The Upside of the Coronavirus Crisis

March 16, 2020 Updated: March 18, 2020


It’s real, all right. The CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus, commonly known as the novel coronavirus, may not be “the big one” we’ve been fearing but it’s the biggest one since the Spanish flu. It’s already proving very disruptive and dangerous to vulnerable people. And here in Canada we’re stockpiling toilet paper because when you’re out of food and water you… that is… You do know you can’t eat that stuff, right?

I’m not trying to make light of the situation. At least not that kind of light. There are some bright spots, including positive stories out of hard-hit places like Italy about the ways people are pitching in and helping one another despite the difficulty of doing so while maintaining social distancing. But let me talk for a minute about the upside of buying heaps of toilet paper.

See, the good news is that we haven’t had a pandemic or other major disaster in Canada for so long that we don’t even know how to hoard. Plus being infamously polite we wouldn’t punch one another over cans of soup anyway which, if you want my advice, will prove more useful if things go really bad than excess paper products. (Confession: at my house, for complex logistical reasons, we already had lots. And about a year’s supply of paper towel. Don’t ask. I said it was complex.)

In large parts of the world they know from bitter experience all about grabbing everything that might prove useful if a famine, civil war, or outbreak of disease disrupts normal production and distribution. Regrettably they don’t have much to grab because “normal” production and distribution in those places means there isn’t much to hoard anyway. In a land wracked by famine what’s the use of knowing which food you’d stockpile if you could get any?

Here in Canada, and in much of the West, things are very different. Mostly in good ways. For instance, we’re already prepared to deal with social distancing thanks to having a robust internet infrastructure; lecturing or meeting via Zoom or Skype is already second nature to us. On the downside, we’re also prepared to deal with it partly because we’re already socially distant, preferring Twitter and Facebook to actual human conduct. We find ourselves dusting off the decks of cards and chess sets and going, “Does the king of hearts move in an L or was that the rook of spades?”

Mind you, rediscovering non-digital games with actual people is not an entirely bad thing. But it is the result of a bad thing. If I could make this CCP virus go away by shouting at it or cutting the bank rate or insulting a politician I would. I think.

Or maybe not. Because there’s another peculiar silver lining to Wuhan virus. (Yes, I said Wuhan, as I said Spanish flu above without being anti-Spanish. We name diseases for the place they are first firmly identified whether or not it’s where they originated. Marburg Marburg Marburg. So there. And while I’m being politically incorrect, can I just sneer at the Chinese government’s rumours that COVID-19 started in the United States and the Iranian government’s dark hints that, like everything else including dandruff, it’s an Israeli plot?)

Anyway, back to that silver lining. Wuhan virus is a dark cloud. All diseases are bad. This one is worse, and we don’t know how much worse yet. But diseases are also inevitable. A disquieting piece on viruses in the National Post quoting from Michael Cordingly’s book “Viruses” noted that because of their evolutionary strategy of being simple, dynamic, and ubiquitous, viruses  are like “lottery players with unlimited resources who buy every ticket: ‘if there is a winning number, they will have it.’” Which means sooner or later one will come along that is both highly contagious and very deadly. And we’re getting a chance to practice.

It’s a live fire drill because this one is real. But it’s showing us at manageable cost how prepared the authorities are to deal with pandemics, which in Canada is not very. Our federal government announced airport measures that didn’t get implemented. And they didn’t know, and embarrassed themselves, by announcing they would make a major announcement, leading baffled journalists to ask, why not just tell us now. And they seem more concerned with whether people are politely described than with whether they’re protected from disease.

We’re also finding out how prepared our vaunted health system is, and the answer is not very. Our centrally unplanned medical system was already bursting at the seams due to irrational resistance to giving patients choices. And there was even one weird news story about doctors being unhappy that governments weren’t telling them what to do about a pandemic when you’d expect them to be the ones telling governments. So a useful wake-up call there.

Finally, we’re finding out how prepared we are personally. And again it’s not very, especially that bit about the toilet paper and also buying bottled water as if, someone commented, unaware of what comes out of our taps.

Ha ha ha. All fun and games, right? Well sort of, because fortunately the CCP virus doesn’t seem to be the grim reaper. Yes, I know, people are dying. But it’s not the Spanish flu let alone the Black Death, and it could have been. So we’re being forced to practice and to think about how we’ll respond if something really bad does show up. Like something so bad water stops coming from the taps, at least in some places.

Remember, so far people are only dying from the virus because they’re sick themselves, not because so many others are sick that things like power plants, water systems, and even hospitals can’t manage to function. It could happen if you get something with a 50 percent fatality rate that’s also easily transmissible. And sooner or later we will. If there’s a winning ticket…

So here’s the sharp edge to that silver lining. Governments better get better at doing stuff instead of talking smugly about stuff, and have plans “on the shelf” so they’re not making it up as they go along. They’re not good at it and, as Cordingly also warns, viruses adapt faster than we do so we need a head start.

The medical system also needs restructuring. More decentralization. Better infection control. All kinds of market mechanisms. Let’s fix the roof while the sun is shining, or at any rate the deluge is not upon us.

Finally, there’s us. How prepared are we to hunker down and play canasta while eating non-perishable food, and drawing on our ample supplies of stored water instead of swathing ourselves in toilet paper like mummies because we panicked and bought the wrong thing?

The Epoch Times refers to the novel coronavirus, which causes the disease COVID-19, as the CCP virus because the Chinese Communist Party’s coverup and mismanagement allowed the virus to spread throughout China and create a global pandemic.

John Robson is a documentary filmmaker, National Post columnist, contributing editor to the Dorchester Review, and executive director of the Climate Discussion Nexus. His most recent documentary is “The Environment: A True Story.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.