Back in the Yukon’s early days, visitors were often astonished at how community-minded all the rugged individualists were. Theft was rare, cabins were left unlocked with gold pokes on the table, and food caches lay untouched along major trails. Miners carried mail for each other, lent boats and helped each other build cabins.
At Forty Mile, before the gold rush, there was even a custom that if a prospector hadn’t found any gold that summer he could work another miner’s claim until he had made enough money to pay for next year’s outfit.
The reason for this was that everyone knew that, sooner or later, they would need help from other people too.
Which brings us to 2020 and COVID-19. Those old attitudes have faded. We are so prosperous that it is all too easy to slip into a solipsistic personal bubble focused on our own home, Netflix watch list and the latest consumer goods or experiences we want. Government provides so much. Even things like organizing the neighbourhood parents to shovel the rink across the street so the city can flood it the next morning can prompt modern shovelers to remark on how it feels like an old-school civic duty.
You may have seen those recent images of large numbers of people partying in Miami or Fort Lauderdale, openly dismissing the advice of local public health officials. Or, closer to home, large numbers of Vancouverites hanging out together on the beach last weekend.
Here in the Yukon you can still run into people who scoff about COVID-19. Others skip the website of the Yukon chief medical officer of health and take advice from the underbelly of the internet, where conspiracy theories flourish like a virion in a bowl of restaurant mints. Some even take pride in doing the opposite of whatever authority figures like the chief medical officer of health have to say.
Which we can tolerate, most of the time. I don’t mind if you don’t visit your doctor, but take all those weird supplements recommended by the internet. Maybe you park in the “Tourist Only” parking spots downtown because free parking is your human right and the government shouldn’t boss you around. Or perhaps you burn garbage in your wood stove since the chief medical officer of health’s air quality report was a lot of scientific malarkey and the Yukon has lots of fresh air.
COVID-19 changes all this. What you might think of as your rugged individualism is now potentially harmful to other Yukoners.
COVID-19 is a respiratory disease caused by a virus that makes its living by getting passed from Person A to Persons B and C, who then pass it on to several other letters until the entire alphabet is infected.
The math behind this propagation is intellectually fascinating. But the grim reality is that if too many people get infected too soon, it will overwhelm the health system and cause unnecessary deaths.
Which is where you come in, even if you think of yourself as a rugged individualist. Unless you really are a rugged individualist living alone in a cabin (and don’t read this column until you come into town for your annual supply trip), you are one of those letters in the alphabet. Will you get the virus? Will you pass it on to others? If so, how many?
All this hand-washing, social distancing and self-isolation is not just about keeping you safe from the virus. It is about how many people you accidentally infect if you get it.
The fancy mathematical disease models don’t like it when half the population self-isolates and the other half parties like it’s 2019. Nor do they like it even when most of the population self-isolates, but a few rugged individualists flout the recommendations and keep shaking hands, sneezing on door knobs and organizing parties.
In fact, previous epidemics have been marked by the emergence of so-called “super-spreaders.” The Guardian describes it as the “20/80 rule — that a small core group of about one in five people transmit infections to far more people than the majority do.”
You really don’t want to be that person.
Even if you are young and feel invincible, do you want to be the person that is responsible for infecting a highly-vulnerable person like your great aunt, the senior citizen down the street, or the friend of a friend whom you didn’t know had lung issues?
By the way, the myth that COVID-19 isn’t really a problem for young people is out there too. While they may face lower risks, the disease statistics in China and Italy already make it clear they are not immune. The head of the World Health Organization put it this way last week: “I have a message for young people: You are not invincible, this virus could put you in hospital for weeks or even kill you. Even if you don’t get sick the choices you make about where you go could be the difference between life and death for someone else.”
Like it or not, when we all live together, we all have a duty to listen to public health officials and take their advice seriously.
From an abundance of caution, you should self-isolate as much as you can even if you haven’t been abroad. That means working from home if you are able, staying at home the rest of the time, and avoiding contact with other people as much as possible. Now is the time to catch up on your skiing, read some great books and spend time with your co-isolating family. And as for keeping transmission within your family to a minimum in the unwelcome event one of you gets infected, keep washing your hands at home, clean commonly-touched surfaces regularly and avoid sharing items such as hand towels.
For more detailed advice, go to Yukon.ca.
We don’t know how bad this is going to be, but you don’t want to be that person who flouted the rules.
Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist and received the bronze for Outstanding Columnist in the 2019 Canadian Community Newspaper Awards.