COVID-19: Final thoughts?

On June 30 2021 I received my second dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, thus marking what I hope is, for me at least, a beginning of the end of the pandemic. Maybe I’ll post some more follow-ups, but for now I thought I’d go over some of my earlier posts and offer an initial attempt at a personal retrospective on a remarkable global event.

At no time did I feel any anxiety over COVID-19. This was mainly for two reasons. In the first place, the fatality rate for COVID-19, at least in its initial iterations, was under 1% for those under the age of 65. The majority of deaths in the early days were the result of outbreaks in retirement/nursing homes. At one point the average age of people dying from COVID in B.C. was reported as being 88, which is older than the normal life expectancy in this country by quite a bit. Now obviously I don’t want to diminish any unnecessary deaths but this suggested to me that there was no need for anyone in a low-risk group to panic.

The second reason I didn’t feel anxious was the lack of any personal impact. Within the first year of the pandemic the media were reporting how “everyone” now knew someone who had died of COVID. I didn’t. Even today I don’t know anyone who died of it. I don’t know anyone who even had it. In fact, I only know one person who knows someone who had it. Maybe I was just lucky, but given the number of people I talked to about this I don’t think I was that much of an outlier. So for me, and almost everyone I know, COVID remained something that I read or heard about on the news but that I had absolutely no experience of.

What about the response to COVID? I’ve said before that we were lucky this was such a mild pandemic, as we could learn a lot that might help us deal with the next one. What lessons might we take from what we’ve been going through?

Scientists did their job in coming up with a vaccine on schedule. In the first days of the pandemic all of the experts I heard gave a timeline for how long it would take for a vaccine to be developed and when it would be available that turned out to be accurate. If anything the vaccine might have even arrived slightly ahead of time.

The medical establishment gets mixed marks, mainly for sending so many mixed signals. In Canada there was endless waffling over the status of the AstraZeneca vaccine. Then there was debate over how soon one should get a second dose. Follow the manufacturers’ recommendations? Or would a longer wait actually be better? I still don’t know what the answer is. And what about mixing vaccines? Good, bad, or of no real consequence? It seems to me we might have expected clearer guidance on these matters. Meanwhile, why did it take so long — over a year! — for it to finally be acknowledged that the chances of getting COVID outdoors, aside from attending crowded gatherings like sports events or political rallies, was nearly impossible? Even in the first months of the pandemic I never wore a mask outside, thinking just on the grounds of common sense that it was useless. I wasn’t going to get COVID just by walking past someone. And yet wearing a mask outdoors still seems to be a sort of virtuous fashion statement for many, even in the wee hours of the morning when there’s no one about, as does the annoying habit of running to the other side of a street to avoid passing someone on the sidewalk. This is taking hygiene theater to an extreme, and in a way that sends a confusing message. Are such people saying that they’re infected and that we should avoid them? I don’t think that’s what they mean, but it’s the most logical interpretation for their behaviour.

I wonder how much of this acting out will change in the months to come. In an earlier post I referred to the split between double-maskers and anti-maskers. Apparently there is another group known as ultra-maskers, who are defined as individuals who are going to continue to wear masks, everywhere, for the rest of their lives. This suggests a real mental illness.

I’m not a fan of the government’s handling of things. The poorly timed openings and re-openings were only part of it. The rollout of the vaccine also struck me as chaotic and divisive. Six months ago I even described it as a disaster. Who was an “essential” worker? Somebody delivering for Amazon? I knew home care workers who weren’t considered as being on the front line. A neighbour in his mid-80s couldn’t get a shot while in hospital because he was “only” in for surgery and not in long-term care (he ended up having to stay in the hospital for two months, unvaccinated). “Racialized” groups were at the front of the line for vaccines, but what is a “racialized” group anyway? It sounds like a political or sociological label. How arbitrary were the various age cut-offs? Was there much evidence that you were more at risk at 65 than at 60?

A lot of this made no sense to me. If COVID had been a more deadly pandemic I don’t think people would have responded well to it at all. Then throw in the jumble of pharmacies and vaccine pop-ups whose sporadic supply issues and “first come, first served” model made the whole business of vaccination into a lottery. It’s great that it all worked out well in the end, but when I found out from a friend that most people living in Buffalo, New York had their second shot before I’d even been able to make an appointment for my first, I’ll admit I felt more than a bit of frustration at how we were doing in this country.

The public response was disappointing. A significant percentage of people, though by no means a majority, rejected vaccines entirely. There was initial panic, leading to lots of irrational behaviour. Remember the run on toilet paper? Or how much a box of medical masks cost in March 2020? Meanwhile, I saw little, really no, evidence of people “coming together.” Instead there was ignorance, confusion, anger, and paranoia. I consider myself lucky to have only been yelled at twice in the last eighteen months for getting too close to someone (both times while walking past them in a grocery store aisle, while masked).

The fallout will be enormous. Much greater, I believe, than the political and economic wreckage from the 2008 financial crisis (and that was bad enough). I wrote about all this a year ago and I haven’t seen anything to make me change my mind about what I said then. Basically the pandemic was another case of the rich getting richer and the poor being wiped out. There are two economies. As Warren Buffett recently observed, “many hundreds of thousands or millions of small businesses have been hurt in a terrible way, but most of the big companies have overwhelmingly done fine.” For the past year the stock market boomed and house prices continued to soar while small businesses closed. More inequality and resentment coming up! What could go wrong with that?

Shifting focus a bit, there are two negatively-affected groups in particular that I don’t think have been getting enough attention.

In the first place, the closing down of hospitals for all but emergency procedures has created a scary backlog in things like cancer treatment and any surgery that could (but really, really shouldn’t) be delayed. This is having a huge impact on people’s lives that I’ve been witness to, resulting in a lot of extra suffering that will continue to be felt for years to come. As I said, I was never worried about catching COVID. But I count it a blessing that I didn’t get sick with something else in the last year and a half. I would have been screwed.

As a corollary to this I want to flag a related and equally worrying pandemic development. Doctors stopped seeing people for regular check-ups over the past year, instead getting by with “virtual” consultations (phone calls) that basically only addressed the most urgent situations. I have heard that this may be a new model moving forward, and even one preferred by many people. If so, it will be a disaster, and I say that with no hesitation. Hands-on, physical exams are absolutely necessary to catch a lot of medical problems before they get any worse. To take one example, a PSA test is no substitute at all for a digital rectal exam when it comes to catching prostate cancer early. I can’t count the number of people I’ve known who have had cancers, of all sorts, discovered on routine check-ups. People wanting to switch over to remote doctoring because it’s quick and convenient shouldn’t be under any illusions as to what they’re going to be losing and what the consequences are going to be.

The second affected group are schoolkids and what UNESCO has dubbed the “shadow pandemic” of “education disruption” (you can read more about this in an excellent article in the July 2021 issue of Maclean’s by Sarmishta Subramanian). I didn’t think the educational system was ready to switch to online learning, and it wasn’t. From what I’ve seen just over the course of the last couple of months, it never really got up to speed. Top students, those most, privileged, disciplined and motivated, have managed. They usually do, and there’s no need to worry about them. But for everyone else (which is to say, the overwhelming majority of students) it’s been nearly two years down the drain. I don’t blame the teachers. I met some new teachers who had just graduated before COVID struck and I can’t imagine how at sea they felt being thrust into such a situation. But based on the online classes I saw, and the students I spoke to, “school” this past year was a total waste.

In sum, if we can look at the COVID-19 pandemic as a test I don’t think we did very well. What’s worse, I have little faith that we’ll do any better when the next pandemic strikes. And it will.

Maigret: Maigret in New York

You can take Maigret out of Paris, and even out of France, but wherever he goes he’s still investigating the same sort of crimes using the same method. Even in NYC we have “the social mechanism” at work: a great fortune rooted in a historical crime that will only gradually come to the surface. Then, when it’s time for wrapping up, Maigret will realize that nothing has been accomplished so he’ll just let things go.

Maigret is out of his element in the Big Apple but he sticks to his plan of putting in lots of plodding footwork until the solution comes to him. “I let myself drift with the current, clutching here and there on a passing branch.” Which is actually a pretty good way of going at things. Claiming that he knows nothing (until he knows everything) is the same as saying that he likes to keep an open mind. The problem with most police investigations that go wrong is developing tunnel vision in the early going.

I thought that there might be some connection made to Cécile is Dead because in that novel an American had come to Paris to study Maigret’s method and Maigret looks up an American he’d met in France a few years earlier when he comes to New York. But they are different people (in Cécile is Dead the American had been Spencer Oats of the Philadelphia Institute of Criminology, while here it’s Special Agent O’Brien of the FBI). Also of some assistance is another one of those weird secondary characters scattered throughout the series, in this instance a sad, alcoholic former clown named Ronald Dexter. He makes up for the fact that the villains of the piece are mostly kept off-stage and aren’t very interesting anyway. To be honest, I wasn’t even sure at the end what wickedness had happened all those years ago. But, much like Maigret himself in the end, I didn’t care a whole lot either.

Maigret index

Fossick this!

New word day! Fossick. Was stumped by this one when it came up in John Man’s The Gutenberg Revolution. Man uses it for the act of searching through a library. Apparently it’s a bit of Australian or New Zealand slang originally referring to looking for gold or gems by picking over abandoned mine workings. Its more general meaning is to search for by rummaging around. “Rummage” actually has a strange etymology as well, having its roots in a Middle English word for the stowing of cargo.

Vanishing act

Did a double take when I saw this map of vaccination rates in the European Union and the United States. Great Britain not doing so well these days, cartographically speaking.

Allegories of collapse

The whole world is our condominium. (Chandan Khannan)

On Thursday June 24 a condominium tower collapsed in Surfside, Florida, with much loss of life. The building was forty years old and seems to have been a desirable address, with a four-bedroom penthouse selling for nearly $3 million in 2020. It was, however, in poor condition due to some major structural defects, especially the pouring of a flat pool deck. The condo’s management board had found out about this and suggested repairs but apparently couldn’t get their members to sign off on having the work done. And, as time went on, the work only became more necessary, and more expensive.

It’s hard not to see in this, and many have, something of an allegory for the state of the nation. Crumbling infrastructure needs to be repaired, but ownership doesn’t want to spend any money on a common good and would rather see the whole thing fall to pieces than have to pay for fixing it (perhaps another instance of Galbraith’s Law).

I don’t want to use this tragedy as an excuse to beat up on the Boomers again. What’s most disturbing about the story is that, given the situation they found themselves in, the condo owners (that is, the people living in the tower and most directly at risk) made the right call.

The community of Surfside already has an expiry date, as its local government knows that the whole place is going to be underwater soon so they’ve even started up a relocation fund in their budget to pay for citizens who will have to leave. What would be the point of making major renovations, assuming they were even possible, at this point? If one were to do a cost-benefit analysis the smart thing to do was probably to cross one’s fingers and hope to keep things going as long as possible, allowing elderly owners to cash out around the same time they might be expected to die. This makes sense if you’re old, your home constitutes your major financial asset, and the system is too broken or just too expensive to fix.

Now look around and think of all the things that are falling apart, from the environment to democracy, and think of how little real effort is being made to protect and possibly save them. Has a calculation been made that the investment isn’t worth it? I can’t help but feel that, on a moral level, this is what the end times look like.


A man of many appetites, and many movies.

Over at Alex on Film I’ve been posting notes on a bunch of movies relating to the Tudors, arguably the first family of drama. Though it’s interesting how it’s really only been a few figures who have dominated the story. The father of the short-lived dynasty, Henry VII, doesn’t make an appearance in any of these movies, even though he led a fairly interesting life. Edward VI doesn’t show up either, but then that’s a lot less surprising. You’d think there’d be more out there about Bloody Mary but she’s still perceived as being more of a villain instead of a complex and tragic figure.

That leaves us with Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, and Mary Queen of Scots (Mary’s grandmother was Henry’s sister Margaret). Henry’s marriages are his story (he wasn’t a warrior). The movies about Mary all just deal with her years in Scotland and then jump ahead to her execution. Elizabeth is the virgin queen who still has a heart to be stolen. Audiences have never gotten tired of this stuff, even though it’s remarkable how little the story has changed or been adjusted to be more realistic or historically accurate. This certainly isn’t an exhaustive list of all that’s out there, but here are the ones I watched.

The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (1895)
Anna Boleyn (1920)
The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)
Mary of Scotland (1936)
The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)
A Man for All Seasons (1966)
Anne of the Thousand Days (1969)
Mary, Queen of Scots (1971)
Carry On Henry VIII (1971)
Elizabeth (1998)
Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007)
Mary Queen of Scots (2018)

Giving up on philosophy, a bit

I don’t know why I can’t read philosophy. I find the subject matter interesting. And I can read about philosophy. I like books pitched at a general audience and surveys running from Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy and Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy to Anthony Gottlieb’s more recent The Dream of Reason and The Dream of Enlightenment. But when it comes the primary texts I find I can’t get more than a few pages — and I mean that literally I’m lucky to make it to page 3 — into works like Spinoza’s Ethics, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, and Heidegger’s Being and Time. Most of Plato outside of the shorter dialogues is a tough slog and Aristotle even harder. Hegel and Wittgenstein I’ve given up on. The Pragmatists are more approachable, but I still find myself just wanting a précis or a book about them so that I don’t have to bother reading what they actually wrote.

I wonder if this is why Existentialism became so popular. I do like reading Kierkegaard and Nietzsche most of the time, and Dostoyevsky and Camus were first-rate novelists. I read all these guys, and Sartre, because I enjoy them. The rest of the philosophical tradition comes to me by way of the aforementioned general histories and listening to lectures.

Some of this might be a temperamental difference. I didn’t care about literary theory or the philosophy of language when I was at school, and I still don’t. I found most of it both impenetrable and, what was even worse, irrelevant to any deeper understanding of the literature I was studying. But I do find broader questions about subjects like ethics and epistemology interesting. I’m at least curious about a lot of what philosophy does, or used to do.

I’m left to wonder though if I’m really missing anything by just reading summaries of these other major works rather than trying to engage with them directly. I think anyone who tries to get by reading a summary (most likely a Wikipedia page) on Paradise Lost is never going to understand the poem at all. Is the same the case with not reading Quine?

This is a question that bothers me a bit, but at this point I just have to accept that I’ve given up on reading much philosophy. I’m going to have to engage with these thinkers second-hand. Maybe I wasn’t smart enough to figure them out on their own terms. Maybe I don’t have the attention span necessary to follow them (I like to browse Schopenhauer’s aphorisms, but have never tackled The World as Will and Idea). Or maybe philosophers just can’t express themselves clearly enough, or in a way that’s interesting enough, to make me want to pursue them any further. Life is short, and getting shorter all the time.

Maigret: Maigret Gets Angry

I don’t know if there’s a through narrative holding all of these Maigret novels together. As this one begins he’s two years into his retirement. Was this his second retirement? I wonder if anyone has worked out a Maigret chronology. They probably have but I’m too lazy to look for it. I also wonder if the mention of an earlier investigation in the Haute Seine was a reference to Lock No. 1. How well do these books hold together?

In any event, Maigret gets tempted out of retirement here not by the big pile of money he’s offered but because the case interests him. Soon, however, it disgusts him. It’s yet another case involving “the social mechanism,” a.k.a. “the dodgy dealings of those who [grow] rich.” Ernest Malik is one such riser, and as so often happens (see what I said in my notes on The Cellars of the Majestic) he’s done it in ways that at best show a lack of scruple.

The crimes are described as a “vile business, which, from start to finish, was all a filthy matter of money.” If you’re born with money you’re decadent; if you have to get it you’re a crook. Either way, money just provides a sham façade to hide family skeletons behind. “For that is all there was behind those beautiful houses with their immaculate gardens: money!” Note how, at the beginning, the lady who hires Maigret mistakes him for a gardener. Detective or gardener, in either role he’s just cleaning up after rich people. I’m not surprised he’s sick of it.

Maigret index

Maigret: Félicie

A weak entry. It had promise as something a little different, with Maigret’s adversary not being the killer (who never even appears on stage) but a young woman with an imagination shaped by romance and detective fiction. Set in the “make-believe village” of a retirement community full of “toy houses” (not unlike how our hero saw the town of Delfzijl in A Crime in Holland) the potential for some kind of postmodern Maigret was there. But the events are far-fetched and the resolution just a confusing whirl of telephone calls describing actions that are hard to follow. In the end I wasn’t sure how seriously Simenon wanted us to take it. The character of Félicie is problematic to say the least, but Maigret adores her. Should we? To only be amused at her behaviour strikes me as little better than the delight the decadent heiress has in the machinations of Madame Le Cloagulen in Signed, Picpus. Is their only difference one of class?

Maigret index

The kids aren’t alright (but their grandparents are worse)

Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie recently posted some thoughts on “young people today” that has been getting a lot of play. Here’s the pull quote:

In certain young people today like these two from my writing workshop, I notice what I find increasingly troubling: a cold-blooded grasping, a hunger to take and take and take, but never give; a massive sense of entitlement; an inability to show gratitude; an ease with dishonesty and pretension and selfishness that is couched in the language of self-care; an expectation always to be helped and rewarded no matter whether deserving or not; language that is slick and sleek but with little emotional intelligence; an astonishing level of self-absorption; an unrealistic expectation of puritanism from others; an over-inflated sense of ability, or of talent where there is any at all; an inability to apologize, truly and fully, without justifications; a passionate performance of virtue that is well executed in the public space of Twitter but not in the intimate space of friendship.

I find it obscene.

I think this is well observed and very nicely expressed, but I’m put off a bit by Adichie attributing this frame of mind to young people. It’s a targeting I hear a lot and I think it’s unfair, even a bit of a smear. Are young people the only ones behaving like this and having these sorts of opinions? Some of them are. And I do put a lot of the blame on social media, which is having a terrible effect we haven’t begun to plumb the depths of yet. But are kids the worst offenders?

Not in my opinion. If we’re playing the generational blame game I think Adichie would find spending time with some retirees a revelation. In my own experience it’s the much- and justly-maligned Boomers who are even more politically intolerant, rude, bitter, selfish, narrow-minded, entitled, angry, and narcissistic. To make the easiest point, in the U.S. it was older voters who elected Trump. I find most (but not all) young people to be pretty decent. I find most (but not all) old people (a group I’m having to include myself in more and more) to be insufferable.