Clarity vs Chaos: the urgency of pandemic policy

What kind of society do we need during this transition?

As this pandemic starts to sink in, panic begins to follow. For the most part this panic has been limited to toilet paper and hand sanitizer, but it is a slippery slope. The FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt), is a virus unto itself, and needs to be managed and addressed as rapidly and aggressively as the novel coronavirus.

Fundamentally this is the role of governments, at all levels, however the more organizations and people willing to answer the call the better. While certainty is out of the question, clarity is desirable and possible. At this relatively early point in the pandemic, people are hungry for knowledge, and rumours are spreading rapidly.

The fear is the combination that governments are not up to the job and that the social contract of society is not strong enough to handle the health and economic crisis that is approaching.

We not only need to mobilize health resources to help the sick and vulnerable, we also need to reinforce an already frail social contract that maintains the shared belief that we can all get along and live peaceably.

Part of that involves economic policy, as well as social policy, however it also must include clear communication from health authorities. The following video was the first I’d seen where Canadian health officials acknowledged that community transmission was already underway (and out of control):

Meanwhile the Canadian federal government for days has claimed that airline passengers arriving in the country were being screened, when evidence on social media suggested otherwise.

This kind of blatant bullshit not only undermines the government’s credibility, but further erodes their ability to get people to comply with their policies or advice.

There remains a scarcity of COVID-19 tests in North America, with many jurisdictions now rationing who gets tested, ensuring that our collective sense of what’s happening is hazy at best.

Nature abhors a vacuum and the lack of credible or authoritative information will be filled by the Internet and a curious public. There are many rumours circulating, and whether they’re accurate or not matters less than the impact they have on behaviour.

For example we were scheduled to have a Farrier come by the farm tomorrow, but she came today as she’s from Quebec and was worried the Ontario Quebec border would be closed tomorrow. This morning I went by the country building supply store to buy lumber and they were convinced that the government would shut them (and all other stores) down by the afternoon (which did not happen).

On the one hand people are anxious about what the future holds, and on the other hand we’re seeing a rash of policy announcements and requests for aid. Naomi Klein calls this the Shock Doctrine, an example of disaster capitalism where big industry and the wealthy take advantage of chaos to push policies that benefit their interests. In this instance we could call it Coronavirus Capitalism:

For example the US airline industry has come forward with an immediate request for $50 billion in grants, loan guarantees, and tax relief. They will not be alone, as the economy as we know it will be shook and require reconfiguration and reconstruction. The issue is not if, but why, and who benefits.

Airlines, hotels, and restaurants, are some of the business already announcing or planning massive layoffs and reductions. All of this adds to the confusion, as people start to anticipate when this tsunami of layoffs will come for them.

Which is why clear and decisive public policy, for the benefit of all, is necessary, and urgently needed.

We need a rent and mortgage holiday now!

Perhaps the biggest policy should be a rent and mortgage holiday for as long as self-isolation and social distancing is necessary. A substantial portion of the population lives paycheque to paycheque, and that means they’re about to hit the wall. While many jurisdictions have halted all evictions and enforcement, crippling personal debt should not be a consequence of this crisis.

Governments are starting to discuss or embrace policies around paid sick leave and unemployment insurance, however they can become unnecessarily complex and difficult for people to navigate.

A better solution would be a guaranteed annual income. Give everyone funds directly and immediately. Those who don’t need it can pay it back via taxes.

The combination of the rent/mortgage holiday and the guaranteed income would provide people with money to continue buying things, paying for services, and supporting the economy.

We’re quickly going to be in a situation where governments will decide which businesses remain open and which will be forced to close. Groceries and pharmacies will stay open, but what about hardware stores? With everyone isolated at home is this not an opportunity to learn from YouTube and work on the house or start a project?

Similarly small businesses will be incredibly squeezed, and many will fail. How about grants and mentor programs to help them expand or develop their business online?

These are the sorts of policies that help people see past the crisis and provide clarity as to what they can do during this transition. Now is the time for hope. People need to feel a handrail that they can hold on to and reinforce their belief that they can get through this. That they’re not alone.

Online privacy matters now more than ever

Now that home computers and home Internet connections are being used as part of the remote workplace, what rights do people have, and what expectations are they operating under? We’ve previously written about workplace surveillance and the increasingly pervasive surveillance of students, as well as our growing habit of spying on our kids, how much will this expand as people shift their jobs and studies online?

Or for that matter, can the Internet handle this sudden surge in usage?

While it is great that most Internet providers are waiving bandwidth caps and overage fees, there is a growing concern that our existing networks are not ready for the social shift taking place as people spend more time at home and on the Internet. From the article above:

That is set to strain the internet’s underlying infrastructure, with the burden likely to be particularly felt in two areas: the home networks that people have set up in their residences, and the home internet services from Comcast, Charter and Verizon that those home networks rely on.

That infrastructure is generally accustomed to certain peaks of activity at specific times of the day, such as in the evening when people return from work and get online at home. But the vast transfer of work and learning to people’s homes will show new heights of internet use, with many users sharing the same internet connections throughout the day and using data-hungry apps that are usually reserved for offices and schools.

This is another area where the public’s general ignorance and lack of literacy as to how their Internet connection works could cause stress and confusion. I’ve already received a request from a subscriber asking how they could improve their home network (there’s no straight answer, it depends upon the particulars of your setup).

We’re used to the Internet just working, and the general assumption was that if we send everyone home, it will continue working. This is naive, and I expect in the days and weeks to come we’re going to see a lot of frustration for people not used to remote or home based work.

It’s great that Internet infrastructure is now being taken seriously, however an easy prediction is that rather than have this lead to solid public policy focusing on fibre optic infrastructure (and connecting remote and rural communities), it will instead fuel the 5G hype machine and all the bullshit associated with it.

It’s also worth pointing out, this is not just an issue for the public. Now that the Canadian federal government has mandated that the majority of government employees work from home, it has also exposed just how unprepared the government is for that kind of remote work.

Not only are many federal civil servants unprepared when it comes to training and tools, but the government itself does not have the necessary bandwidth, and is asking people to use their own connections, and limit use of government based VPNs (virtual private networks). This will be an interesting story we’ll follow, as it tests the governments ability to be responsive, and move forward on the policy initiatives we believe are necessary.

While this is the second newsletter issue in a row about COVID-19 (also sent to non-subscribers and made public), it is a subject that is obviously relevant and pressing. It’s certainly all I’ve been consuming from a news and research perspective. With that said we will continue focusing on the subjects that are of collective interest, although the current crisis naturally shapes that as well.

If you have tips, insights, thoughts, or concerns, please email them or post them as comments. If you haven’t looked at the comments from yesterday’s issue, please do so, as Jacob shared an interesting link and analysis of current infection trajectories.

Alternatively you can also bring subjects to our attention by tagging me or @metaviews on Twitter:

The best part of this newsletter is the growing intelligence network that exists among your fellow subscribers, and I suspect this particular pandemic will foster stronger bonds between us all. Together we can seek clarity by trying to understand what is happening and what we can collectively do about it.