The last time the military rolled in to help Manitobans deal with a crisis beyond their capacity to manage was in the spring of 1997 during the Flood of the Century.
Troops, engineers and equipment were put to work building the Z-dike that ultimately protected Winnipeg from the potential of overland flooding creeping around the diversion. Households across much of rural southeastern Manitoba received a knock on the door that spring and were told to gather up what was important and evacuate. It was largely a precautionary measure, but it also reflected the reality that if events came anywhere close to a worst-case scenario, it would be impossible to reach everyone in time.
This time, the military is helping with a new threat — the COVID-19 virus that is overwhelming our defences in the health-care system.
There are similarities between the two crises. The threat from the virus is every bit as real as the flood, except that it is less visible and none of us are outside of the affected zone.
There are other differences too, largely related to how Manitobans are reacting.
Volunteerism surged during the 1997 flood as people looked for ways to pitch in. Hastily assembled sandbagging crews roamed rural back roads, looking for neighbours to help. Foot patrols were making the rounds too.
Whereas the flood fight brought people together, this pandemic is keeping us apart. Literally, the best way we can all help is by staying home, not congregating with folks outside our household bubble and limiting our risk of exposure.
The vast majority of people are doing everything within their means to support the fight by adhering to public health orders and advice.
However, there are individuals, groups and communities — many of whom reside in rural Manitoba — that refuse to be part of the solution. The attitudes in full display range from being flippant, as in “it’s not really that bad,” to militant, as in going deliberately out of their way to flaunt the rules.
We didn’t hear people calling the Flood of the Century a hoax. If they chose not to sandbag, the only potential harm they were causing was to themselves. If they refused to leave when ordered, it was clearly spelled out that if they got into trouble, they were pretty much on their own.
In contrast, individual actions during the pandemic do affect the broader community, and the impacts aren’t limited to the short term.
Everyone shares the costs of paying for the health-care system and we all suffer the consequences if it collapses.
Shoppers who flaunt the rules around wearing masks in public places are causing long-term harm to businesses in their communities, because the longer the virus persists, the longer business activities will be curtailed. Partial shutdowns saddle operations with all of the costs of remaining open, while being able to capture only a fraction of their usual revenue.
For a host of reasons, it’s been much harder for public health officials to convince people to do what they need to do to protect themselves during the pandemic. The root of the problem is that we’ve lost touch with the co-operation that put many of our communities on the map.
When pioneers first arrived to start a new life in this country, neighbours knew they needed to support each other for the betterment of all. That’s how houses and barns were built, schools were formed and local businesses thrived.
The people in charge of our collective health — politicians and public health officials — are dealing with a different mentality in modern times, one that’s lost the connection between the community’s well-being and our own.
In some quarters, personal entitlement clearly trumps the community need. Choosing not to wear a mask, refusing to seek vaccination or insisting on gathering as a group in breach of public health orders are all tactics employed to protest perceived infringements of their rights to move about freely and gather.
There are communities in southern Manitoba that have prospered in the face of rural depopulation; the fastest-growing crop in surrounding fields is houses. It’s because they have become regional service centres. Many rural Manitobans pride themselves in being community builders.
Yet vaccination rates in some of these regions fall well below provincial levels and don’t come close to thresholds for community immunity. Has the anti-vaxxer, anti-masker set considered whether their choices could make their communities less attractive as places to shop and live?
It is an individual’s choice whether to vaccinate. Governments can impose rules around wearing masks in public but, in actuality, the risk of enforcement is low. So, that becomes a choice too.
A crisis has a way of amplifying the best and the worst in people. It also has a way of reminding us what’s important. Being a good neighbour is more important now than ever.