Drinking from a Water Fountain in Elementary School Provides a Model for Dealing with COVID-19

Commentary, COVID-19, Education, Rodney Clifton

No doubt many senior citizens will remember drinking from school water fountains long before students carried water bottles. When the school day began, elementary students would rush to get a drink before class, and the other children would queue up in an orderly line. 

Learning about queuing culture was a major lesson for students in elementary school. There were, of course, different queues for different school activities. The big boy who pushed others out of the way at the fountain couldn’t push his weight around in English class because a tall gangly girl with braces would be first, followed by three or four other girls. Neither could he dominate the Math class because two nerdy boys with pimples were at the top.

Mastering the rules for queuing was a necessary, but often harsh, lesson for young students. But it definitely helped children become mature adults.

The adult world is full of queues; waiting for a stoplight to change, making an appointment at a dental office, and lining up at the checkout counter in a grocery store are all examples, and adults generally know the rules that must be followed.

But what does queuing have to do with the COVID-19 pandemic today?

Over the last two months, the Prime Minister, provincial premiers, and health care officials have made it clear that Canadians should stay home, physically isolating themselves from others for an untold length of time. As a result, many Canadians have lost control over their lives. In fact, increasingly more people are feeling helpless and demoralized because they can’t control where they go and who they see. 

Social psychologists have shown that humans find the loss of personal control is almost impossible to endure especially when it is forced. But, in attempting to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, our government officials have created rules that run counter to our nature, undermining the freedom that we, as Canadians, value. 

No wonder the officials need the force of the police and the threat of large fines to make people comply.

But, as spring warms into summer, it’s going to be increasingly difficult to force people to quarantine themselves. Human nature will soon rebel against this state-imposed demand. 

Very soon, people will feel the need to visit garden centres, have coffee at Tims, or take their children for a walk in the park. When people begin feeling the warmth of the sun, they will begin doing things that will challenge the state’s authority. Living in isolation and allowing the state to control one’s life is unnatural and anti-democratic. It can’t last forever.

Given these facts, why didn’t the government and health care officials use a queuing strategy, something that every Canadian learned in elementary school, to better manage the process of Canadians re-entering mainstream society? 

Within a month of their orders for Canadians to quarantine themselves, the officials knew that some people were at much higher risk than others. People under 20, for example, had a very low risk of getting sick, people between 20 and 65, had a risk that was about the same as getting the yearly flu, while older Canadians had a greatly increased risk. These officials also knew that no matter what they did, some people in all age-groups would die.

But even when the officials had this information, they still demanded that all Canadians be quarantined unless they were providing essential services. Quarantining the nation, they said, would flatten the curve.

And so, the curve has been flattened. What’s next?

The beginning of a pandemic is not the only time that officials need to flatten the curve; the curve also needs to be flattened when Canadians begin rejoining society.

What plan do these government and health care officials have for re-starting Canadian society?

If the COVID-19 virus has disappeared by the time people react against the imposed rules, then the curve will remain flat. But if the virus is still here, then a large number of people could become infected and quickly overload the health care system.

Surprisingly, our government officials seem to have no plan for re-starting the Canadian society except for allowing some business and services to re-open. It is time for government officials to focus on helping old and vulnerable people re-integrate into mainstream society.

To do this, they should ask people, especially seniors and those with compromised immune systems, to choose a time for their own re-entry. This step would give Canadians a much-needed sense of control. In addition, it would give officials a way of managing the re-entry process.

Social psychologists know that some people would choose to re-enter within a month or two, while others would choose to wait for five or six months. People are far more likely to act appropriately when they are given real choices than when the government forces them to comply with seemingly unreasonable demands.

Queuing people is a simple and effective way of allowing people to control their lives while easing them back into society. The first couple of spots would be reserved for young people, those who are not likely to become sick, and by people who provide required services. 

The remaining spots, say from 3 to 10, would be reserved for people over 65 and Canadians with compromised immune systems. Some people would choose spot 3 and others would choose spot 7. Health care officials would help manage the queuing so that vulnerable people were not massed in one or two positions. 

As this plan unfolds, government and health care officials would receive information about the way the virus is affecting the people who have already re-entered society. The officials would use this information to manage the process for the people who are still waiting in line, speeding up or slowing down the re-entry rate so the health care system didn’t become overburdened. 

Of course, Canadians would need to prepare for some people becoming sick and dying. But, this plan would give both officials and citizens time to prepare. At present, Canadians cannot prepare because they don’t know when, or at what rate, people will be re-entering society.

The way the lock-down policy is unfolding now, some people seem to think that if they don’t get the virus at the beginning of the pandemic, they will never get it. Others seem to think that they should remain quarantined till a vaccine is discovered. 

Neither of these options is reasonable. 

The plan outlined here would flatten the curve by letting Canadians decide for themselves when they re-enter society with health care officials managing the re-entry process.

As spring warms into summer, more people will probably decide to risk breaking the quarantine rules and re-enter society. If the re-entry process is not managed, and too many vulnerable people re-enter at the same time, the health care system could easily become overloaded. 

Unfortunately, our government and health care officials have not yet told us how they will manage this critical re-entry process. They seem to have only planned on shutting down Canadian society. That is unfortunate.

Hopefully, these officials will devise a better plan before the next pandemic occurs in a few years. They might even ask a social psychologist or two to help them take human nature into consideration.

 

Rodney A. Clifton is a professor emeritus at the University of Manitoba and a senior fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. (rodney.clifton@umanitoba.ca). His most recent book, edited with Mark DeWolf, is From Truth Comes Reconciliation: An Assessment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report (Winnipeg, MB, Frontier Centre for Public Policy, 2020).