fielding student questions and giving one-on-one support. I got tons of positive emails from parents in the early days, back when nurses and doctors were still regaled with applause each evening. Then things shifted. I continued to try to keep kids safe with ventilation, going above and beyond spending my own money on a CO2 monitor and CR box, only to be admonished and threatened. Many medical professionals have similar stories about abuse for maintaining safety protocols after that initial gratitude wore off.

Like climate change, we know what needs to happen, but unlike many actions necessary to decrease global warming, it is SO easy for each of us to wear a mask in public and for governments to insist on that behaviour, like they insist on seatbelts and cars being in good working order. We can dramatically change the direction of this mess if we're willing to take on a little bit of personal responsibility. But are we grown up enough to do it?


Owen Gray said...

Given the latest U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Marie, I fear we're not going to meet the challenge.

Marie Snyder said...

I can't see what could possibly wake us up from this adolescent selfishness at this point, Owen. This really feels like the beginning of some frustrating dystopian movie where things could work out, but the cast are all idiots. I was on my porch just now as my neighbour was talking to visiting friends about how sick she is, no energy to do anything more than lie in bed more the day, and the vision that most comes to mind is that cold war cartoon When the Wind Blows of a couple slowly dying of radiation poisoning, trying to keep a stiff upper lip as they're just barely able to make themselves a cup of tea each day. Enjoying the garden and bike rides and family as much as possible. And ranting about it all here, of course.

Lorne said...

You've provided a very penetrating analysis here, Marie. I have to confess that mine has been far more superficial. I was talking to a neighbour down the street the other day; he and his wife both have health problems, and he is appalled by the selfishness of people in putting their own comfort first. I told him how disappointed this entire pandemic has made me in human nature. I observed that people have clearly regressed to an infantile level, essentially throwing tantrums over the most modest of public health measures, such as wearing masks.

It is unfortunate that your final year of teaching was marred by administrative cowardice. My own experience with craven principals led me to retire about a semester before I planned to. It just wasn't worth the frustration anymore, realizing as I did that administrators had forsaken the role of educational leaders in favour of resume-polishing, always striving for the next rung up the ladder.

Marie Snyder said...

Thanks, Lorne. I try to think of the willful ineptitude like the almost built-in annoyances that show up relationships with our young adult progeny that serve as the useful push we need to finally kick them out of the nest. Not my kids, of course, who are all still living at home!! I loved the place so much that I worked hard to keep the school open against all odds, and now I have such loathing for it that I won't step foot in it again. Or it's like a relationship break-up when you hit a point when you can barely remember having loved them for so long. It helps foster that necessary transition.