This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
Nora Loreto is a Quebec City-based activist and author. Her works include From Demonized to Organized: Building the New Union Movement (2013) and Take Back the Fight: Organizing Feminism in the Digital Age (2020). She is the editor with the Canadian Association of Labour Media, and also co-hosts the podcast “Sandy and Nora Talk Politics.” She has written for such publications as the National Observer and the Washington Post. Her new book is Spin Doctors: How Media and Politicians Misdiagnosed the Covid-19 Pandemic (Fernwood, 2021).
In April 2020, Nora began compiling a spreadsheet tracking Covid-19 deaths in LTC facilities [senior citizens’ homes], a task, remarkably enough, not undertaken by any government authority – which suggests, perhaps, the level of confusion and interjurisdictional rivalry characteristic of Canada’s response. She also got her children through the pandemic, through which she still managed to produce “the 3,000 words I had to write that day”
Welcome to Syndemic, Nora Loreto. And thank you for Spin Doctors, which many of us will regard as an indispensable reference book on the first 13 months of the pandemic in Canada.
Before we get to the pandemic, I wanted to ask you about one of the key themes of Spin Doctors: that’s the extremely pro-corporate, ideologically hidebound media landscape in Canada, which often reminds me of a quip once attributed to Dorothy Parker on the subject of Katharine Hepburn: “Let’s all go to see Miss Hepburn and hear her run the gamut of emotions from A to B!”
In this case, one might say: “Let’s all go to the ranking Canadian media sources and savour how they run the ideological gamut of nineteenth-century liberalism, from the hard-shell “up-with-markets” liberalism of Herbert Spencer to the somewhat softer liberalism of John Stuart Mill.” From A to B, all within the framework of liberalism—and, generally, nineteenth-century liberalism at that.
Certainly, when I watch the CBC, read the Toronto Globe and the Star, or Montreal’s La Presse, I am conscious of being in a liberal universe 24/7, whose individualistic assumptions about property and progress and identity go almost entirely unquestioned. Is this your sense, too? How do we change this very limited media landscape in Canada0?
Nora Loreto: We have been talking about media concentration in this country since the mid-1990s at least, when we started to see the consolidation of a lot of daily newspapers…. We once had a news ecosystem that, while still flawed, was far more robust than what we have now. And, in talking about concentrated media ownership in this country, we often neglect to talk about what that would do, or what that has done, to the quality of journalism.
And so, not only do we only have a handful of major owners, but the owners are virtually indistinguishable from one another. I can encounter an article from CTV or the CBC or the Montreal Gazette, all owned by different owners, and have a hard time figuring out where it’s coming from. Not only do we have fewer people actually calling the shots in Canadian media, but there’s been this incredible convergence, solidification, of ideology, within Canadian media. The only voices that are a little outside the norm are the far-right sorts of things we find in the Toronto Sun or Ottawa Sun or Postmedia… During the pandemic… anybody with a critical voice was basically shut out of mainstream media.
That meant that average people were trying to figure out what the heck was going on – trying to figure out what the daily statistics meant, or what they should be doing to keep themselves safe, or whatever. They only got one message, whether they’re listening to the local radio station or reading their newspaper. It was all the same message. As someone outside the establishment, my primary goal was to break through that wall, and try to present them with a message that was a bit different….
Over the course of my work, I think I did fewer than 20 [media] interviews in the two years I was undertaking that research.
McKay: One of the great contributions of your extremely useful book is the attention it pays to the effect of the pandemic on the Canadian media landscape. It got worse. In retrospect, I think we might say that was one of the big transformative impacts of the pandemic. It shoved out a lot of independent voices from the media. And a lot of local newspapers bit the dust.
Loreto: It also accustomed us to seeing things from more centralized perspectives. The immediate reflex of national broadcasters was to centralize all television in Toronto. If I were running the public broadcaster, my immediate reflex would have been, “don’t centralize – get people to pay attention to local data, talk to people on a first-name basis, speak with the experts within the region, and start reporting locally. And then have a team in Toronto that can bring in the national perspective.” But not only did we have it localized and centralized in Toronto, we still didn’t get that national perspective. Rather than a national perspective, what we got was national reporting that was just about Ottawa or was just about federal politicians.
And so, on any given day of the pandemic …people lacked local information. Where are the hot spots? Where are the cold spots? What does the testing look like? What does the testing look like? There was just nothing. Instead, we had stenography on all the major news networks…
When Justin sneezed, the sneeze would be broadcast across all the platforms. It was incredible, the extent to which the mass media controlled the message so well.
This was the whole theory behind the “crisis management” of the pandemic: control everything. Not necessarily in a sinister way. All it took was a daily briefing at 11 o’clock, which all the journalists covered. That’s all it took.
McKay: I love the phrase you used: “stenography.” A point you brought out so well in the book is that as newsrooms get more and more overburdened, with many underpaid, precarious journalists, it’s very hard for them to acquire any independent outlook from what they’re being fed by powerful actors. Mass media end up being mere stenographers for the powerful. And that’s a tragedy in a crisis like this one.
Loreto: I’ve been reading articles about Covid-19 everyday, right? Every single day. You came to realize that, out of 30 articles, 15 were the exact same article.
McKay: One of the core unifying themes of your book is that the state and most of the media continued to pound home this individualizing message throughout the pandemic. I personally found one of the strongest chapters to be the one you devoted to the “Lie of Personal Responsibility.” So many of the arguments we heard on 2020-2 were essentially premised on the doctrine that it’s our individual responsibility to keep ourselves safe.
Even the federal government’s app was premised on this doctrine (which was, perhaps, one reason why its approach to contact-tracing failed so conclusively.) Young people were blamed for getting sick through their ‘reckless behaviour,’ which dovetailed nicely with the mantra of personal responsibility. Much propaganda was dedicated to staying at home, but governments did almost nothing to mitigate Covid-19 spread inside those homes, and proceeded as though normal Canadians all live in detached suburban houses. Those0 who were unhoused were subjected to state violence. As you put it, the “personal responsibility narrative” worked to erase “the causes and therefore possible solutions necessary to slow the spread of COVID-19” (130).
In the form of liberalism hegemonic in Canada since the 1840s, the “individual” has always been the irreplaceable principle of economic, social and cultural life – so, in a way, this individualistic thrust (which you trace in many other chapters as well) is perhaps not that surprising. Yet, in thanking you for bringing out this individualistic theme so powerfully and so well, can we also ask you for your suggestions as to how this liberal individualism became so omnipresent – and how might we transcend this pattern?
Loreto: That’s the struggle that faces all left-wing people in this country – and anybody who understands that every single one of our social issues is only going to be solved by some level of collectivity. This is the biggest challenge. That’s the case when we look at climate change, housing….
I think what was very interesting with the pandemic is that it was often a radicalizing moment…. People talk about how leftists have to do education, and education is really important. You have to teach people certain things and give people the words or the understanding of whatever they’re experiencing.
The pandemic was a crash course. There were a lot of things that were taught during the pandemic that we don’t have to sit down and explain to people. We don’t have to go through this process of education in a theoretical way. Many people now have had this direct experience.
So, that’s positive. But it’s very difficult because there are no mainstream political parties, there are no mainstream corporate entities, no mainstream media entities that want us to see ourselves as living in community. Margaret Thatcher won, right?
The biggest struggle for the left is: How do we inject community back into our communities? How do we break that isolation?
And this is where the left has really failed in the pandemic. It was coded as being a progressive, enlightened, pro-science position to follow what the politicians were doing. We were fed the line that vaccines would get a lot of us out of all this. It was coded as being the correct response to hide in your homes, wait for the vaccine, and Covid-19 will all go away. There was a lot of good advice wound up in that. There were lots of reasons to self-isolate. But the left never tried to experiment with ways to build community outside of online spaces that would actually break through some of that isolation.
And then, even worse, a lot of people refused even to consider the question, “How far do we push our risk tolerance?” There were a lot of voices in 2020 on the left insisting that it was still dangerous to be outside when it was pretty clear that it was not dangerous to be outside.
We just lost so much ground, especially to the far right, which used this time to create the community that everyone is so desperate for while keeping ourselves safe. Pushing boundaries.
We find ourselves in 2022 with the left lacking lacked any experience in building such spaces.
Then came a bunch of truckers [in the Freedom Convoy] who say, “We’re going to build these spaces. And we’re going to build them outside, so the risk of Covid transmission is pretty low.” They seized the initiative. We did not. It was a real missed opportunity.
So how do we rebuild after this? Well, we have to be bold. We have to stop being afraid. We have to find ways to keep each other safe and in ways for a diversity of involvement that doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone needs to be always be doing all of the same things, together. We have to build spaces where we can come together. It is not enough to care of ourselves in our isolation, because isolation is not society. We cannot survive in isolation.
McKay: Your book looks at how Canadian journalists covered Covid-19, as well as offering us hard-to-locate information about the country and the pandemic. From your 13 substantive chapters, a reader can find a wealth of material on the long-term-care crisis, the federal government’s Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) and its employer-friendly counterpart, the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS). We are also introduced to Systemic Racism, Schools and Covid-19, Migrant Workers, the “Race for the Vaccine,” the pandemic’s gendered impact, its effect on the disabled community, and its spread through workplaces. It’s almost encyclopedic in its coverage.
Congratulations! From your perspective, what is the most important new information your book brings to Canadians?
Loreto: First and foremost, it would be the information and analysis around disability…. I structured the book to have a hook, with each of the chapters on a theme. The hook for the disability theme was that we’ve started a new year… knowing Covid-19 existed. So it’s the chapter that marks the end of one year and the beginning of the next. It highlights the analysis that the disability activists brought to everything in the pandemic – how do you survive infectious disease? Why are things happening? Why are people being treated like this?It built on a lot of philosophical and critical thinking about how people in general are treated by healthcare in this country. That has been the most important.
I tried to synthesize the chapter from what activists were saying – who are so often ignored. They are just not given the kind of platform that they deserve within mainstream media. That remains, maybe, the most important part of what I wrote….
But –just to get everything in the same spot! You mentioned all the chapter topics. You can imagine what it was like to write all that. You’ve got to add this, you’ve got to add that.
You mentioned the personal responsibility chapter. It was originally going to be the workplace chapter. As I was writing through the personal responsibility side of it all, I thought: “I haven’t even mentioned the government app, or housing.” It’s all connected….I wanted everything to be accessible in the same book.
You might hate what I write – although not so many people who read me hate what I write, which is great – but if you do, at least you have a resource that explains, for example, the race-based data or the data related to deaths and hospitals. It’s a snapshot in time.
Very few of those data are my own personal work. A lot of them are drawn from other people. (The long-term-care data are my own personal work. And the hospital data are my own, generated from my requests for health information). But, by and large, what I write about is based on the work of other people. To have all that information in the same location, to have that all together in an analysis that you can actually read from A to Z and say, “This makes a lot of sense” – that was my goal.
By the time I started collecting data in April 2020, it was so obvious that the process of forgetting would be intense, that it would be aided by people’s fatigue. People wanted it to end.
I really thought we’d be out of this by now. I myself didn’t imagine two years ago we’d still be in it.
We cannot forget what happened, and I wanted to write the book as it was happening, because the analysis would change too much afterwards. If I wrote the book now, it would be completely different.
Frankly, I didn’t suspect two years ago that, in Canada, this would stand as the sole [substantive] English-language book on the subject. That, to me, is ridiculous. Now we have this record. It would have been very difficult to recreate it after the fact.
McKay: Getting back to the disability chapter, I really liked what you did with the theme of “comorbidity.” You did imaginative work with that word. In a sense, the term depoliticizes the inequality of Covid-19, because the “comorbidities” we focus on arise out of the social and economic order in which we all live. By calling a condition a “comorbidity,” one implies both that it’s the person’s fault and that the condition is likely to lead to death. It’s a very depoliticized, asocial way of thinking about disability. Coding all the disabilities as comorbidities suggests a very fatalistic outlook. I really love the work you did there.
Loreto: I should give a shout-out to Gabrielle Peters, whose thinking on these themes was really important to me.
Had we called “comorbidities” “disabilities” from the start, there would have been far more outrage, as there was in the United Kingdom. Britons with disabilities were way over-represented in the statistics. Canadians were sharing British stories and saying, “Oh, this is horrifying!”
But Canadian journalists were just packing the data differently. The government of Alberta had all of these data: 96% of the people who die from Covid had one comorbidity and 72% had three or more comorbidities. The outrage wasn’t the same, because Canadian journalists were not packaging the information in the same way [as the British]. The data were differently arranged. It was very political.
It was gross and disgusting. We weren’t having an honest conversation about what this meant. And then journalists would chase stories like “42-year-old man died and had no underlying health conditions,” right? But that wasn’t the whole story…
The ableism that is so omnipresent in reporting on Canadian society was exposed in an incredible way during this pandemic. And that made that section on comorbidities very difficult to write….
McKay: I really enjoyed your chapter on gender. That’s been a big theme we’ve raised throughout Syndemic, with our third issue focused on it, as well as our major interview with feminist philosopher Nancy Fraser in issue one.
Your chapter on gender focused closely on women, yet could one not also say that men, many of them workers, dying of Covid in higher numbers – with an overall global death rate estimated to be about 1.6 times as high as the death rate for women – were also influenced by gender ideologies and gender expectations? Such as the one requiring them to put their lives on the line to feed their ‘families’?
Many such men spent the pandemic working in risky and often stigmatized jobs – sanitation, construction, driving buses, migrant farm labour – as well as those who died in such congregant settings as nursing homes. The suicide and opioid-addiction rates among them are skyrocketing.
And gay men, especially those exiled from their families of origin, have had a particularly difficult pandemic, which coincided with an HIV-AIDS crisis with many more victims, so far, than those of Covid-19. Lots of countries have made it hard to obtain retrovirals. Gay men were already experiencing a (sometimes forgotten) pandemic when Covid-19 arrived, which as a stigmatized group raises all kinds of traumatic memories. Is there room in a feminist gender analysis for men?
Loreto: That was actually the hardest chapter for me to write. It echoes a lot of the book I had just written.…. I kept thinking, I just wrote a book about this. When I get to the part where I’m talking about our various “Premier Dads,” this persona our premiers took on, whether the “Angry Dad” or the “Benevolent Dad,” I had more of a blast writing that part of the chapter…. Whereas, the rest of it made me feel: “Oh God! Again!”…
…This is foremost a book of media criticism. Men didn’t get that kind of coverage in the media, right? Childcare figures very, very strongly in a lot of it, because many women are writing in journalism, so many parents of young children are journalists, typing away while their kids are bothering them. But yes, on deaths from the infection, men were way overrepresented. And racialized men were way overrepresented.
It was also interesting to see how sexual health took a back seat to Covid-19 testing in so many public health units in this country. As you say, people who are already marginalized, who need to access testing , were totally pushed aside, as all sexual health nurses and sexual health public health experts or practitioners were all seconded to the processing of Covid-19 tests. It just pushed everything else back, with incredible backlogs. People aren’t getting tested – which of course means there’s going to be more increases in other illnesses. That would all be all wrapped up in a new gender chapter, which hopefully I’m never going to have to write….
I was already pushing the limits of what the publisher would allow with respect to length. I blew past their word limits. I didn’t have time to integrate the opioid crisis, because it was such a big issue that I was unable to weave it into the narrative. It’s definitely something that’s missing from the book. And the mental health crisis, which I think is also being felt acutely by men.
I touch on this in one of the chapters around CERB in Medicine Hat – how difficult it was for men, especially. That is a huge story that needs to be told.
…People will not recover easily from the trauma of the past two years. And from how their state has failed them.
McKay: Your work has interesting reflections on sexual minorities. Many sex workers were basically excluded from CERB, right? There was a very heteronormative logic built into what we consider to be ‘families.’
The whole New Zealand metaphor of the “Bubble” was perhaps an attempt to get beyond the Ozzie-and-Harriet stereotype of the nuclear family, but in many ways, it intensified the idea of the traditional family. You felt you really had to justify yourself if you weren’t living in such a family. The fall-back assumption seemed to be that we were all living in heterosexual families in detached houses, following the conventional script. But – lots of people aren’t. As your book points out, close to half of Canadians don’t live in detached homes, to begin with.
Loreto: Think of the many people who had to ask themselves: “I’ve decided to ‘bubble’ with this person?” Even single people said: “We’re going to bubble together to become a family from the perspective of the rules of isolation,” right? Or all the stories of mixed and blended families, where parents have no control over what ex-partners or other people raising their children part-time might be doing. And then coming home, and their kids have Covid-19, and they have Covid-19, and it’s spread that way.
And then, for the people that did live in standard, nuclear, heteronormative families: there was nothing to help them survive the horror of the nuclear family on overdrive. Isolated with someone whom you love enough, but not enough to see them every single minute of the day.
How many families didn’t survive this? What does the post-pandemic family look like? So many couples realized during the pandemic: “This is not the person I want to be locked up with.”
McKay: Am I right in thinking you are a bit skeptical of school lockdowns? You seemed to put your critique quite carefully. You’re kind of going up against teachers’ unions who very emphatic that we needed to shut the schools down.
Loreto: Yes, I am. I thought about it quite carefully.
McKay: You’re not convinced by their argument. Is that a fair summary?
Loreto: Yes, that’s totally fair. I’ll give you an example. In August, 2021, my partner and I decided, “OK, things are safe enough. Not safe. They’re safe enough. And these kids have to see their grandparents.”
So we took a trip to Southern Ontario. We and every other person we saw on that trip had not had anyone over for almost a year and a half – whether in their yard or the house. And the people who were the most nervous, our friends, were teachers, by a long shot.
They were absolutely the most nervous. I’m looking at the data, I’m seeing who’s dying. Not teachers in 2021.
So, I’m sitting down with friends and family. The teachers among them were so petrified. I would explain my research to them. “I’m writing this book. I know all this stuff.” And they said: “You’re the first person to reassure me that I’m not just going to die when I enter the classroom in September.”
My partner is a professor, and some of our friends in Ontario were shocked to hear that he had been back in his lab as of August, 2020. He’s a science professor, right? “I have to be there. There’s no choice.”
In Quebec, everything shut down. In May 2020, the government announced: “We’re going to reopen.” I thought, “You’re not. No way.” Am I sending my kids to school? “No way.” Then there were no massive outbreaks in schools. The school season ended really well in 2020.
There seems to be a cultural difference, as well, between my ‘Anglo-Saxon-ness’ and what was going on in Québec. And I talked with a lot of parents. Parks here were never closed. We were seeing people all the time. There was this moment, at the height of an outbreak in town, when out of nowhere this kid appears in my house, and I’m thinking, “Oh, God, I can make a big deal out of this and be scared that this kid has Covid. Or I could just relax and realize this kid probably isn’t going to infect us at all. We’re OK. The kids can play together.” The milieu in which I lived was a bit calming, telling me not to be afraid of everything….
Schools play dual roles. They take kids out of home situations that might be good, or that might be bad. And so every time you close the school you affect them…The only way you can protect children at home is if you have a parent or two parents or three parents who can stay home all the time, and we’re isolating at home. That’s the only way you can protect children in the home situation.
And so, who do we hear from the loudest? The parents who have that capacity. They say, “Close the schools. We can keep our kids at home. But then support us – 0because keeping kids at home is really hard.”
I could never reconcile myself to the fact that there was no safe alternative for kids in informal care situations. They would just be sent back to daycare, then sent back to school. Emergency daycare was needed for the parents who can’t stay home.
The movements for better air quality are important, paid sick days for teachers are really, really important. All of that is really critical.
But before Omicron, before Covid-19 became exponentially contagious, it was not clear to me that the schools were the problem.
But what was the problem? No one was talking about the neighbourhoods in which the schools were located. Schools exist in a network. Is this a school where parents all work in a meat processing facility? Is this a school where parents are all medical workers, where Covid-19 can enter very easily? Is this a low-income school? Or a predominantly racialized one? Almost no conversations like that.
Generally, the schools were treated as though they were all the same. Children were all treated the same. There was no appreciation for those most at risk, who were also the ones most affected by school closures.
McKay: You’d face a strong argument from some teachers, some of whom told me: “We’re in the soup. Our government (i.e., Ontario’s) is giving us such confused and conflicting messages. It announces new spending that sounds ambitious, plans for better ventilation – but, in truth, not much really changes inside the working classroom that makes anyone safer.” Social distancing in schools was unenforceable. There was a sort of moral panic induced by the high level of state chaos and confusion. And, as your book points out, the Canadian response was so fragmented. We almost don’t know how it unfolded in other regions.
Loreto: That’s true. We have a right-wing government in Quebec, but it was decisive in its actions and clear about their decisions. It justified them with explanations. So, even if you disagreed with it, there was some public sense about what it was doing. Ontario had none of that, right? And not just Ontario – Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, BC. There was no public sense to many of the decisions they made.
While I’m highly critical of, and frankly despise, our [Québec] government, still, there were not many moments related to the pandemic and schools when I was uncomfortable with what was happening. I always felt there was at least some sort of expert opinion looking at the data and saying, “The benefits outweigh the negatives,” and we need to keep schools open for that reason. And in Quebec, we had a very robust shutdown system, which was responsive to local conditions. In Ontario, the entire system was shut down for six months of 2021. There were parts of the province that had no Covid cases at all, but schools were still closed. What does that do to parents? Just trying to make sense of it makes you feel you’re losing your mind, right?
And then that fuels, of course, conspiracy theories and other kinds of things…
There were also teachers who didn’t take the power that they could have taken. They could have shut down certain schools and they could have reopened certain schools. But instead the message was: “We have to respect the school boards. We have to respect the Ministry of Education.”…
McKay: You write very powerfully against journalists who encouraged panic and pessimism in readers. Still, I think many of them will also put your book down with something like a feeling of pessimism. Here is a Canada is so poorly led, and so poorly informed by its journalists, and so under the domination of a corporate elite: isn’t pessimism kind of called for?
And, to go back to journalism, your chapter on “One Year in Media Cuts” parallels Naomi Klein’s analysis in the Shock Doctrine: media employers across the country drastically undercut their own journalists, with a drastic reorganization (and centralization) of broadcasters like the CBC and Global, intensified corporate control of the Toronto media, and almost no alternative to a fully neoliberalized media landscape.
Then, what message of hope can we draw from your book, given that those who might deliver messages alternative to individualism have been so consistently side-lined or silenced? A message that might suggest a future a bit brighter than the events we’ve just passed through?
Loreto: I’ve gotten messages from people who’ve read the book who tell me it made them feel better. Which is very weird, because the book can really be considered quite pessimistic. In essence: the government could have chosen ‘not destruction’ and they picked ‘destruction.’ And this is on every single page…
It’s still leaving people with a sense of – I’m not sure I’ve got the right word – purposefulness. A sense of what has happened. There’s power and there’s hope in recovering the sense of what happened.
I’ve never despaired during this pandemic… I was not surprised by many things. There was no moment when I was shocked by anything, or surprised by anything. And one comes away with a clarity of understanding about what needs to be done. It’s very, very clear. Of course, how we get it done is up for debate and discussion among activists, which we have to engage in. But it is very, very clear what the source of all our problems is, who the sources of our problems are.
I think that is hopeful, because there’s a clear path forward. You have to break up monopolies. You have to break up the banks. You have to have public ownership. We have to reassert our power over this fake democracy in which we live. There are movements that people can get involved with. There’s resurgence, excitement. In every single community in this country, there are movements that people can get involved with. That’s extremely hopeful.
What isn’t hopeful is confusion. Why is your CERB being clawed back? Why are you expected to put your life on the line to serve coffee? When you bring sense to it, then you can actually start to do something. We need to unionize. Or, our union’s not that great – so we need to fight them or take it over or change unions. Once people are given the path to fixing things, the despair becomes a lot less overpowering. We know what we have to do. I wanted this book to give people that sense.
McKay: You’ve pierced the fog of the pandemic and offered us a glimmer of light, as you present the various structural patterns as well as the individual responses to them. Once the pandemic is seen to make sense in terms of structures, the politics will likely change.
I would say that a primary challenge, though, will be to develop media that are more sympathetic to a more critical perspective. Apart from worthy left-wing sources like The Breach and Canadian Dimension and Briarpatch, all great projects reaching relatively small numbers of people.
Loreto: Left-wing media are underfunded, they don’t reach millions of people, and in general they don’t pay writers. This is a huge, huge problem.
On the positive side of the ledger, there has been an explosion of alternative media. You mention The Breach, and other examples are Passage and The Maple. There are a lot of people who have gone on their own with Substack. Or one thinks of someone who is not a left-wing person, but whose journalism is driven by a humanity that is lacking in the mainstream media: The Rover run by Chris Curtis in Montreal. There are lot of really excellent things happening…
…I’m very encouraged to see that in addition to Rabble and Canadian Dimension, there are so many other things people are experimenting with in different models…
But as for the mainstream, it is such a disaster. We have to reach more people.
I did an interview with CJAD in Montreal on Christmas Eve of all times, to talk about this stuff, and the journalist literally asked me at the end of the interview: “Where have you been this whole time?” I didn’t know what he meant at first. He wasn’t asking whether I was based in Montreal or Québec City. No: “Why have I never heard of you? Why have I never heard anything like you’re saying before?…” The power to block out voices out is so strong….
I’ve been interviewed by the Globe and Mail, and literally had the journalist come back and say, “Oh, I’m sorry, I can’t actually use that. I was just told.”
I don’t know how you get around that. Part of the answer is in new kinds of media like podcasting. The audience that we have with my podcast with co-host Sandy Hudson is as big as some of the main newspapers’ podcasts…
We can build those kinds of platforms but we need something that’s more cohesive.
It’s really bad. The only way we’re going to change any of these media institutions is from outside pressure. In no way is the CBC changing from the inside.
McKay: I really loved your treatment of the Toronto Star on the subject of long-term-care facilities. I quite admired their zeal on the crisis. They offered good investigative journalism, I thought… There was a very polemical editorial. Even a petition for readers to sign. The world must change! This must not go on!
And then – radio silence. Is that right? They never really got back to the issue?
Loreto: As I say in the book, you can’t even easily access the initial petition. I had to search through the ‘WayBack’ machine for using the Internet Archive to find the original petition that they scrubbed.
The funny thing about ‘investigative journalism’ these days: so much of it is often about things hiding in plain sight…. There’s not a whole lot of digging involved. On the long-term-care stuff, the Toronto Star did not even build up its own list of deaths. They just took the government’s line.
I guess you can do that. But then you miss every death the government doesn’t consider to be Covid-related. There were people dying from dehydration, directly linked to the pandemic. They should have been included on these lists of deaths. There were also a lot of facilities that weren’t formally long-term care facilities where people died…. They don’t appear on any official list.
So, again, if you’re not building your own lists, you’re relying on government data that you can’t verify. You’re not listening to the workers saying: “We pulled out seven bodies today, it wasn’t five [like the government says]. It was seven…”
Even the Globe and Mail just did a report on deaths in long-term care facilities and then correlated them with contracts from Doug Ford’s government. Copying and pasting from a government document, …pasting from government announcements, and then putting it on a spreadsheet. There’s no ‘investigation’ to that…
It’s important work, of course, no one else is doing it. But it’s not as deep as we need. And it’s certainly not as deep as Canadians expect. That’s the state of where things are right now…
I’m sitting on data on how many people have died in hospital from Covid. And I just don’t know what to do with them…
McKay: You conclude the book with a powerful paragraph: “You know how this turns out. You know whether the delta or lambda variants trigger a fall wave in Canada. You know if the omega variant ever comes to pass. You know what October 2021 looked like. You know if COVID-19 sticks around until 2022, if the global death toll hits ten million or if COVID-19 dies out. If you’re reading these words, it means you’re still alive and there’s still enough hope for you to spend any time at all reading books. Your time is precious. Your time is needed. Your time is now” (335).
It suggests to me the promise and pitfalls of writing history as it’s happening. So much of what historians write is conditioned by the wider causal patterns they see in the evidence, and as of now, we can’t know if Covid-19 will be remembered, like the Influenza Epidemic of 1918-9, as a two-year blip, which remarkably went by with very little commemoration – or, as many Marxist environmentalists contend, one manifestation of capitalism’s multi-year climate crisis, of which Covid-19 is but a symptom, the first of many pandemics. How do you assess the promises and pitfalls of writing this form of ‘contemporary history’ of an event whose contours are still unclear to us? We don’t even know if we’re right to speak of the pandemic in the past sense. This has been a virus full of surprises.
Loreto: I was writing that in November 2020. Then, in 2022, I actually got Covid-19. Triple vaccinated, but still got it. Very mild.
I’m not an historian and I didn’t try to write a definitive history, to provide the obligatory way to tell the story of this pandemic. I wanted to write a record, a journalistic record, of the here-and-now.
…As long as we’re able to keep this record so the work of historians can then be influenced by it later on, I think that’s the most important thing. The times we’re living in right now are very strange…. I hope Spin Doctors provides a record that will stand the test of time.
McKay: I really identify with your dilemmas, as an historian trying to write something about Covid-19, too. How does one tell a coherent story about something that’s so full of surprises and is still unfolding? Your own strategy in Spin Doctors is to start each chapter off at a particular date, situating the reader in that time and place. And then your chapters tended to flow beyond those chronological parameters…
Providing the record of what happened was important. I think your book will play a significant role in the Canadian literature on Covid-19, because it integrates so much information from coast to coast to coast, something we Canadians find very difficult to do, divided as we are by language, region, any number of other things. We just don’t know that much about each other.
As Covid-19 transitions from traumatic memory to recorded history, how do you think it will be commemorated and understood? It was striking to me that there was so little attention paid to the “million-victim milestone” in the US, in contrast to that lavished on the 100,000th death. At a time of marked pandemic fatigue, a yearning for normality, will people want to remember Covid-19? Aren’t those keen to preserve an accurate memory of it up against the challenge that, for many people, these are just years to forget? How do we combat that?
Loreto: I think that there will be a tendency to not commemorate it. There are few governments with an interest in commemorating it. Unless average people commemorate themselves through culture, or music, or some sort of collective production, even people putting up their own monuments – we’re not going to see much of anything. You might see a plaque someday at certain facilities where there were mass deaths. Maybe….
McKay: So, for you, the 1918-9 scenario – mass forgetfulness – is a likely one?
Loreto: Absolutely. Where I’m situated in Quebec City, right across the street, there was a field hospital for the 1919 flu. There’s no commemoration of it at all….
Many, many people must have died there. But, when you go into Lower Town, less than a kilometre where I am, there’s a memorial to the five Quebeckers shot dead in the anti-conscription protests, the Easter Sunday massacre…. It’s important to remember them. Yet, still…Literally no commemoration of the hundreds of people who must have died in that field hospital.
What I wonder about is: at least the 1918-19 flu epidemic took place at a time when people still did live in community. There were collective ways of handling the trauma of war. The full impact of it would be felt in the 1930s. There were still families that would make music together, extended families, there were language-groups communicating with one another – in a way that doesn’t exist today.
Where does our trauma go in a digital age? We’re told the Internet is our community, now…. That’s really what worries me the most. It will make us far sicker. It will make the trauma far worse, and we will have nowhere to channel it.
I think we are in for a post-Covid, post-trauma crisis that is going to be immense. Without a single politician who knows how to fix it, their policies likely making it worse.
McKay: I think the one thing your book does, brilliantly, is to weave the theme of individualism through so many discussions. Covid-19 was this paradoxical event – one calling for both individual isolation and collective focus. Everyone who could was supposed to isolate, acting together. I suspect, for many people, that loneliness was almost as much a scourge as Covid-19.
And think of the way many people were asked to say goodbye to loved ones. Often they weren’t allowed even to say goodbye. So, you had a violation of a very widespread human need to commemorate the death of people you cared for, suddenly uprooted by this pandemic.
Your point about trauma is a powerful one, and suggests a contrast with 1918-9. This pandemic has been a far more individualizing event. The political and social consequences could be more severe… as survivors go in search of community, mythologies, meaning. Some are drifting into very dangerous Alt-right channels, ones a bit reminiscent of fascism in the 1920s.
Loreto: That’s right. If they go anywhere. Alcohol, opioids [beckon] – or many will try to swallow the trauma on their own and it will make them sicker. The internal trauma of loneliness and isolation injures and kills as well.
A number of people I talked said, “Oh, I couldn’t go to see my mother’s final moments, because I was told to socially isolate.” It was very shocking to me in 2020. There was no ban on people doing that. People, in their honesty and in their good faith, assuming governments were operating in good faith as well, trusted governments. “This is too dangerous, and therefore I will sacrifice this last moment with my loved one.”
There are a lot of people I talked to online. I didn’t know them personally, but if I had, I would have told them: “Get on the plane. Get a good mask. You’ll probably be fine. You probably won’t get Covid-19 if you’re wearing a good mask.” …
But there was none of that. People stoically did not say goodbye to people they loved…There was this stoical sensibility: “The government asked us to fulfil this very simple demand – stay home. It sucks that I can’t say goodbye to my loved one. But, I’m doing my duty.” There’s no dignity in that….
When people start to process the grief from those moments, that will be explosive. And then there are all the people who died so quickly people couldn’t say goodbye to them. That’s a whole other kind of trauma and grief. And that’s going to be borne not only by the families but also by staff.
I interviewed one personal care worker. She works in a facility in the Kitchener-Waterloo region. She described to me what it was like to wheel out the still-warm bodies of her clients from this facility. There’s no state program to deal with that kind of grief. Nothing.
…Healing in the current age that we’re in often seems an impossibility. At least in the 1920s, there was at least a sense of, “Well, we’ve got to submit ourselves to God’s will, we’re going to see everybody in church, we’re going to gossip, we’re going to live in our communities, we’re going to struggle for food, to pay for stuff – but at least in this struggle we have a community.”
Nowadays, we don’t have that spirit at all….
McKay: Another significant difference is that this lockdown went on much longer than the first experiments in 1918-9. The fatigue is understandable. It hasn’t been a month or two. It’s been more than two years. I would call the atmosphere one of ambient dread and anxiety. What new disaster awaits us around the corner? Even if one hasn’t gone through traumatic experiences in this pandemic directly, one has experienced them vicariously.
It inspires the perennial question: How can we break into this cultural atmosphere and say, “OK, let’s do something different.” Present a message of hope to people surviving this crisis.
Loreto: I think understanding how things have unfolded in other parts of the world is really important. There’s a level of whiteness… in many of our conversations: “I don’t want to get this kind of disease at all, it’s dirty, I don’t want to get sick at all.” This is not how other people in the world live, because they can’t. The circumstances of their lives don’t allow it….
People go to tremendous lengths to create fake bubbles to keep themselves safe. You can see just how much that is damaging people’s minds and their wellness in general…
We also have to get serious about the Internet. The left has been very slow on this. There are still discussions out there on “Isn’t the Internet amazing, because it’s bringing us together and we can organize online and it’s accessible and all this stuff.” Well – no. What the hell are you talking about? We have to render every one of our real-life spaces accessible. We need conversations about how to do that.
But – real life isn’t optional. It’s the only option for us. Especially if we’re going to start organizing in ways that challenge the state – we’re not going to do that on Zoom. We have to have a very sober conversation about the limits of the Internet. How do we use it? How do we not use it?…
The Internet is a huge problem in all of this. We don’t get back what we give to it.
One of the things that exploded during the pandemic was this idea of mutual aid. I grew up in a religious family, I worked for the Catholic church, and a lot of it looked like traditional ‘church-lady’ stuff. Yes, it kept people alive, communities alive, fed people, gave people a reason to live. But it’s not activism. All of my aunts were feeding the poor. But they weren’t changing society.
There has not been much analysis of the difference between feeding the poor and revolutionary societal change. We’re not insulting people when we say that feeding the poor is not revolutionary.
This is the biggest problem with the left right now. There is a lack of understanding. Even if we’ve been radicalized around all the structural problems in society, there’s a fundamental lack of understanding of social change and of revolutionary change – the distinction between revolutionary change and what is just maintenance to keep people alive. We have to do both – it isn’t one or the other. Church ladies are great. We need them. They’re not revolutionaries….
McKay: I think we’re living in a revolutionary age – one that calls out for a revolution if the species is going to survive – but we don’t have a revolutionary movement. That, in a nutshell, is our dilemma.
Nora, thank you so much. Spin Doctors is undoubtedly the best Canadian book on the Covid-19 pandemic, and you’re to be congratulated for bringing it out. It offers great coverage, from coast to coast to coast, of how Canadians experienced this moment. So, thank you.
Nora Loreto visited Syndemic on 25 May 2022.
 Margaret Thatcher famously declared in an interview with Woman’s Own in 1987:
“I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand ‘I have a problem, it is the Government’s job to cope with it!’ or ‘I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!’ ‘I am homeless, the Government must house me!’ and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first.” Link to source.