Letters

April 2006

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• 3,696 words

Flu Shots
I read with interest Gwynne Dyer’s thoughtful examination of global preparations for the next influenza pandemic (“Waiting for the Pandemic,” February). The ongoing spread of the h5n1 virus in the bird population is of great concern, though the next pandemic could also result from a mutation of another virus. There is no doubt that the world will face another pandemic of influenza; what is unknown is when and how serious.

Reasonable investments we make today in preparation for such an event will be repaid in helping to minimize the health, economic, and societal costs of a pandemic. They also assist in being better prepared for bioterrorism, natural disasters, or other emerging diseases like sars. And they provide a capacity to better prevent the diseases that kill and disable us on a more regular basis.

Mr. Dyer correctly credits Canada for its early attention to this issue — including having had the foresight to secure a domestic supplier for a pandemic vaccine, which would be the most effective way to stop a pandemic. I want to update and clarify information on the use of antivirals during a pandemic.

Canada’s federal, provincial, and territorial governments have already established a stockpile of antiviral treatment for those who will become ill during a pandemic of influenza, and plan to diversify and expand it. These governments currently have on hand thirtyfive million doses of oseltamivir, with another five million planned, which will mean four million treatments, enough to treat about half of all Canadians who become ill (assuming an infection rate of about 25 percent). We plan to add Relenza, another antiviral, to the stockpile this year.

While antivirals have limitations and cannot eliminate the threat, they may assist in reducing severity of the illness and death. We can never anticipate every possibility or completely prevent such a public-health crisis, but by being as prepared as possible we can substantially reduce the impact of a pandemic.
Dr. David Butler-Jones
Chief Public Health Officer, Public Health Agency of Canada
Ottawa, Ontario

Many Canadians would like to better understand pandemic influenza and assess its threat. Unfortunately, most of what is written about influenza in articles like Gwynne Dyer’s rarely deliver a complete perspective. In addition to the devastating 1918-1919 pandemic, which Dyer recalls, this century had pandemics in 1957-1958 and 1968-1969. Those were mild and killed relatively few, but they still qualified as pandemics. In 1976, we braced for a pandemic that didn’t arrive. In 1997, we averted one through public-health action. They’re not all 1918-1919. Will the next one be mild or severe? No one knows.

Dyer writes as if the world will go from “no pandemic” to “complete mayhem” in one step. In reality, pandemics follow a six-phase progression. Each phase demands corresponding strategies which may avert a pandemic or, if not, may slow and limit its damage. It is only in phase six that a pandemic becomes unstoppable, and even then we would expect public-health action, medications, and vaccines to limit illness, death, and societal disruption.

Pandemic influenza is a real threat, but we are wrong to focus primarily on the potential drama and chaos of a devastating phase six. Public-health interventions may actually be more worthwhile earlier than later. It is difficult to understand a threat whose timing and destructiveness are unpredictable, yet it is by acknowledging these uncertainties that we can make meaningful plans. Dyer’s article emphasizes societal devastation and says less about what we can do within a process of evolving risk to reduce the chance of this happening. These more subtle concepts are key to understanding pandemic influenza.
Dr. Vincent Lam
Toronto, Ontario
Author of the forthcoming Canadian
Guide to Pandemic Influenza

Gwynne Dyer provides an excellent overview of the possible repercussions of a global outbreak of avian flu but he neglects to explore many of his own ideas. For example, Dyer cites a bmo-Nesbitt Burns report that warns that closed borders, absenteeism, and the collapse of our just-in-time health-care delivery system could trigger an economic downturn “comparable, at least for a short time, to the Great Depression.”

Really? In the 1930s, our society was largely rural, and many citizens had the capacity to be self-reliant, providing their own transportation, clothing, food, energy, and shelter, or had the opportunity to procure these resources regionally. When their money ran out, many families continued to produce food, clothing, shelter, and energy, if at a reduced rate.

Dyer challenges us to imagine a twenty-first-century Depression that would remove most of the cash, jobs, and commercial products from an urbanized North America. Perhaps the violence after the flooding of New Orleans provides us with a glimpse. Rural communities will fare little better than their urban counterparts; few now have the means to feed themselves, for they are just as dependent on global trade.

It is too easy, though, to sound apocalyptic. The solution is not to sow worry but to raise questions. For example, should we be destroying our farms and small towns, moving our population into megacities, and lengthening our supply lines so that our T-shirts, shoes, and computer components are manufactured on the other side of the planet?

Pandemics, oil scarcity, food shortages, and currency collapses could have dire economic consequences. Are we, like the residents of New Orleans, failing to pay sufficient attention to the social and economic dikes that should bolster our communities against such forces? Are we increasingly vulnerable to a host of potential storms that could unleash a flood?
Darrin Qualman
Director of Research,
National Farmers Union
Saskatoon, Saskatchewan

Gwynne Dyer’s article was well-researched, but I was amused to read that China plans to vaccinate its domestic stock of fourteen billion chickens, ducks, and geese against avian flu, and wonder if anyone bothered to do the math.

Accomplishing such a Herculean task would require eighty million birds to be vaccinated per day and would have to be completed within six months — the average lifespan of a bird before it is consumed. Of course this is impossible, and is reminiscent of Chairman Mao’s ambition to rid his country of flies by ordering the citizenry to engage in collective fly-swatting.

Here in Canada, we should not allow ourselves to become complacent just because our government has created a Pandemic Influenza Plan. The central thrust of our plan involves the development of a vaccine that will not be available until several months after a pandemic hits. This means that if a pandemic arrives, stores will run out of supplies and loved ones will die. Our government will not be able to solve all of our problems.

In order to be better prepared, it is essential that every Canadian ask for their annual flu shot. This will not protect against h5n1, but if a person is infected at least their body’s immune system will not be further weakened by the seasonal flu. Next, we should stock-pile enough food, water, and other essential supplies to last for three months. Those who can should stay at home as much as possible. Finally, stock up on face masks rated n-95 or higher. During a pandemic, surgical masks and dust masks are useless.
Bob Butler
Prince George, British Columbia

The Ignatieff Question

As a senior member of Paul Martin’s Leadership Campaign in Ontario, I understand very well the many hurdles of running for leader and the challenges facing Michael Ignatieff should he choose to do so. As Alex Mazer (“Ignatieff’s Realm,” February) points out in Ignatieff’s role as a newly elected member of Parliament he must transition from a “patrician scholar” to someone who can handle the “hardscrabble world of politics.” But if Ignatieff runs for leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, he can certainly expect a more intense version of hardball politics than he faced in his Toronto riding of Etobicoke-Lakeshore as well as cutthroat competition from within the Liberal Party itself. The difference, of course, is that running for leader of the Liberal Party brings different expectations and criteria. It is a much bigger stage. Not just anyone can be a candidate for leader. After all, this person will have an excellent chance of becoming the next prime minister of Canada. Liberals will expect more from all the leaderships candidates, proof that each has what it takes to win and lead.

Paul Martin, in 1990, was in a similar position to which Ignatieff now finds himself — a new face, relatively untested and unproven in Liberal Party politics. Certainly in terms of elected public office. Paul Martin required several years to learn how to work a room of Liberals effectively. At first he was stiff and awkward, but with hard work and practice he was eventually able to move comfortably and appear relaxed in the same type of room. Ignatieff’s credentials as an academic are impeccable, but in the leadership arena he must prove that he’s capable of trading one skill set, that of an academic, for another, successful grassroots politician.
Earl Provost
Ottawa, Ontario

I was intrigued by Alex Mazer’s attempt to find Michael Ignatieff’s inner “hedgehog.” As Mazer suggests, knowing how Ignatieff thinks about the world isn’t going to inform Canadians about how he will function as a member of Parliament. This is partly due to the fact that power corrupts, and also because the practicalities of daily politics quickly dull the sheen of luminous ideas protected by an academic career.

What Mazer’s tour of Ignatieff’s mind can tell us, however, is that his brand of liberalism is as incoherent and as potentially dangerous as contemporary liberalism can be. Ignatieff’s pragmatism follows Isaiah Berlin’s, meaning he denies that humans should pursue a single concept of “the good.” I happen to agree. However, this is a neutral position and often allows liberals to justify their own principles. But when this neutrality is combined with a core belief in intervention, in order to promote the stability and security of nation-states, the result is a confused, pathological, and unjustifiable interventionism bound to reflect the inconsistencies in the world view that supports it, or a simple pragmatic situational ethics, a policy that says, “it depends.”
Jacob Schiff
Chicago, Illinois

On January 24, the day after the federal election, as I was feeling deep disappointment with the circus, I finished reading Alex Mazer on Ignatieff. After months of seeing important issues steadfastly ignored by federal candidates, in the penultimate paragraph of Mazer’s essay I once again saw the list of topics that we Canadians have apparently agreed are worth discussing. Mazer calls them “our most urgent questions: How to manage Canada-US relations? How much control should provinces have over natural resources? How to respond to our continuing health-care crisis? How to maintain our economic competitiveness without betraying our commitment to a just society?”

Politicians and the media tell us that Canada has a healthy economy. I don’t agree. How can you call it healthy when Canadian industry pumped out eighteen million kilograms of carcinogens and one out of four Canadians dies of cancer? Our so-called healthy economy is killing us. (The data on the carcinogen releases and the cancer death rate are from Environment Canada and the Canadian Cancer Society. It is available to anyone, and yet few people seem to connect the dots.)

Professor James Lovelock recently suggested that global warming has reached the point of irreversibility. He also says that by the end of the century it’s likely that the only viable location for human life on planet earth will be the Arctic. Clearly, this would have more effect on our society than a hundred years of Liberal scandals, but no one is touching it. It seems imperative we plan ahead and find strong leadership. Instead we’re left with Environment Lite.
Bill Henderson
Salt Spring Island, British Columbia

Latin Love
Gord Westmacott and Pedro Sanchez’s analysis of Latin American political shift to the left was refreshing (“Bolivar’s Ghost,” February). The South American continent is moving forward in many positive ways, and Venezuela is a case in point. President Ch‡vez was elected in 1998, and since then Venezuela’s poverty rate has decreased from 44 percent to 35 percent, and 70 percent of Venezuelans now have direct access to primary health care, including vision, dentistry, and a free drug plan. In just one year, 1.3 million illiterate Venezuelans learned to read. Infant mortality has decreased dramatically, and huge investments have been made in infrastructure.

The much-publicized internal opposition, once powerful, is in disarray and failed to disrupt the December 2005 elections. If the external opposition, i.e., the Bush administration, should attempt to topple Ch‡vez, civil war would surely ensue. Venezuela’s development, which includes mining, and oil and gas projects with neighbouring nations, are all aimed at moving the country away from being primarily a raw material supplier. Congratulations to The Walrus for focusing on Latin America and highlighting the one developing region where economic, democratic, and social progress is genuinely being made.
Maria Paez Victor
Toronto, Ontario

Round the Bloc
Joan Bryden is correct to blame our “first-past-the-post” voting system (“The Separatist Curve Ball,” February) for granting the Bloc Québécois its formidable presence as a spoiler in Parliament. According to the number of votes cast by Quebecers, the Bloc should possess thirty-two seats, not fifty-one. Stephen Harper is delighted to have ten seats in Quebec, but he could have eighteen if every vote counted. Federalist voters in Quebec were also robbed of three Liberal MPs, six New Democrats, and three Greens.

Bryden goes on to suggest that proportional representation would not be good for stability because it produces “minority governments in perpetuity.” Leaving aside the fact that Canada has done very well under minority governments — which adopted Medicare, the Canada Pension Plan, and our flag during the minority-rule of Lester Pearson — a quick glance at the eighty or so modern industrial democracies around the world that have been using proportional voting systems for most of the last century (including Switzerland, Germany, Sweden, Norway, and Holland) will reveal that they invariably have effective, stable coalition governments that represent a true majority of the voters.

A decade ago New Zealand changed from a system like ours to the type of mixed-member proportional system developed in Germany after World War II. They were prompted to make the change after two elections in a row in which the party with the most votes lost the election, not an uncommon occurrence under first-past-the-post. Under proportional representation, New Zealand immediately switched to a coalition government. They started electing more women, more Maori people, and more minorities of all sorts, and now their Parliament much better represents the diversity of their society. This is a not-inconsiderable side benefit of proportional representation, and one that is particularly relevant to Canada.

Minority government as we know it is not a feature of proportional representation, but a product of our current, winner-take-all voting system, as are distorted regionalism and single-party monopoly governments that breed arrogance and corruption. Our antiquated voting system still serves the interests of some politicians but does not serve the interest of Canada.
Wayne Smith
President, Fair Vote Canada
Toronto

Wrong Turn
Julian Sher’s portrait of Thomas Sophonow’s heart-wrenching speech at the Vancouver Police Homicide Investigators Conference (“The Wrong Man in the Right Place,” February) is the most powerful depiction I have read of a wrongfully convicted citizen.

Mr. Sophonow now plays an important role in reminding police officers, crown prosecutors, and judges what our justice system is capable of doing to innocent people. Sophonow spent three years in prison and had his reputation smeared, but he still possessed the courage to address those who serve the system responsible for his suffering.

I am more familiar with Steven Truscott’s story, the most notorious and publicized example of a wrongful conviction in Canada. Since the age of fourteen Steven has fought to be exonerated of a murder conviction. His courageous wife, Marlene, and thousands of supporters, both in Canada and abroad, fight on. Steven is now sixty-one but has still been unable to officially clear his name, despite mountains of evidence favouring his position.

Over the years I have sent many letters to Minister of Justice Irwin Cotler and to Ontario Attorney General Michael Bryant in support of Truscott. I believe people like Steven Truscott and Thomas Sophonow are messengers who have suffered in order to fight for justice when it fails us.
Verna Plater-Davies,
Port Colborne, Ontario

Miseducation
I have been teaching in the Cegep system of Quebec for twenty-seven years and found Ken Alexander’s prescription for high-school reform to be refreshing (“Schooling: Repeat After Me,” December/January). Alexander is right to suggest smaller classes sizes. Anyone teaching knows that education is not compatible with crowd control.

Alexander also points to the corrosive effect of lowered expectations. In my experience, the bar is always lowered and never raised (presently the cant is “student retention — student success”). Bean counters count beans, educators should count those who have been educated.

Alexander is also correct in asserting the need for a common curriculum focused on the liberal arts and real sciences. This is essential to guarantee that basic skills and important details are learned so that we have a society of informed individuals. There is currently little or no organized teaching of English-language skills in the schools of Quebec. If students demonstrate any knowledge of grammar, it is because they have inferred it from French classes. Our English curriculum is unfocused, incoherent, and usually has more to do with current social and educational theories than with the teaching needs of genuine intellectual disciplines.

The current sentimentality of the middle class has gutted the public-school system of the one great value of that class — an egalitarian means to social improvement. Diplomas are no longer a certificate of accomplishment or a measure of significant skills but merely acknowledge participation. The result: our society is paying a great deal of money for a charade.

In response to Alexander’s last point about an entry-level test, I have watched the implementation of the English Exit Exam in Quebec and noted only small improvements, essentially because the exit test is premised on the current low standards.

There are many villains in this sad story — vain and vote-hungry politicians, deluded educational experts, careerist bureaucrats, dogmatic unionists, indulgent parents, inept administrators, incompetent teachers, and ignorant students. A renewed curriculum must be developed for the entire system. The individual institutions and their educators must be given more responsibility and also be held accountable. There must be a way to reward excellence and eliminate incompetence at all levels.
J. Van de Vyvere
English Department, Heritage College
Gatineau, Quebec

I would like to both congratulate Ken Alexander and point out an inadequacy in his argument concerning the dire state of public education. Alexander’s central criticism — students immersed in a visual world of television, computers, and video games have huge difficulties engendering meaning for themselves — is well taken. However, why does Alexander allow the second bastion of education in our democracy, the university, to remain wholly unscathed?

Universities have abandoned the project of liberal education and its greater cultural mission, with students being taught by professors more concerned with research than teaching.

John Ralston Saul has argued that the modern university is a place where civilization’s knowledge has been divided into exclusive territories of thought, and the chief occupation of academics is to create a technical language sufficiently inaccessible to prevent knowledge from passing between territories.

It seems that today only professionals enter into debates and that university academics tend to pursue research that is less and less in touch with the demands of the real world. We have legions of academics, but few are truly public intellectuals.
David Scott
English/Social Studies Teacher
Columneetza Secondary School
Williams Lake, B.C.

While I agree with the gist of his critique of schooling‚ Ken Alexander also raises an interesting point about democracy and knowledge. Effective democracy does indeed require a certain knowledge base. But to argue that teenagers shouldn’t vote until they are eighteen is effectively holding youth to a higher standard than the rest of society. In our post-modern electoral environment, voters apparently decide who to vote for based upon catchy slogans, the ability of politicians to look trustworthy in manufactured photo ops, and media declarations of who won a televised debate. In addition, our first-past-the-post electoral system renders most individual votes irrelevant, unless they happen to be cast in marginal electoral districts.

Why deny teenagers, who play a significant role in our consumer economy, the opportunity to feel that they are contributing to the political life of the nation? Fostering a sense of civic responsibility at a younger age would far outweigh the negative effects of adding a few more uninformed voters to the already overflowing pool.
Jonathon Swanson
Sudbury, Ontario

Landscape Praise, Grammar Malaise
Hugh Martin’s photography (“Young Romantic,” December/January) was terrific and made me think that The Walrus should dedicate more space to art, sculpture, architecture, and photography.

I do, though, have a small quibble with Charles Foran (“Literary Landscapes,” December/January). Foran incorrectly uses the word “infer” when he should have written “imply.” The writer or speaker implies; the reader or listener infers. Then Foran uses the word “none” as though it were plural, but “none” is a singular word. The sentence should have read: “And yet, none of these readings includes descriptions of actual places.”Keep up the good work.
Cameron Miller
Toronto, Ontario

Editor’s note:
Both of Mr. Miller’s suggestions are correct, but neither of Charles Foran’s choices is wrong. The word none can be read as either “not one” or “not any,” and as such can be either singular or, more commonly, plural. Infer, meanwhile, is a Janus word, with two contrasting definitions: “to deduce” and (hotly disputed) “to suggest.” Far be it for The Walrus to make a flawed inference, but the latter definition strikes us as having achieved respectability only as an error oft-repeated. We will henceforth seek to imply, and never to infer, when imparting meaning.

“The time has come,” The Walrus said, “to talk of many things.” Send us a letter, an email ([email protected]), or a tweet, or post on this website. Comments may be published in any medium and edited for length, clarity, and accuracy. Mail correspondence to: 411 Richmond St. E., Suite B15, Toronto, Ontario, Canada  M5A 3S5