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Lawrie McFarlane: COVID limitations are hurting our social lives

Climate-wise, Victoria is considered part of the temperate zone. But during this past year or two, civility-wise we’ve verged into the intemperate zone.
Commuters walk out of an ­underground train station as ­people filter into the city after more than 100 days of lockdown in Sydney, capital of New South Wales, on Monday. As part of its fight against COVID-19, the state’s chief health officer advised people not to “start up a conversation” with others, Lawrie McFarlane writes. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Climate-wise, Victoria is considered part of the temperate zone. But during this past year or two, civility-wise we’ve verged into the intemperate zone.

There have been increasing attacks on law-enforcement officers, causing Victoria Police Chief Del Manak to circle the wagons by withdrawing staff from traffic patrol, organized crime units and national security duties.

Businesses downtown are reporting a surge in vandalism and theft.

Recently, we’ve seen crowds of howling protesters descend on our hospitals, with both staff and patients subjected to verbal and, in some cases, physical assault. Hardly a day passes without anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers creating confrontations with their more socially responsible ­neighbours.

There have been repeated incidents of protesters blocking bridges and major t­raffic routes.

And across the country, we’ve seen churches burned as a protest against the residential school program.

I could go on. This has to be one of the ugliest periods in our recent history, and there seems no end in sight.

The question is, what has given rise to this collapse in civic harmony, and what, if anything, can be done?

On its face, it might seem part of the answer lies in our increased sensitivity to historical patterns of abuse, incidents of police brutality among them.

Part may also lie in a desire to face the long-standing maltreatment of Canada’s Indigenous Peoples. The discovery of unmarked children’s graves at the site of several residential schools provoked ­country-wide soul-searching.

While confronting systemic injustice is an important step forward, heightened tempers tend to come with it.

However, I think there is something deeper going on. Arguably, the real ­explanation is rooted in the unanticipated impact on civility that measures to contain the COVID-19 outbreak have brought about.

When you ask people to maintain a “social” distance, you undermine one of the foundations of civic life. We are by our very nature a social animal.

When you ask people to wear masks, you disable an essential means of maintaining inter-personal relations — the unspoken ­language of facial gestures.

The chief health officer in the Australian state of New South Wales recently carried these interventions to extremes: “Whilst it is in human nature to engage in conversation with others, to be friendly, unfortunately this is not the time to do that … don’t start up a conversation.”

And that is the unintended message that resonates through all of our anti-COVID restrictions — don’t be friendly, don’t get close.

I’m not suggesting that some, or even any, of those measures, were unnecessary. But I think it’s fair to say their broader ­ramifications, specifically the decline in civility and the corresponding rise in angry confrontations, were not foreseen.

And that has implications for the future, if further COVID waves break upon us.

To date, we’ve been mainly concerned about the financial and economic impacts of fighting COVID-19. Desperate efforts to maintain our health-care system, and its over-stretched ICUs, have likewise taken their toll.

But we should also consider the effect of further limitations on social interactions. Wrecking the foundations of civil society to subdue a virus is a cure worse than the disease.