Brave Spaces: The Commitment to Action Declaration
Former Supreme Court Justice of Canada Beverley McLachlin, Université de Montréal professor Vardit Ravitsky, and Eric Meslin, President of the Council of Canadian Academies, join Valerie Pringle to discuss the Declaration developed by the COVID-19 Impact Committee.
Valerie Pringle: The COVID-19 pandemic showed us how vulnerable we all are to the sudden emergence of a new and powerful virus, but it also showed that some of us are more vulnerable than others because of the way our society treated their communities before the pandemic. Over a year ago, the Pierre Elliot Trudeau Foundation established its COVID-19 IMPAC Committee to examine this situation and propose solutions to the problems communities across the country are facing. The committee is now presenting its findings through the Commitment to Action Declaration, which is a published document and a newly released podcast series that features one on one discussions with its members. Our guests work on the committee, raised many issues, Canada and in fact, the rest of the world must address. Let me introduce our panel. Vardit Ravitsky is 2020 Fellow and chair of the COVID-19 Impact Committee.
Vardit Ravitsky: Hi, Valerie. Lovely to be here.
Valerie Pringle: And Beverly McLachlin, who is a 2020 Mentor.
Beverley McLachlin: Hello. And lovely to join you today.
Valerie Pringle: And finally, Eric Maslin, who is also a 2020 Mentor.
Eric Meslin: Nice to be here. Valerie, thanks very much.
Valerie Pringle: I think the declaration effectively sums up the challenge before us in the statement. "Our post COVID world should not go back to the normal we previously knew." I'm going to ask our guests what is at the top of your list for the old normal that we must not return to and why? So what would be the first step that you would recommend? Eric, let me start with you.
Eric Meslin: Thanks, Valerie. I don't think we need to go much further than the old normal of how nursing homes, institutions of long term care, were badly underfunded, poorly staffed and really ill prepared to deal with not only the COVID-19 emergency, but as the pandemic exposed many other areas of access to quality care for not just elders, but but others. It was obvious to all of us as we watched COVID-19 emerge that these were not only hot spots from the epidemiologic perspective, but they exposed the fragility, the cracks in a system that had for too many years gone, underappreciated and perhaps under the radar. So I would very much hope that we wouldn't return to that form of normal.
Valerie Pringle: Vardit.
Vardit Ravitsky: I couldn't agree more with Eric, and I just want to continue on the theme of groups who are very vulnerable in our society, our declaration says, you know, the test of a society is and how it treats its most vulnerable members. And there are so many groups that the pandemic shone a light on in terms of how ongoing years of discrimination, systemic racism and socioeconomic disadvantage have marginalized these groups and put them in a place that once the pandemic hit us, the impact on them was much more severe. And we all saw the numbers. So, of course, indigenous communities that have been suffering from lack of funding for basic things like housing and water, which increases the rate of all other diseases that made them even more vulnerable to covid. But I want to highlight other groups, such as people with disabilities, people in prison, terrible conditions for an infectious disease, people who are homeless that found themselves so vulnerable when everybody had to stay home. What happens when you don't have a home and people who suffer from poverty? So, for example, if you're living in very congregate settings or even just in a small house, women and children became more vulnerable to domestic violence. Because when you are stuck in a small space very close to someone who has been an aggressor and everybody's more stressed, obviously domestic violence has been on the rise. So many groups in our society, deserve better protections, more funding, more government support and more social support. The pandemic is really an eye opener for all of us to, you know, start thinking about how we can provide better support and better safety for the well-being of all of us.
Valerie Pringle: Beverly, what is the pandemic brought to your mind in terms of what has to be changed immediately now and has been brought to the forefront?
Beverley McLachlin: Two things. The first is that we need to think of justice in a broader sense. It's not just courthouses and jails and that kind of thing, institutional warehousing or infrastructure. We need to think about justice as person centered. What the pandemic has really brought home and which we knew before but we didn't talk too much about it, is the justice is an individual matter in people's lives. That's why we're doing it. And when we see the people, vulnerable people, women who are being threatened, who are the victims of violence. When we see the intersection of health problems and legal problems in ones life, even things like homelessness and so on, you realize that when you're talking about justice, you're not talking about something abstract. The pandemic is showing us that these are real people who are suffering. Part of the problem is often they don't. And if you can get that fixed up like a home to live in or out from under their charges or something else, then everything else will become better. So there's a whole movement in the world now for people-centered justice that has really picked up speed since the pandemic. Second thing is the institutions, they are still extremely important. And what we basically are realizing is that we were working with 20th century institutions where everything is done on paper and what's not done on paper is done in front of a judge. And it all has to be in person. And it all followed certain rules and scripts. And sometimes it took a long time and was expensive. But those rules and scripts were really important. And now, we see that we have to modernize our justice system. It has a lot of good things. I never want to give up in person trials but there are many aspects of the system or different tribunals working on different problems that can use a lot of IT, they call them e-tribunals, and people get better satisfaction. So we're realizing we have to rethink our justice system. And finally, we have to make it user friendly at the bottom so that it helps people who may not know all the ropes who may not be able to hire a lawyer.
Valerie Pringle: So many interesting topics discussed and lessons learned from things that clearly don't work. Eric, you know, besides elder care, for example, what else do you think is critical?
Eric Meslin: We just heard my friends Beverley and Vardit speak, I can't help but make the observation that so much of what I think the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed to us is how we still function. Beverly called it a 20th century system with respect to justice. But I would go back maybe even a century earlier. And we're still thinking in silos about how people and communities, the environment in which people live are hived off from one another, even mentioning long term care and nursing homes as if they were somehow separated from the hospital system, the outpatient system, community-based care. There has been a longstanding interest in personalized medicine, maybe analogous to what Beverly was referring to with a person-based justice system. So I mentioned that almost as an introductory point to answer the question, because to be quite honest, I think that one of the most, if not frustrating, revealing features of the pandemic has been our systematic failure to learn the lessons of the past.
Valerie Pringle: Why is that? Why is it so hard to to learn those lessons from the past? You’d think that would be the first place you'd go and the place that you'd find the most preparedness?
Eric Meslin: I suspect it is a couple of things. My charitable view is that planning for uncertainty is just hard and planning for unlikely events is not a huge priority of society. And in government, it's just hard to do it. We focus on what's immediately in front of us, what the as we like to say, the line of sight is just down the road and maybe the next election, it may be a budget, it may be an important policy decision in front of us. And the public, in their defense, has a hard time making tough decisions about uncertain events. So there's just a whole bunch of uncertainties. That's the charitable version. Perhaps the less charitable version is we haven't learned how to learn the lessons of the past when they are about bad news and when they require us to invest an awful lot of money in planning and preparation in the future. We're really just not built that way. Look at what's going on with with the risks that are being disclosed about vaccines, where it turns out we're occupying a lot of our attention looking at the risks of of blood clots that are better in the one in one hundred thousand range, when, in fact, there are well known medications like the birth control pill that have a one in a thousand risk of a blood clot. So to put it into some perspective, I think we have a hard time learning how to learn a lesson. We don't know what the lesson is that we're supposed to learn from SARS. Is it that there should be more nurses, that we should close borders? We haven't developed an effective system for deciding what is the most important lesson to learn and who should be teaching it and who should make sure that the lesson has been learned. Sounds very theoretical, but I don't think it's hard to sort of hash out in real terms why it has been difficult.
Valerie Pringle: Vardit as you chaired this group and came up with the declaration. You can look at the big picture, too, and lessons to be learned going forward, especially with your professional lens.
Vardit Ravitsky: You know, Valerie, I agree with all the reasons Eric gave. But another reason is that just the human nature is such that we know we can save more lives by prevention, by intervening before something bad happens, but then we can put a face on the person. We just have numbers and we just have projections. We tend to invest where we have a sick patient in front of us and we can heroically intervene and save their lives. And so we constantly as a society invest, invest more in the health care system to fix what's wrong rather than preventing people getting to the hospital in the first place. And now with the pandemic, I hope we will finally understand as a public, as a society that prevention saves lives as well. We now can show the public the numbers attached to wearing masks, how the numbers go up and down based on the public health measures. We haven't had great medicine medical interventions for covid in the beginning. So we had to focus on the public health measures and we know that they make a difference. So for me, one normal not to go back to is a lack of funding for public health, a lack of public understanding of how important it is to prepare for the next pandemic. And I hope we'll go back to a new normal, which is public and political and financial support for preventing rather than saving lives when people are already sick.
Valerie Pringle: And from the point of view of of the justice initiatives that you talked about, Beverly, what do you what do you see as the the obstacles to that? You know, how do you get past them?
Beverley McLachlin: I don't know if we will, but I agree with everything that Eric and Vardit said and about the difficulty of moving people off the concrete and into more abstract areas like let's have a prevention system. We're not very good at that as human beings, but we are rational human beings and when we need to, we can plan. We see our best businesses making huge business plans for the future based on risk. And why our governments and our society as a whole don't do that in a democracy is a big question what I fear is that there will be a very strong force to just go back to where we were instead of saying “OK”. What the pandemic has done is reveal, I call it the great revealer, reveal weaknesses in where we were. Our 19th and 20th century justice system really could use an update. Not to throw out everything we've learned, we have a good justice system, but to make it more efficient and make it help people more.
Valerie Pringle: Well, for all of you. I mean, you must hear people say to you all the time, just in casual conversation, “I just I can't wait till things get back to normal.” Do you just jump on those people and say, “Wait, wait a minute, think about what you're asking for and think of what this moment is giving us and what is possible now, what we really have to work on.”
Eric Meslin: I think you've touched on a really important nerve and the nerve is the on off nerve that either it's don't go back because it's terrible back there, wherever there was, or please, please, can we just go back to the way it because we're exhausted as we are and as with most things that are that are so profoundly affecting the society, it's it's not easy to say it's one or the other. I suspect that what we're hearing when people say, can we just get back to the way it was, they are adopting a view of not having to think about every single decision. But there was a bit of an autopilot that there was a bit of a comfort, a sort of habitual way of living your life that was intuitively less stressful, even if in actuality it wasn't less stressful. So the idea of not having to think about wearing a mask or not having to wonder about social distancing, it's exhausting to be thinking about what you should do all the time. I suspect that that is more of what people are referring to. But I don't look with skepticism upon people say, can we just go back to to normal? I just think we should acknowledge that there are those who are just darn exhausted by having to make decisions and wonder what happens next and if we can eliminate that form of uncertainty. I think people will feel a little bit better about taking up the options and opportunities we were just describing.
Beverley McLachlin: Yes, I’ll come in, I think it's an attitude to there's many things we've learned and and we know that while we would like to socialize and we all want to get back there, that's part of human nature. We're going to do it in a slightly different way. And the same applies, I think, for caring for those who are vulnerable, be the elderly or whatever. Yeah, there there's basic carers that have to be given, but we're going to do it in a slightly different way. And that way you're not presenting this wrenching message. So I know I'm a bit of a Pollyanna, but I think that's the approach you have to kind of take incremental little things, sometimes big things, sometimes will be some money and infrastructure that's needed. But we're going to we're going to readjust. We're going to retool some of our ways of approaching things in our institutions.
Valerie Pringle: Vardit, do you want to take just a quick stab at this
Vardit Ravitsky: Absolutely. So going back to normal or not going back to normal, as we always say in ethics, it depends. And I think we all want to go back to restaurants and to the beach and to the gym and to vacations. So a lot of the things that we have been missing so badly over the past year. Yeah, we want to go back to normal in terms of our social life, our cultural life. We miss museums, we miss concerts, we miss lecture halls. But in terms of our social structures, in terms of systemic barriers that some of us have been facing and others haven't because we have been very privileged, it's time to recognize these profound differences and it's time to fight them and reject them and build something new that gives gives equal access to all of us, to the fun activities and to the basic needs of human life. So, again, inequality is not inevitable. We can fix it.
Valerie Pringle: Well, I commend all of you for the work that you did and for the commitment to action declaration. It's it's a profound document. And all of you have made great contributions. So I thank you for your thoughts today. And I thank you for your work on that. And I hope it does resonate and and and cause reverberations down the line. Anyway, thank you so much. It's been a pleasure to talk to you again. Vardy's Ravitsky, Beverley McLachlin and Eric Meslin, Thanks for listening. I'm Valerie Pringle.