23 November 2020

A pandemic of fear #nlpoli

 In Newfoundland and Labrador, politicians and public health bureaucrats are dealing more with a pandemic of fear than of disease. It is one they helped create.  It is one they sustain in the way they talk and act.  Let us hope that Monday’s news conference is not another of their super-spreader events.

On Saturday, the Deer Lake town council held an emergency meeting and decided to close the town hall and a local recreation centre for two weeks.  They also decided – apparently without consulting public health officials - to encourage all businesses in the community to shut for two weeks for all but essential sales and services. They’ve told people to stay home.  The local seniors home has stopped allowing any visitors.

Former Premier Dwight Ball tweeted a message from the town council Saturday evening (right).

There have been five new cases of COVID-19 in western Newfoundland, presumably Deer Lake.  They are all in the same household as the initial case, who brought the illness back from outside the province where he works.

The people of Deer Lake are afraid.  In that fear, they are like so many people across Newfoundland and Labrador. Their fear is not, as one might expect, the healthy respect of people who know a deadly disease when they see it.  Rather, their fear – like all fear - is borne of ignorance and suckled by misinformation, the most pernicious form of which comes from the provincial government on a steady basis.

The Deer Lake Declaration
(continued below)

Newfoundland and Labrador continues to have the highest level of restrictions for a province that has never had community transmission of COVID-19.  Each of the cases that have cropped up since May have been quickly identified, isolated, and, through effective contact tracing, cut off from any prospect of spread.  They have all come – with perhaps one or two exceptions – from locals who have brought the illness back with them from a work-related trip to Ontario, Saskatchewan, or Alberta.  Pedants will note the cases that came from one traveler from Africa or the Russian contract worker but those are the except rather than the rule.

What those pedants will ignore is that since March tens of thousands of people have traveled back and forth between Newfoundland and Labrador and some point in North America.  Usually, this has been an area like Ontario, where the disease has continued to wax and wane since the early part of the year.  Tens of thousands of travelers and thus far only a handful of cases.  There are 21 active cases as of 22 November 2020.  There have been 58 new cases since the first of June. The recent uptick in local cases is tied to the increase in cases in other provinces.

We can actually put some firmer numbers on this to put in perspective.  In 2019, St. John’s airport handled about 1.353 million passengers between January and November.  This year, thanks to first Snowmaggedon and then COVID, that number is down quite dramatically.  In April, passenger traffic was down to a mere five percent of normal. In July, the airport authority said that figure is the one they expected to continue into the near future. But in October, they projected passenger traffic would be down to 20% of its usual amount for the year.

Let’s work with that 20% figure.  That gives us about 27,000 passengers a month, on average, so far this year in St. John’s.  We will discount April as being practically zero. 

Deer Lake Declaration (Part 2)

And we have had 58 COVID cases in that same time we have had 135,000 travelers.

Not 58 a month.

58 in total.

What worked to contain them is what worked since the beginning:  testing the sick, isolating the positives, tracing contacts, and isolating them. This is a point SRBP has made before, most notably in “The facts of the case”.

And requiring that travelers into the province isolate for 14 days on arrival.

The general decline in air travel across Canada since March is really what reduced the number of infected individuals down to 58.  The other stuff contained those 58 so that – according to provincial figures - one traveler infected, on average, just one person in their household.  People fixate on Caul’s, but the reality is that once people were aware of COVID and started to practice simple precautions, like isolating and keeping their distance, the disease has not been able to take hold.

Since the travelers who brought infection originated in this province – with one or two exceptions - there’s no reason to believe that the ban imposed in May on non-residents had any impact.  Mandatory mask-wearing imposed in August similarly appears to have no meaningful impact on reducing the spread of illness. Nor has the byzantine array of restrictions on public gatherings, community bands, dance troupes, choirs, and virtually every aspect of social and economic life in Newfoundland and Labrador shown to be effective in reducing the transmission of an illness that has been unable to find purchase here.

Fear comes out of ignorance.  In this case, it is ignorance of the actual prevalence of the disease in Newfoundland and Labrador and the threat it poses. Ignorance includes not knowing the effectiveness of government measures that have worked and based on politics (the non-resident ban) or caprice (the mask order.

We know as a result of testimony during the recent court case, for example, that the non-resident ban came because the Chief Medical Officer accepted as true stories about tourists and phantom travelers for which there was never any evidence.  To do so, she also ignored the thousands of false reports her officials and police had investigated prior to that. Likewise, a couple of weeks after dismissing a mask order as being unnecessary, the Chief Medical Officer imposed one, without explanation. 

The ignorance of what works and what has been meaningless breeds a lack of confidence in the government measures. That lack of confidence fuels the fear that demands more restrictions when none are warranted.

The politicians, generally tuned to make the public happy anyway, load on the restrictions because it is easier to pander than to lead. The bureaucrats, tuned to making their political masters happy, will apply whatever restrictions they need to staunch the latest outbreak of fear.  In Newfoundland and Labrador, the public health officials are dealing more with a pandemic of fear than of disease.

If we want to understand why politicians and bureaucrats are acting this way, it’s best to rely on simple explanation. Politicians and bureaucrats share the same misperceptions and misinformation of the people they govern. Ministers in Newfoundland and Labrador are driven by their own fear and misunderstanding.  That is the easiest explanation for the school closure in March when there was just one case here.  That’s the easiest explanation for John Haggie’s assertion we needed even greater restrictions as the numbers in the initial wave of infection in this province quite clearly were subsiding.  It’s not prudence.  It is not caution.  It is fear.

That’s the easiest explanation why, in a province that has actually been very success at managing COVID thus far, the Chief Medical Officer has always talked as if the disease were everywhere, already despite the evidence in front of her eyes.  She thinks it is a bogeyman.

That is why the CMO said last week that the outbreak on the Burin peninsula shows the disease may rear its head anywhere at any time.  What nonsense.  It comes from identifiable sources. We know how it spreads and we know the measures needed to contain it. We know when those measures work and when they don’t. There is no boogeyman.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, politicians and public health bureaucrats are dealing more with a pandemic of fear than of disease. It is one they helped create.  It is one they sustain in the way they talk and act.  Let us hope that Monday’s news conference is not another of their super-spreader events.