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The good, the bad, and the very, very ugly

Columnist Tony Wilson offers random thoughts on the COVID-19 pandemic

Tony Wilson
Boughton Law

It’s been more than seven weeks since the declaration of a worldwide pandemic over the novel coronavirus COVID-19, and it’s fair to say the world has been profoundly and irreversibly changed. During the past two months I’ve seen good things, bad things and ugly things, and it’s worth looking at a few of them.

THE GOOD: It may be disingenuous to say that anything particularly good has come out of this pandemic, but if I had point out a couple of bright spots, one occurs every night at 7 p.m. when frontline health-care workers are greeted with banging pots and pans, car horns and applause as their shifts change. It reminds us of the importance not only of doctors, nurses and other hospital workers, but also of our grocery store clerks, bus and truck drivers, railway workers and others who take risks every day by merely going to work and dealing with people face-to-face when the rest of us are more or less locked down in our homes to avoid contact.

Kudos to the federal and provincial public health officials who demonstrate every day that expertise is more important than politics, facts are more important than uninformed opinions, and that there is always risk and uncertainty when our public health professionals attempt to predict and model the progression of the disease. Whether those are provincial health officers Bonnie Henry in British Columbia, Dena Henshaw in Alberta, David Williams in Ontario, or Chief Public Health Officer of Canada Theresa Tam, I believe Canadians trust these dedicated public servants because there is no “spin” associated with their messaging. And I suppose when shoemaker John Fluevog designs a woman’s shoe to honor B.C.’s Dr. Bonnie Henry, that’s good news.

And kudos must also go to our elected politicians who have made difficult but necessary decisions that may in some cases be opposed to their political ideologies (e.g., Ontario Premier Doug Ford, who seems to have risen to the challenge). Indeed, a recent survey by the market research firm Léger Marketing concluded that Canadians are very satisfied with how their political leaders at the federal and provincial levels have dealt with COVID-19, notwithstanding the social media’s outrage machine targeted at Justin Trudeau and, in some cases, Dr. Theresa Tam.

THE BAD:  Restaurant, hotel, retail, tourism, hospitality and other service industries have been decimated. Although some restaurants continue to offer food and beverage via pickup and delivery, many have closed and will never reopen. Their owners and employees aren’t working, may never work in the industry again and could even face financial ruin. 

In our profession, most courts are closed, making the access-to-justice crisis profoundly worse. As for lawyers, without clients generating legal work (and fees), many firms have laid off or even terminated lawyers and support staff, and many partners are taking significantly reduced draws or no draws at all. When we all get back to normal (whatever that looks like), law firms may continue to radically downsize and give up leased space in their office buildings because it is no longer needed.

I also have serious concerns for law students and newly called lawyers. There are students I know who had summer articles lined up and who have discovered those positions no longer exist, and I’ve heard of others whose articling starts have been delayed. It’s hard to say how valuable articles will be where articling students are working from home. And although I’ve long been a proponent of articling programs and a vocal opponent of replacing articles with exams, the Federation of Law Societies and the provincial law societies may have to rethink articling, perhaps adopting a U.S.-style exam model as an alternative for those that can’t secure articles.

Almost all face-to-face classes at Canadian law schools were stopped around March 16 and did not resume for the rest of the term, other than classes where professors could teach via Zoom or in some other virtual manner. So what happens to Canadian law schools in September? How will live classes resume with students if students have to keep six feet apart from each other? Perhaps there needs to be a move to online legal education.

THE UGLY: In the United States some Republican politicians have suggested that the economy should be reopened immediately and people over 70 should be prepared to die if it saves the stock market. Media gadfly Dr. Mehmet Oz faced a backlash by saying that the reopening of America’s schools might kill only two to three per cent more people than otherwise, which he hadn’t calculated would number eight million people. “Any life is a life lost … But that might be a trade-off some folks would consider,” he said (although he subsequently backtracked on his comments).

The mayor of Las Vegas wants the casinos and restaurants to reopen immediately, notwithstanding the risk of infection to employees and tourists. Interestingly, she wouldn’t be prepared to spend the night on the casino floor alongside the other guests. “What’s the purpose of that? …. I have a family,” she said.

U.S. President Donald Trump originally dismissed the coronavirus as a hoax. At the time of this writing, deaths from COVID-19 in the United States have exceeded American deaths during the Vietnam war by about 5,000 people. Given the number of confirmed cases by late April, the U.S. will be anticipating more than 100,000 deaths by July. Yet the president deflects blame by defunding the World Health Organization, blaming China and giving ammunition to gun-wielding extremists who are protesting the lockdown by tweeting, “Liberate Minnesota/Michigan/Virginia and save your great Second Amendment. It is under siege.”

If not for New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci, and other dedicated healthcare professionals south of the border, one would think that the United States has gone stark raving mad.

We aren’t immune to this madness in Canada, either. Derek Sloan is a Member of Parliament in eastern Ontario and running for the leadership of the Conservative Party. He is neither a doctor nor an immunologist, but he is a lawyer licensed by the Law Society of Ontario. In what looks to me like xenophobic race-baiting directed at Dr. Theresa Tam, Sloan tweeted this on April 21: “Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, has failed Canadians. Dr. Tam must go! Canada must remain sovereign over decisions. The UN, the WHO, and Chinese Communist propaganda must never again have a say over Canada's public health!” In a video he asked whether Dr. Tam “worked for Canada or China.”

Although Dr. Tam was born in Hong Kong, she earned her medical degree in the United Kingdom, completed her pediatric residency at the University of Alberta and a fellowship in pediatric infectious diseases at the University of British Columbia, and played a leadership role in Canada’s response to the SARS, H1N1 and Ebola viruses.

I guess as a politician trying to inflame his base, that kind of messaging might get him some traction among some conservatives. As a lawyer, I’m outraged. I think it’s racist, and conduct unbecoming.

But what do I know? I’m just an ethics professor and a life bencher.

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