You all know the old saying: out of the mouths of babes comes wisdom. I will leave it up to you to decide whether the young are indeed wise. But, if nothing else, they might have a knack for political reporting.
My two children attend a public elementary school in Toronto. We have been telling them in recent days that they will soon be going back. We have tried to explain that things will be different and that they’ll have to get used to some form of new normal — but, in the main, they both seem to think that a return to school means a return to something very much like life as it was before. I guess I should not be surprised that one of the first questions was whether Halloween was back on.
That makes sense. For a young kid, Halloween is not only a huge deal; it’s also one of the first major events of the new school year. If life is getting back to normal, then it’s no surprise my little ones are thinking in terms of costumes and candy. Many other adults in Ontario are probably getting similar questions from their kids. One such adult is the premier, Doug Ford, who was asked about this at a press conference on Thursday. Specifically, he was asked what he thought the likelihood of a fairly normal Halloween was. And he hedged.
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“Let’s play it by ear and see what happens over the next month and a half — but it makes me nervous, kids going door to door with this. I would prefer not to,” the premier said. “A month and a half is a long time when it comes to COVID ... When you look back a month and a half ago, or even a few weeks ago, we were below 100 [new cases a day], but now it has spiked up, and it is almost double.”
That was the correct response. The trendline in our COVID-19 numbers is indeed already turning the wrong way in this province and in other parts of the country. The United States still hasn’t gotten its situation under control. Jurisdictions all over the world seem to be heading toward a second wave. And schools are only just beginning to open across Ontario, which may have contributed to further growth in caseloads. Trying to guess when it will be safe to go trick-or-treating again is like trying to guess when we'll have fusion power. Someday, sure. When? Who knows.
And this uncertainty, sadly, is a major part of our life now. The end of next month does seem a million years away. It's not. Thanksgiving is just around the corner, barely a month off. What will that be like this year? Too soon to say. One of my children has a birthday in just a few weeks. What will that be like? Anyone have a guess?
The milestones above — Halloween, a birthday, a family dinner — are small things. Important, sure, but personal and intimate and minor in the grand scheme. They're worth mentioning only because of the value they hold in aggregate. One child's birthday party isn't a big deal, but millions of kid missing milestone events starts to become a shared collective loss.
And the unknowns are not all in the realm of the small and personal. Children are just beginning to return to school now. There is absolutely no one in this province who could say with any authority how long they'll stay there. The premier said today that he'll rely on the chief medical officer for advice as to whether we need to begin shutting things down again; the chief medical officer will rely on his local units and their data collection. No one knows anything. We're all just waiting. But without schools, there is no "normal" — no full economic restart is possible for everyone until the millions of working-age parents in this province have some certainty that schools will actually stay open.
The premier did not engage with this weightier, deeper issue today. But he doesn't have to. His answer regarding Halloween is the only answer he can give, and it's a meta-answer for this historical moment. We're all nervous. We're all waiting to see. And the end of next month seems almost impossibly distant in time.
This is a problem for personal plans — kids’ events, sports, travel, holidays. But it's a gigantic problem for society. We are all confronting a crisis not just in the economy and our hospitals and care homes and schools, but in our calendars. I have reasonable confidence that I know what I'm doing three days from now. I have marginal confidence that I know what I'm doing three weeks from now. I have zero — absolutely zero — confidence that I have the slightest flippin' clue what I'm doing in December. Even pondering that seems absurd.
So we don't ponder it. We watch the daily updates. We ask the premier for his opinion. We reopen the schools and hope for the best. But what we're really doing is killing time. Sooner or later, we'll know whether this restart is going to work. We'll discover what we can and cannot safely do while we wait for a vaccine. And until we know these things, all plans are tentative. That's no way to run a civilization. But what else can we do?