How new puritans, petty bureaucrats and irresponsible activists risk eroding the public will necessary to fight Coronavirus

Watching and reading the news this weekend three stories caused me a lot of worry. Consider the following three headlines:

What do these three stories have in common? They are all examples of how new puritans, petty bureaucrats and irresponsible activists are working hard to erode the public goodwill necessary to win the fight against Coronavirus.

Like many of you I have spent the last month working from home. As the parent of three elementary school-aged kids, I have had to limit what my children are allowed to do while serving as parent and teacher during the day. Our family also includes a large, lovable dog who requires lots of exercise to remain sane, and this time has been hard on her as we no longer can take her to the park for the play she longs to enjoy.

Children are naturally social beings and keeping my kids away from their friends has been particularly hard. So we, like many, have taken to virtual communication as well as “block parties” during the day. This typically entails us chatting with the neighbors from the safety of the sidewalk and our drive-ways. The kids talking to their friends and sharing their hopes and plans even if they can’t share a hug or throw a ball together.

We know that Coronavirus is primarily transferred through aerosolized droplets that typically don’t travel more than 2 meters (as per the research Exposure to influenza virus aerosols during routine patient care) and in windy conditions can’t go close to that distance up-/cross-wind. Talking to my neighbours from across the street or over a fence, thus, represents a virtually zero risk option to keep community spirit high and provide our kids the socialization they need to grow into complete human beings.

Similarly, with all the parks closed there is a greater need for kids to have space on their lawns and sidewalks to burn off energy; get their Vitamin D; and simply be kids. With the schools and community centers closed, their empty parking lots provide an ideal location for our kids to ride their bikes or roller-blade with the understanding they keep their social distance from others.

This rather long intro brings me to the topic of my piece. How the actions of new puritans, petty bureaucrats and irresponsible activists can sap the communal goodwill necessary to maintain the effort to fight Coronavirus.

As a Chemist I remember the First Law of Thermodynamics which tells us that in a closed system when you ramp up the pressure the temperature rises in response. Our pressure release has been the ability to interact with our neighbours in a controlled and safe manner, entirely consistent with what we understand about the rules of Social Distancing during the age of Coronavirus.

H.L. Mencken once defined Puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone somewhere is having a good time“. During this pandemic there seems to be a thread of Puritanism in some responses to the pandemic. There are some who have claimed that the pandemic is a test from god or our penance for our misdeeds. These new puritans appear to believe that if people are enjoying themselves then we aren’t really fighting the pandemic properly. The result is that instead of laying off on the pressure they want to make things harder.

Let’s look at the “loophole” from the first story:

If you have been enjoying a beer on your driveway with a friend or exchanging pleasantries with a neighbour over the garden fence, Ottawa’s associate medical officer of health has a message for you.

Stop it.

Why does the Health Officer say we shouldn’t have these friendly exchanges?

The problem with beer on the driveway or a chat over the fence is that it can turn into a parking lot or backyard party, said Moloughney.

Even if you have been technically observing physical distancing guidelines, there are still dangers to these situations, including the fact that some people who have COVID-19 do not exhibit symptoms.

We know that if families are separated sufficiently then communicating over a fence will pose no risk, so the only reasonable basis for this argument is a puritan desire to stop safe communication between neighbours. It appears as if the health officer is seeking to make fighting Coronavirus a harder thing not an easier one. As if there is some added virtue to increasing suffering during the time as a sign of piety.

The second story really gets my goat. As I noted, because our local school is closed and the gate is locked to stop cars getting in, the school parking lot represents a great place for my youngest daughter to learn to scooter while my older daughter learns to roller blade, all under the watchful eye of our son who ensures that they all follow the social distancing rules. To imagine that a petty bureaucrat would give tickets to families making use of this open public space simply infuriates me. These officers should be looking at ways to encourage safe, outdoor play not using their “power” to play petty bureaucratic games.

Similarly closing parks for fear that people will fail to social distance completely loses the thread. I’m told they closed the Lac Dubois Grasslands in Kamloops with its thousands of acres of hiking trails. Someone who can’t social distance in an open grassland is likely a greater risk in a city than in an open park. So closing that grassland park will likely do very little to protect the public but it will force more people to use smaller urban areas to get their exercise…imagining that closing parks will keep people indoors is simply magical thinking. We need to make more space available outside not less.

To complete the trifecta I want to point out the opportunists; the activists who are grafting their personal, pet projects onto the fight against Coronavirus. I can think of no better example than the urban activist who decided to create a “social distancing machine” to make his petty case.

Watching him walk into signs and light posts and complain that this is an indication we need better urban design to protect us from Coronavirus was simply maddening. Does he honestly believe that an urban tree will give him Coronavirus? Does he not imagine that an individual not wearing a “social distancing machine” might be able to walk on the other side of the tree to maintain correct social distancing?

I realize he claims that parts of his video were “exaggeration” but it was much more than that. Social distancing in the city is about courtesy and simply taking your time; waiting until the way is clear; or taking another route. It requires lots of goodwill. Something he lacks.

As for his suggestion that there was no space, look at the two pictures of him above and below. Both involved him walking in the exact middle of the sidewalk/crosswalk. In both cases there was lots of room for people to pass in a comfortable manner. The only reason he failed to get full social distancing was by insisting on walking in the exact middle and demanding space on either side. His major issue was that he was being intensely rude, nothing more, nothing less.

As a thought experiment consider this approach with a two-lane road. If I drive down the middle of a two-lane road then no one can go by in either direction. Does that mean the road is too narrow for movement in both directions? Of course not. If I drive in my lane then there will be lots of space for people going in the opposite direction in their lane. This gentleman is not really interested in protecting against Coronavirus, he is simply riding on the coat-tails of the pandemic to advance his personal views on urban design.

The reality of our fight against Coronavirus is that we all need to work together. This pandemic is not a biblical plague set upon us for our misdeeds and making people suffer needlessly to fight it will only reduce the general goodwill and unity of purpose necessary to fight this thing.

Our local leaders have to crack down on the worst instincts of their petty bureaucrats. Tell them to lighten up on enforcing rules about using public spaces, when doing so causes no harm. They need to overlook harmless rule-breaking that helps build community cohesion and failing that, the powers that be should relieve these petty tyrants of their duties. We also need to call out opportunists who are using this pandemic to advance their personal agendas.

The truth is that to beat this thing we we have to help each other find joy in a time of sorrow and we need to find little happy moments in a time of confinement. Spending time with our neighbours isn’t wrong and having a beer on my driveway hurts no one. Social distancing has a practical purpose, to limit the spread of the virus. The point is not to socially isolate people or force us all indoors. We are all in this for the long run and that means making the best of a bad situation. It also means fighting the activists, the new puritans and the petty bureaucrats working hard to erode the social license, community buy-in and public goodwill necessary to win the fight against Coronavirus.

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9 Responses to How new puritans, petty bureaucrats and irresponsible activists risk eroding the public will necessary to fight Coronavirus

  1. dcardno says:

    “They need to overlook harmless rule-breaking that helps build community cohesion…”
    I don’t mind if they respond to actual ‘rule breaking’ – although they could be a little more reasonable and remind people of the need for distancing, rather than issuing a ticket. But the situations you describe aren’t even ‘rule breaking.’ So what if I (or you) sit 2m (or further) away from a friend on my driveway and chat – that’s not ‘harmless rule breaking’ – that’s meeting the requirements of the distancing rules.


  2. Chester Draws says:

    As patient as ever, while being spot on. Thank-you.

    There’s also an element of class snobbery. People in little homes and apartments aren’t allowed out to exercise, get some air and feel free — by people who live in big homes with big yards.


  3. ruud hommel says:

    The blogpost considers the general public as responsible, intelligent, well thinking individuals, which the idiots (considerable percentage when looking at possible consequences) among us are not.
    It’s the intentional and otherwise idiots, harmless in most instances, that these days put the general public at risk with their “corona parties” and such like foolishness, as well as other egoistic considerations.
    On the other side of the idiot spectrum you’ll find the petty bureaucrats, new puritans and irresponsible activists.
    It’s good that this last group has been put in the limelight.
    I’m just looking forward to a blogpost considering the greater variety of comprehensive human idiotry with regard to the current pandemic.


    • Chester Draws says:

      How about the politicians who tell us to do one thing, and then promptly ignore their own advice? Scotland has seen one minister tumble, NZ another. Trudeau, as usual, has different rules for himself — but he should be gone too. The idiocy starts at the top.

      We have always had people that do things that put us all at risk: drunk drivers, muggers, anti-vaxers. But we don’t have curfews to prevent mugging, we haven’t banned cars to avoid people who drive too fast or drunk. We put proportionate measures in place to mitigate the risk.

      For this we are not mitigating risk. We are attempting to avoid risk completely. It’s disproportionate response to a problem.

      And disproportion is the point, to a lot of people. They actively want us to suffer more.


      • Ruud Hommel says:

        yeah, politicians, but you got to remember that some of this group of individuals are a bit different from us, ordinary types. They know that they are not infected, so the rules do not apply to them. Examples are Iraj Harirchi and (LOL) Boris Johnson (just waiting for Donald and/or some of his economy-first-mates to come down with it).
        Your conclusion may partly be correct, it may not start at the top, but there are some in the upper regions that do not help much to overcome the problem.

        Drunk drivers and muggers do cause a single reaction as the first sample in the following link, but anti-vaxers and the corona-virus go for the more impressive second sample.

        After watching the video (there are more and funnier ones on the net), you could understand my point of view that your understanding of mitigating the risk may be a disastrous way to proceed.
        One infected individual, at the wrong place, at the wrong time and the whole show starts over again.
        Covid-19 is with us to stay and only a vaccin or medication can be an easy way out. in the meantime we’ve got our “current measures”, better stick to them.

        Current measures are meant to “flatten the curve”. Current measures are intended to not overload hospitals and other care centers (in cases where measures started too late, with horrible results).
        I do not consider current measures to be disproportionate (and I live in France), but I do fulfill your criteria for “class snobbery” (sorry for that, can’t help it).

        Stick to the rules and remain (relatively) safe.


      • Chester Draws says:

        One infected individual, at the wrong place, at the wrong time and the whole show starts over again.
        Covid-19 is with us to stay and only a vaccin or medication can be an easy way out. in the meantime we’ve got our “current measures”, better stick to them.

        These appear to me, at least, to be contradictory.

        If it is here to stay, then there is no avoiding it. We will get an individual at the wrong time and place. The Swedes realise this, so they are just biting the bullet and getting it over and done with.

        A major issue with lockdown, as a response, is that coming out of it is sure to lead to an increase in cases. So, politically, once invested in lockdown you have to stick the whole course. But we simply cannot lock down an economy for months on end — the cure is far worse than the disease. It won’t save lives, it will increase death and misery, but merely in different targets.

        How do you propose this ends? You can’t come out of lockdown, because infections will rise. You sit at home for a year or more and hope for a vaccine? (A vaccine for a type of virus we have never been able to vaccinate against before, despite quite a lot of trying!). I don’t see an end-game for those that propose current measures are working.


  4. rogercaiazza says:

    “I’m just looking forward to a blogpost considering the greater variety of comprehensive human idiotry with regard to the current pandemic.” That could well turn out to be a lifetime effort in these target rich times


  5. Margy says:

    We’ll be returning to our Alberta home at the end of the month (from a zipcode in Arizona that has had no cases.) We will quarantine when we get home, as directed.
    The Canadian Government website says : “You must wear a non-medical mask or face covering while traveling to the place you will quarantine (self-isolate).”
    I’ve sent a request to my MP and to the Public Health Agency to ask why we would be expected to wear a face mask for the three hours we will be in our car driving from the border to our home.


  6. Pingback: It’s OK to Be All Three (Covid-19-Part 21) | Amusives

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