At the moment – and that’s an important qualifier – Nova Scotia is said to be the safest place from the COVID-19 coronavirus in North America, along with the neighbouring provinces cooperating as an “Atlantic Bubble.” Some other parts of Canada have spent Thanksgiving weekend locked back down after renewed outbreaks. The public health debacle south of the border in the world’s richest country beggars belief. Yet the Halifax waterfront has been lively during the summer. Most restaurants and pubs are open, albeit with limited occupancy, mandatory masking, physical distancing, and registering patrons for potential contact tracing. Shops, salons, other businesses and places of worship are struggling, but most are staying afloat. Those who can are working from home, and the public and private sector are doing their best to mitigate the economic hardships on the most vulnerable. So what’s making the difference?
Political and public health leadership are important of course. Say what you will about our Premier, but Stephen McNeil got it pitch-perfect back in April. Appearing on television alongside Nova Scotia’s Chief Medical Officer of Health he pointed out the simple truth: “everyone is putting pressure on the public health to solve it, our healthcare system to deal with it, and government to pay for it, when all we have to do is stay the blazes home!” It was a very Nova Scotian phrase which caught on, and even got set to music. A good case study in crisis communication.
Nova Scotia is certainly no society of saints, but it does have a tradition of coming together in the face of hardship. Little more than two weeks after McNeil’s message, a disturbed Nova Scotian perpetrated the worst mass killing in Canadian history. Many of us knew someone with at least some connection to the dead or wounded. Ten days later, a naval helicopter crashed into the Mediterranean Sea, killing all six crew who had been based here. It seemed that the more tragedies compounded, the stronger a sense of community grew. Strangers walking outdoors without masks would step off their respective sides of the sidewalk to pass each other at a safe distance, exchanging smiles or nods. The phrase “Nova Scotia Strong” started appearing everywhere. So did “We’re all in this together.” More important, most people began understanding public health rules as enablers rather than restraints, with willing compliance reducing the need for coercive enforcement. In the past few weeks the only new cases have been in people arriving from elsewhere, and they have generally been good about self-isolating. We cannot be complacent of course – all it takes is one or two selfish or reckless individuals to breach the protective public health dam and trigger a viral flood. But still, so far so good.
There is nothing inherently evil about a coronavirus. Indeed, as I suggested six months ago, it’s just nature taking its natural course, responding to a species that has itself “gone viral” – Homo sapiens. Perhaps this will encourage humans to indeed become more sapient (“having wisdom or discernment”). Suggesting that coronavirus prevention should be subordinated to some abstract entity called “the economy” is nothing short of stupid – the dead, dying, sick and unemployed do not go shopping. That’s the kind of thinking that destroyed the Atlantic Cod fishery along with a big part of Atlantic Canada’s economy in the 1990s. Selfish individualism, competitive conflict, and unscientific or unsubstantiated ideologies belong to the past. The future of humanity on our increasingly crowded and polluted planet belongs to cooperation, evidence-based policies and taking care of each other.
As someone observed recently, no matter how this pandemic unfolds, the planet will survive: dinosaurs will die.