No one can dispute that our world as we know it is being faced with one of its greatest challenges of all time. Seems like every day we hear via our media whether it be the radio, TV, newspaper, Google, Facebook, or Twitter, of yet another hurdle that this pandemic has thrown at us. The question is how much of this kind of information can we take in when it is to most people in the category of bad news? If we are one of those who are addicted to or on the receiving end of our relentless news feeds how it it affecting us?
Let me begin to answer this question by taking a look at the southwestern portion of Nova Scotia in the Annapolis Valley region where I am fortunate to be living. Overall we have not had one case of COVID and only one time when a visitor from elsewhere in the province tested positive causing the stores they shopped at to close down for a few days while they did their cleansing. I would say that most of those I know reacted in a sensible manner without hitting the panic button. Afterall, it had to happen some time down our way as Halifax, our largest city in the central part of Nova Scotia, was reporting an alarming number of deaths (approx.45) at one of their oldest long term care nursing homes. This scare gradually subsided while the majority of us carried on as usual keeping our social distance when outside and wearing our masks when in public places. We carried on seeing our families and friends either at a local eating establishment or entertaining at home always mindful of limiting our bubble to what was expected of us at the time by Dr. Strang, our health authority, and ex-premier, Stephen McNeil, who became heroes for their handling of the pandemic. For me, this brush with the virus was a gentle reminder that it was not yet dead and still lurking around to remind us to remain vigilant.
Unfortunately, the rest of Canada, especially in the larger provinces where there are more cities and people, the virus has been having a heyday. As its variants have morphed into two strains and possibly more, the numbers for those getting sick and dying from it have greatly increased. Once the Christmas holidays were over, the reality sank in forcing the premiers who were dealing with the rise in numbers of cases and resulting deaths to go into a mild panic. All eyes, including those of our Prime Minister, became focussed on the vaccine… when was it coming, how much could we get, and how would it be distributed? This was followed by much debate… which is ongoing…with new blips of information bombarding us every day, making it difficult for any of us to keep up with it all. Could these reports be the reason why so many of us feel so tired at the end of the day…tired of doing nothing as one of my friends said!
While the pandemic scenario was being played out, the US election had us sitting on pins and needles praying that ex- President Trump would not get re-elected; dealing with any guilt that has remained with us from the mistreatment of our Indigenous and Black people carried out by our ancestors; seeing our economy go into the dumper from numerous business failures and high unemployment; and finally, worrying about what lies down the road with our badly compromised environment and changing climate. The challenges we are facing are endless and sometimes dizzying if we are trying to keep up with it all by being a news junkie which I find myself becoming at times.
It’s not surprising that listening and in many cases witnessing the effects of this pandemic has taken a toll on the physical, mental and emotional health of many people with the majority emerging from our vulnerable population: our elderly with compromised immune systems in long term care facilities, Indigenous people, Black people, the poor living on low incomes who have lost their jobs, and anyone with a pre-existing disease. Furthermore, mental health experts are reporting that children are being affected when they can’t go to school. Feeling isolated from friends and having to relate to their teachers and the material they have to cover with only their computers (some children don’t have home computers) has hindered any kind of real learning. Teachers themselves are stressed with having to keep up with the lessons being delivered via the computer. In too many schools the class size hasn’t decreased as promised, making it more difficult for teachers and students alike. If the kids are lucky enough to have good home schooling from parents or teachers, the stress is lessened. Then there are the families where one or more of the adults have lost their jobs and are having to scramble to find new ones which may not even exist any more. The bills have to be paid and rents met so the pressure to keep money coming in must be horrendous. Yes, this pandemic has affected the young and the old so it’s no surprise to any of us that anxiety, depression, and in some cases suicide cases are rising.
Canada has been cited around the world as one of the ten best countries in the world to live in, so why is the pandemic causing all this despair and hardship? Perhaps it would help if we take a moment to imagine the difficulty poor countries living with harsh dictatorships or civil unrest are faring under the pandemic. You might be thinking they are doing much worse, but are they?
Recently I spoke to a journalist friend living in Phnom Penh, Cambodia which is one of the world’s poorest countries. This country has had an extremely difficult history as recent as the latter part of the twentieth century when Pol Pot, leader of the murderous Khmer Rouge movement, mistakenly thought the best thing for his country was to obliterate all the elite and well educated people and start all over again with his extreme socialist idea of giving the land back to those who would work it…the uneducated. Thus, he proceeded to promote communism at its worst resulting in more than two million deaths and the almost total devastation of his country. His goal ended up as one of the largest genocide acts of the century. Nevertheless, Cambodia has managed to gain some stability and peace thanks to an outpouring of world aid and the growth of the NGO’s (non-government organizations) delivering their expertise and desire to help the people. At the same time, China has seized the opportunity to develop the country economically but in truth more for its own benefit. Over the years it’s become obvious that they are doing more harm than good. The price of progress has helped those who are educated and have some wealth but has done very little for the large number of poor.
According to my friend, the pandemic is helping China to widen that gap even more. I have written several posts on Cambodia after my first visit in 2014 which you can read for more information on this country’s sad past and their resilience in attempting to overcome it. You can click on the links below:
Naturally, I was curious to know how Cambodia was dealing with the pandemic and how it was affecting my friend. From her account, life was much of the same. As a freelance journalist, she was getting enough work to pay her rent and put food on her table. Yes, everyone has had to wear masks and practice social distancing. She went on to report that many people have lost their jobs with the decline in tourism, one of their main industries, and that there is next to no help coming from their government in the way of financial support. However, the most astounding bit of news was that Cambodia had not had any deaths up until the last week in March which now puts them at a total of one (1). I have also been in touch with friends in VietNam and Malaysia and found the same thing: far fewer cases and deaths despite dense populations. Although not totally surprised from having visited all of Southeast Asia in my travels, I was still curious so decided to do some research to confirm this.
I used http://www.worldometers.info which revealed some very interesting information about the effects of COVID worldwide. Starting from March of 2020 up to the present, you can find information on 250 countries showing how they are performing starting with the worst at the top of the list down to the best at the end. After a quick perusal, I was again surprised at how poorly we in the western part of the world are doing in comparison to the east.
Here is a partial listing of the countries that I looked into:
- As we all know the US has the highest number of cases and deaths taking the taking the #1 spot. As of March 20, they had reported 29,768,980 cases and 539,595 deaths. With a population of 332,330,903 they had 335.8 deaths per million.
- India was in second place with 11,261,470 cases and 539,595 deaths. With a hefty population of I billion, 389 million and more, they had only 114 deaths per million.
- To my surprise Canada was in the 22 second spot. They were reporting 892,601 cases and 22,295 deaths with a population of 37,968,271 giving us 587 deaths per million.
- Placing #39 was Japan with 440,671 cases reported, 8,299 deaths, and 66 per million. Their entire population is 126,210,473.
- I had to see how China was doing and again another surprise because they have the largest population in the world at 1,439,323,776 people. Only 90,002 cases and 4,636 deaths have been reported.
- Way down the list is Thailand #116, Vietnam #174, and Cambodia #185.
Remember that these figures show the worst countries at the top with the best at the bottom. If you take the time to check for yourself, you will see that the small countries and islands in the eastern half of our hemisphere are in general showing fewer cases and deaths. Moreover, many of these smaller countries have larger populations packed into a smaller land mass. Cambodia and VietNam are good examples of that.
How can we explain this outcome? There are a number to things to consider. Having visited the Far East many times over the past ten years, I am venturing to guess they are doing better than we are in Canada and the US because of diet, lifestyle, location and government. Their cultural norm is so different from ours, they have a warm climate near the equator, and in most cases their leaders took strict action at the beginning of the pandemic last March. Ironically, Hun Sen, Cambodia’s president, at first dismissed the possibility of a world- wide pandemic when he allowed a group of tourists to disembark from a cruise ship docked in Phnom Penh.
Let’s take a closer look at some other possible explanations for Cambodia’s success at achieving zero number of deaths. As soon as their first case was reported on January 24th in Sihanoukville, the country’s second largest city, they enlisted the help of the World Health Organization (WHO) who helped them to draw up an effective plan. Then the World Bank showed up with the money to back up the plan which the Cambodian health authorities quickly put into action. It’s interesting that none of their success can be attributed to their present government a very repressive one declared to be deep into the pockets of China. There have been questions posed on how the country handled the extraordinary number of prisoners that have found themselves behind bars for speaking or acting out against the regime. So far there hasn’t been anything to warrant any investigation regarding it being a human rights issue so we can only assume that the planning and money have worked.
Viet Nam is also under a communist government but with an open mind to economic growth which has made it one of the world’s success stories in that area. Again freedom of speech has been somewhat limited which hasn’t hindered their progress. Laos is another country I have visited sitting on the top of the world’s poorest countries list. It is also ruled by a communist form of government which we don’t hear too much about other than it is working closely with China to build an awful lot of dams so they can export electricity to all of SE Asia hoping this will lift the country further up the economic ladder of success.
Another plausible reason for Cambodia’s low numbers could be that the people have become accustomed to being told what to do. Freedom of thought isn’t tolerated in this country and if it is a stiff jail sentence is usually the reward. Furthermore, another consideration is not only the Cambodians close tie to family but also the strength of their Khmer history, and a spiritual life rooted in the teachings of the Buddha. Cambodia also has a large rural population meaning that farming is a large part of the country’s economy. Fruit and vegetables…mostly grown without pesticides… are to be found in every town and village. To a westerner like me, their lifestyle seemed healthier than ours. Most of their COVID cases are coming from the two cities…Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville.
The same might be said for India where their COVID cases are much higher in the north where many of their heavily polluted cities are located while the socialist state of Kerala in the south has had greater success at keeping their numbers down. This bit of information I got from our CBC’s nightly radio program “As It Happens” with Carol Off who does an excellent job of interviewing leaders and people from around the world on the topic of the day which to no one’s surprise has been dominated by the pandemic and how the various countries are coping with it. The interview she had with Kerala’s Minister of Health indicated to us listeners that it was due to her immediate action and clear delivery of the problem that got her people taking it seriously. Again I would put some of the success into the hands of their diet and lifestyle as I witnessed on a visit to the state in 2020 where I witnessed the difference between it and the north where I started in New Delhi, a city that has the highest pollution in the world. These two factors along with more sunshine seem like plausible reasons for explaining their lower death rate. There must be something to this because I can honestly say, I always felt better both physically and mentally after spending my winters in the Far East.
In retrospect as I write this, I feel very strongly that we can learn from other countries on how to deal with a pandemic such as COVID, and in turn they can learn from us. We need to put aside the polarizing and politics and pull together to openly share how we can deal with it better than we have. COVID is giving us the opportunity to do this so we had better learn from it our first time around because according to many of the science experts we are due for many more like it. The reality is that viruses will be playing a huge role in our New Normal.
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