Saturday, August 29, 2020

Off target

In case there was any doubt how much of a gap there is between the Moe government's propensity for making promises about COVID-19 control and its capacity to delivery, how's this for a timeline?

August 10, 2020: Having just hired 90 additional staff to deal with a massive backlog in the testing intake process, the Saskatchewan Health Authority loudly announces that it will be able to test 4,000 people per day by September 1.

August 28, 2020: The Saskatchewan Health Authority's status in recruiting staff needed to meet that target by the next week consists of...relaxing the standards applied to laboratory workers (meaning that new workers will require more training), and having "hopes" of hiring additional medical laboratory technologists to provide far more capacity than currently exists.

To be clear, it's essential for the province to both build its testing capacity, and encourage people to make use of it (particularly in light of the stories of delay which have been told so far).

But we have every reason to be wary of a government which fails to plan ahead for what's needed, makes promises that can't be kept because of that failure, and then bases organizational decisions on a combination of panic and wishful thinking based on the hope of salvaging something from the wreckage.

Saturday Morning Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- Richard Wilkinson writes that the key to building back better in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic is to close the gap in income and wealth between the rich and everybody else, with the goal of meeting both material and social needs:
(T)he most potent generators of chronic stress are embedded in the social fabric, in our lives and relationships with one another. Three aspects stand out above others: the damaging effects of low social status, whether that is due to poverty, racism or any other cause; the quality of care in early childhood; and the strongly protective effects of friendship and social integration.

Relationships matter so much because other people can be our best sources of security, comfort and cooperation or our worst rivals. Just as bad relationships are highly stressful, friendship is relaxing and restorative. We have evolved an extraordinary sensitivity to relationships, because getting them right has always been crucial to our survival.

Experiments have shown that it is threats to self-esteem or social status, where other people can judge us negatively, that most reliably raise our stress hormones. These feelings are so potent, causing anything from fury to stomach-clenching shame. Even simple experiments have shown they have serious consequences, including slower wound healing and weaker resistance to infection.
So what can be done to ensure our health and resilience? The key is that class and status, prejudice and discrimination are strengthened by larger income differences. As George Bernard Shaw said: “Inequality of income takes the broad, safe, and fertile plane of human society and stands it on its edge,” with the result that some people are valued very much more than others. The rich are made to seem more superior and the poor more inferior, inequalities in health and in young people’s life chances increase, while social mobility slows.

The picture could hardly be simpler: almost all the problems that we know are related to social status within our society get worse when status differences are increased. If we want a less dysfunctional society and a healthier population, building back better means addressing the scourge of income inequality.
- And Andrew Jackson challenges Chrystia Freeland to pursue the possibility of transformational change, rather than merely trying to move back toward a lost (and unsustainable) status quo ante.

- On that front, Tom Philpott discusses how the U.S.' food supply is needlessly precarious. And Dana Granofsky, Kira Heineck, Steve Lurie and Kwame McKenzie highlight the danger that we could see a new wave of homelessness connected to a resurgence of COVID-19 this fall - even as Jen St. Denis points out the lack of uptake on tiny homes in Vancouver (or elsewhere in Canada) despite the success of the same idea in U.S. cities which have pursued it.

- Finally, Christopher Cheung and Rochelle Baker each report on a push for action against a drug overdose crisis which is killing far more people than COVID-19 in British Columbia.

Friday, August 28, 2020

Musical interlude

Hilary Woods - Prodigal Dog

Death by a thousand cuts

Others are rightly pointing out that we have a strong precedent as to what the Saskatchewan Party's version of austerity actually means, in the form of the disastrous 2017 budget which saw massive and cruel cuts made with no regard for their devastating impact on the province. But there's an even more instructive example as to the Moe government's cut-first mindset in its treatment of education funding this fall.

Right now, parents across Saskatchewan are wrestling with questions as to how to handle the start of the school year. Our choices have been made far more difficult by the Saskatchewan Party's delay in acknowledging any need for safety measures. And while the government has loudly announced funding (or taken credit for what the federal government has provided), it's set up a vague, limited and uncertain process to determine whether how any of it will be distributed:
"With the federal government's contribution, there is now up to $150 million available to our education sector for costs associated with a safe return to school," Wyant said.
The provincial government said the money will be available throughout the school year. However, the deadline for the first intake of funding applications closes Thursday.

Wyant said there have only been two applications for funding so far, but he expects that number will rise. He said government will have a deadline for another round of applications in October and then on a quarterly basis.

The government did not indicate how much money will be given out or what the criteria to receive funding are, but Wyant said Wednesday the priorities are supporting immunocompromised​​ students, resources for online learning, supplies and staffing.
In other words, virtually none of the money supposedly allocated to a safe return to school will have even been considered for disbursement - let alone put to good use - for a period of months after schools are supposed to reopen. 

But when it comes to clawing back money from school divisions, the Saskatchewan Party is starting from a philosophy of taking funding away first and asking questions later:
The Saskatchewan NDP is warning that a COVID-fuelled enrolment plunge could take a bite out of school division budgets this school year, swallowing resources just when they’re needed to protect against the pandemic.
“We have asked the government if they will be scaling back, clawing back, those dollars from divisions based on who doesn’t attend school in person,” he said. “We know that the costs to schools will be greater as they are dealing with a pandemic and how do they do infection control.”

The government has not provided any such commitment, according to Meili. He said the Ministry of Education has signalled that the “traditional approach” will remain unchanged. That means calculating funding for each school division based on a formula in which the total student body plays a major role. The amounts are updated based on actual enrolment submitted as of Sept. 30.
In a statement to the Leader-Post the Ministry of Education said it “will work with divisions regarding their September 30 enrolment data to understand the impact any adjustment may have.”
Of course, the best way to ensure parents are comfortable with the safety of the school environment would have develop and fund a meaningful plan when it could still have been implemented before the school year.

But having failed in that task, Scott Moe and company are now planning by default to strip away base funding from the school divisions who have been assigned impossible responsibilities with insufficient resources. And the amount set to be pulled back based on the inflexible application of a funding formula could far exceed what's on the table in COVID-related relief: while the initial reporting mentioned numbers along the lines of 10% decreases in enrollment, the experience of Edmonton's public school board suggests the cuts to the total operating funding of $1.94 billion could be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

In sum, the Saskatchewan Party's default position is to slash funding at the drop of a hat, but to set up cumbersome processes which delay any investment even when it comes to top priorities in the midst of a public health emergency. And we'll go to the polls in the wake of a vivid reminder of the consequences of that mindset.

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- George Monbiot writes that we shouldn't let distractions about population divert our attention from the role the wealthiest and most privileged few have played in causing (and profiting from) our climate breakdown.

- Kate Kelly writes that private capital is once again wringing massive returns out of others' misery, this time due to the collapse of shopping malls.

- Jose-Luis Jimenez discusses the need to act on the growing evidence that COVID-19 can be spread through aerosols which can linger in the air for hours.

- Tehseen Lahda points out the importance of offering multiple layers of protection - including physical distancing - to minimize the risk of reopening schools. And Laura Sciarpelletti reports on the expert consensus that Saskatchewan should be using its federal education funding on masks and ventilation needs which have been left unaddressed by the provincial government.

- Meanwhile, Meera Karunananthan writes about the pernicious effect of "nice white parents" whose attempts to set up special advantages for their own children draw resources away from the basic needs of less privileged families. And Caroline Alphonso takes note of the especially unfair reliance on fund-raising to deal with the health consequences of COVID-19. 

- Finally, Geoff Dembicki writes about Seth Klein's new book on the opportunity to respond to an emergency such as the coronavirus pandemic with meaningful improvements in our society.

[Edit: added link.]

Thursday, August 27, 2020

On policy bubbles

While Justin Trudeau is putting any economic planning in the hands of somebody with a vested interest in privatizing profits, it's also worth noting how his government is deliberately avoiding any of the type of consultation needed to make a minority Parliament work at a time when cooperation should be more important than ever:
The source said a minority government has to be ready for the moment when there may be no compromising “and, quite frankly maybe it is time for the Canadian people to weigh in a post-pandemic environment.”

Another senior official said only that when it comes to working with the other parties, “we’re not at that stage yet.”
It would seem obvious enough that for a minority government wanting to get anything accomplished through the current Parliament, there should never be a stage where working with other parties is off the table. And that goes doubly when discussing the path to recovery and renewal in the face of an ongoing pandemic.

But Trudeau appears to have decided to model his own plans after Stephen Harper's perpetual games of Parliamentary chicken: no meaningful consultation, no compromise, and no interest in considering what's good for anybody besides his corporate backers and cronies. And if being reduced to a minority hasn't been enough to convince Trudeau that voters expect leaders who listen rather than running roughshod over the country, then the electorate will need to deliver a far stronger message when it has the opportunity.

On conflicts of interest

Just a couple of weeks ago, there was a flurry of speculation - and disapprobation - about the possibility that Mark Carney might pursue a political career after having been governor of the Bank of Canada and Bank of England.

And that criticism seemed somewhat overblown. While central bank independence is taken as an article of faith, there's no indication that Carney's past actions would have been affected at all by the potential for future political involvement. And the case for encouraging people with substantial knowledge and no current conflicts of interest to be able to participate in our democratic system to them seems stronger to me than the case for an effective lifetime ban on serving as a representative based on a past role in central banking.

But now, Carney appears set to wear two different hats instead: as a closely-connected advisor to the Prime Minister tasked with developing the government's economic plan, and as an employee of an investment firm which stands to rake in profits from artificially-privatized infrastructure.

Needless to say, that should represent a far more direct and worrisome conflict of interest than the prospect of retroactive influence on past regulatory actions. And it's telling that there's so much less outcry over a conflict pointed toward using public funds to enrich the capital-owning class, rather than one which would have resulted in accountability to the electorate. 

Thursday Morning Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

- Jennifer Robson examines the lessons we should learn from EI's failures which required a less-onerous and more-widely-available income support system to bail Canadian workers out through the coronavirus pandemic.

- Michael Harris surveys some of the actions of governments - including that of the Trudeau Libs - which are using COVID-19 as an excuse to infringe on people's rights. And Erin Knight wonders why the necessary transition toward social distancing and remote work and education hasn't been met with efforts to ensure people have access to reliable and affordable Internet access.

- Zak Vescera reports on SEIU-West's warning that Scott Moe is trumpeting a COVID-19 testing target which can't be met by current laboratory staffing levels. And Laura Sciarpelletti reports on the Saskatchewan NDP's call for assurances that school divisions won't suffer cuts to already-insufficient funding if students are forced into online learning, while Adam Hunter discusses the clunky application process the Saskatchewan Party has set up to theoretically make both provincial and federal education funding available.

- Samantha Beattie discusses how Canada stands to be devastated far more by the climate breakdown we're in the process of locking into place than by the immediate threat of COVID-19. And Emily Holden reports on a needed push by Senate Democrats to rein in the power of the fossil fuel industry in the U.S.

- Finally, Lorian Hardcastle and Ubaka Ogbogu offer a warning about the dangers of the Kenney UCP's plans to privatize and corporatize health care in Alberta.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Wednesday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- Joel Blit, Chuanmo Jin and Mikal Skuterud point out the importance of thinking ahead and being strategic in determining what activities are permitted or encouragement in the face of a pandemic.

- David Lieb examines how businesses were allowed to dictate U.S. reopenings, with the result that the public interest was sacrificed to the goal of extracting immediate profits. And Laura Ungar, Jason Dearen and Hannah Recht look in depth at Florida's gutting and muzzling of public health services which contributed to some of the worst outbreaks in the country.

- Shawn Jeffords reports on the push by Ontario's nurses for reduced class sizes and mandatory masks in schools. Katherine Wilton reports that hundreds of Quebec teachers are staying home rather than going back to unsafe work environments, while PressProgress reports on the Moe government's alarming advance declaration that teachers aren't facing any unusual dangers. Joanne Laucius reports on the educational assistants and other support workers who are facing even more risk and precarity as a result of COVID-19, while Adam Hunter reports on the Saskatchewan NDP's call for a plan to ensure that substitute teachers have access to sick leave and stable assignments rather than serving as disease vectors between schools. Sarmishta Subramanian raises the possibility of a strike by parents who aren't satisfied that schools are safe. And Mark Iype notes that the Edmonton Public School Board has already seen nearly a third of children pulled from in-person education. 

- Finally, Chris Campbell discusses how the end of British Columbia's eviction moratorium is affecting the mental health of people whose housing is threatened as a result. Scott Leon and James Iveniuk study (PDF) the connections between poverty, race and evictions in Toronto - including the fact that subsidized housing is ultimately more secure. And Shauna Sowersby examines the success of Seattle's tiny home communities which are providing housing for people who were previously homeless.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Lounging cats.

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- Jeff Rubin writes that the hoarding of supplies over the course of the coronavirus pandemic has provided compelling evidence that globalization falls apart just when it's needed most. And Amir Attaran warns that the Libs' failure to recognize that reality may leave Canada years behind other developed countries in being able to deploy vaccines.

- The Globe and Mail's editorial board writes that we're just entering a new phase of the fight against COVID-19. Apoorva Mandavelli reports on new research showing that live coronavirus can float through air. And Monica Gandhi highlights how cloth masks protect both the wearer and others by limiting the amount of the virus transmitted through any interaction.

- Sam Gindin discusses the importance of rooting organization in the working class in order to counter the power of both capital and institutional inertia.

- Doreen Nicoll warns about the effect of public-private partnerships which remove democratic control over water, turning it instead into purely a commodity. And Sarah Rieger reports on Nichole Robinson's swimming protest against Jason Kenney's plans to prioritize coal mining over clean drinking water in Alberta. 

- Finally, Martin Lukacs and Tim Groves expose how corporations and wealthy individuals have been militarizing Canadian police departments against citizen activism.

Monday, August 24, 2020

Monday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material to start your week.

- Kim Siever writes about the consistent choice of right-wing governments to use anti-tax rhetoric to goose corporate profits at the expense of the public. Jeff Rubin rightly questions why Canada's tax system is set up to favour passive and inherited wealth over productive labour. And Kate Aronoff suggests banning yachts as one of the more glaring examples of gratuitous wealth accumulation and resource destruction.

- Leah Stokes highlights how California's extreme weather (and resulting infrastructure failures) are just a taste of what the future will look like if we don't wean ourselves off of fossil fuels. And David Uhlmann offers a reminder that climate change is still among the most important ballot issues in the U.S.

- Susan Wright discusses the justified lack of trust Albertans have in the Kenney government to make even minimal investments in public health and education - and the difficulty that creates in trying to set up a safe return to school. Dan Levin reports on the inconsistent reporting of community spread and outbreaks in U.S. schools. And Marc Smith's report on Saskatchewan's criteria for declaring a COVID-19 patient to be "recovered" raises a host of questions about the province's handling of "long-haulers".

- Meanwhile, the Harvard Gazette reports on new research showing how children can be silent spreaders of COVID-19 - making it essential to minimize the danger of mass spreading events in overcrowded and underresourced classrooms. And Jason DeParle makes the case for a family allowance to reduce the harm the coronavirus may do to a generation of children.

- Joanna Chiu notes that many Canadians are looking to more worker-friendly policies from Europe as means of managing the added strain of COVID-19. But Abha Battarai discusses how after a few months of recognition, grocery workers are now being treated as little more than cannon fodder. And Duncan Stuart writes that the continued rise of precarious work puts everybody at risk.

- Finally, Chris Hall interviews Jagmeet Singh about the NDP's expectations if the Libs expect any support in a fall throne speech - with investments in child care and a strengthened social safety net ranking as the top priorities. And Alex Ballingall writes that Singh is following in the NDP's proud tradition of trying to negotiate benefits for people out of a reluctant and self-interested Liberal government.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Sunday Morning Links

This and that for your Sunday reading.

- report on a new study showing the U.S. could save tens of thousands of lives by requiring universal mask use. And the Economist notes that a single person wearing a mask for a day can produce over $50 in value through that act alone.

- The Leader-Post and Star-Phoenix' editorial boards team up to argue for stronger provincial action to ensure safe schools this fall. But they notably fall short of addressing the problems of class size and facilities which loom as the issues requiring the most investment - particularly in light of the research reported on by Chase Banger which shows how increased class sizes could cause COVID-19 to spread by large multiples.

- Meanwhile, Natalie Nanowski discusses how a return to less-than-safe schools is likely to force isolation within families as vulnerable people have to choose between maintaining contact with children and staff exposed to school populations, and their own health.

- Ismail Ibrahim and Joey Jamil write about the need for action to avoid an eviction crisis in Ontario as landlords have been given the ability to hike rent and push people out of their homes even as temporary income supports are disappearing. And Melissa Lopez-Martinez reports on Mumilaaq Qaqqaq's work highlighting the desperate need for safe and healthy housing in Nunavut.

- Finally, Mark Melnychuk reports on the continued lack of mental health supports in Saskatchewan, as well as the activists fighting to make them available.