Riders on the Storm

What can one of the most disastrous medical holocausts in all of history teach us about politics today, and what might it mean for Ontario this week?  

On the long flight from Barcelona to Toronto I finished reading of Laura Spinney’s masterful Pale Rider – The Spanish ‘Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World.  One hundred years ago the world was in the midst of the Spanish ‘Flu global pandemic, a scourge that swept the planet and killed more people than the Black Death.  Unlike most ‘flus the victims were mainly healthy adults in the prime of life, not the very young or the very old.  Current estimates suggest that between 50 and 100 million people may have perished worldwide.

The pandemic was unusual in that there were three distinct waves of the illness.  The first in the spring of 1918 being the most benign with a similar pattern to a severe seasonal influenza epidemic.  It was the final two waves that were the most deadly with the middle wave achieving (if that is the right word) the highest mortality rate.  It was these latter bouts of illness that hit the adult population, normally only marginally affected, particularly hard. In these occurrences the virus represented more like Pneumonic plague than what with think of as the standard flu illness. The whole thing exasperated by the ongoing destruction of the First World War. 

The current theory as to why this is so suggests that the virus set off what is known as a “cytokine storm” a catastrophic immune response.  The body fights the virus but completely over compensates, inflicting more damage to the affected organs than might be caused by the initial illness, which in the case of the Spanish ‘Flu were the lungs.

I have had two personal experiences of such an event myself.  Two bouts of myocarditis, a ‘flu (like) virus, that instead of attacking the respiratory tract attacked my heart.  Both times my body released a cytokine storm to combat the invader.  This impinged my heart function creating a feedback loop and (very) near fatal Congestive Heart Failure.  In trying to heal the wrong, my body almost killed me.

I think this is a good analogy for what ails the current political system in the western world, even down to the three waves we seem to be experiencing.

Capitalism as it is currently configured is not working for the majority of the people.  Income inequality is rising.  Jobs are becoming more precarious.  The prospects of joining the housing ladder is becoming harder and harder, particularly for Millennials.  Globalization is proving both a blessing and a curse.  The surety experience by the Boomer generation is gone.  This is like the weakness at the heart of the body politic, the equivalent of WWI in this analogy; an ongoing event that is wearing us all down.  The pandemic was the global recession of 2008-2010.

The people’s reaction in terms of Brexit (the first wave) and Trump (the second and worst) the equivalent of the cytokine storm.  

The populous wants to solve the problems they see, the disfunction in the system, but in doing so they unleash a catastrophic response which ultimately causes much more harm than good.  Such an outcome is possible this Thursday in an election which could form part (along with the recent election in Italy) of the third wave of the populist disease.    

The voters of Canada’s most populous province, Ontario, are about to go to the polls to elect a new government.  Provinces in Canada carry a lot of weight in the country.  We have a truly federated political system with most direct and impactful power residing at the Provincial level.  Ontario represents almost 50% of Canada’s population and 40% of the country’s GDP.

For perspective, if Ontario was a European country we would be the second largest by landmass after Russia.  At  almost 1.1M km2 Ontario is over a third bigger than the next biggest: Ukraine.  We are a ‘country’ the size of Spain and France combined.  

In terms of the economy, with a nominal GDP of  $640 Billion USD, we would be the 9th largest in Europe.  A smidge behind Switzerland, but ahead of Ireland, Austria, Sweden, Norway to mention but a few.

And, finally, our location is strategically important.  As well as the Canadian Provinces of Manitoba and Quebec, we directly border five US states including New York.  We are Canada’s access to the Great Lakes and the starting point of the St. Lawrence River.  We also contain James Bay, a gateway to the high arctic (and the same latitude as London, UK).  

It looks like Ontario is about to sweep away a Liberal government and replace it with the Doug Ford, brother of Rob, the former cracking smoking mayor of Toronto, now deceased.  Like his brother, the elder Ford is a right-wing populist, but without Rob’s (ahem) charm.  He is promising the world (tax cuts, beautiful services, removal of corruption) in a way that is reminiscent of a certain US President, who could have based his playbook on the Ford Brothers.  How to pay for it?  Silence.

A Ford victory would decimate safety nets.  Would increase the debt.  Slash services.  He would make life even more precarious for refugees and immigrants.   He will tear up climate agreements with California and Quebec and declare war on Justin Trudeau’s Federal Government. 

He will do this by winning less than 40% of the vote.

If you’re in Ontario I beg you to vote for the candidate who stands the best chance of stopping a Doug Ford Conservative MPP from being elected.  In the last election that vote would have been Liberal.  In this election it’s most likely NDP.

The problems that Brexit, Donald Trump and Doug Ford identified are real problems.  They are the problems of modern capitalism.  The anger is real, it needs to be addressed.  However, the solutions offered by these populist yahoos are not the ones needed.  Like a damaging immune response to a virus, in both the short and long terms, they will do way more harm than good. 

Let’s find real popular solutions to counter act the populist.  Let’s exercise our democratic prerogatives.  Let’s vote!  Vote ABF (Anyone But Ford)! 

Just don’t vote Cytokine Storm…