Pandemic Vigilantes

“Where do you live?”

Lorraine and I were out walking Tabby last night. It was around 7:00pm. Still light. A milder evening with the promise that sometime in the not too distant future, warmer weather would finally arrive to this part of the world.

Can we go for a walk?

Such a simple question.

The answer? Yes.

A lot of today’s realities would have been hard to imagine two months ago. As a journalist, I certainly never expected to be hounding senior health officials with the question: can we go for a walk?

In this disorienting new pandemic universe, the answer is not necessarily obvious. The public has been firmly instructed, sometimes even scolded, to remain inside for all but essential outings to slow the spread of COVID-19. We know physical distancing saves lives. So is going for a walk an “essential outing,” or a reckless luxury?

While the messaging has been occasionally muddled from different levels of government, Toronto’s top public health officers have been consistent: you can go for a walk. You actually should go for a walk. Staying cooped up inside can have mental and physical health consequences too, and they don’t want residents suffering those ill effects, either.

“Going for a walk can be necessary if you have a pet. It’s also an important public health intervention to keep physically active, to build muscle and to improve mental health and well-being,” said Dr. Vinita Dubey, Toronto Public Health associate medical officer of health.

Pandemic vigilantes appear to hold a mandate to enforce whatever their perspective might happen to be on acceptable and unacceptable behaviours during this COVID-19 pandemic.

“Where do you live?”

We had left the Hitch House and had walked perhaps a few thousand feet to an adjacent street. You can see where we were in relation to the Hitch House on this map and the red point marks where we were accosted.

A somewhat rundown brown pickup truck, with an older couple inside, presumably conducting essential travel on a Sunday evening at 7:00pm, slowed down to about 100 feet in front of us. And stopped.

We kept walking although we both knew what was coming next.

The window rolled down as we got closer.

“Where do you live?”

I pointed towards the Hitch House and replied “Over there.”

He looked puzzled.

“Do you live on the south side?”

I think he was asking me if I lived on the south side of that particular public street.

Again I pointed towards the Hitch House and said “Over there.”

He remain puzzled. I wondered whether he was now going to demand to see our papers. Here we were, a retired couple, walking a golden retriever, alone on a quiet public street posing no threat to anyone whatsoever, being accosted by a total stranger.

We kept walking and ignored him. He remain stopped for a few minutes longer and then decided, I suppose, that we were not part of the Zombie apocalypse. Off he went perhaps to harass other people walking their pets on public streets.

Lorraine was concerned.

I, on the other hand, thought it best to limit any further discussion with the vigilante.

Social norms are broken. And some people believe that they have a role to play as enforcers of recommendations and guidelines that seem to change by the day.

It’s going to get worse.

Toronto police are now “much stricter” about social distancing rules and they will issue $1,000 dollar fines if you do not respect the two-metre rule with people outside your household when out walking.

I guess it feels better to blame someone else for the current situation. But, as Slate points out, we cannot police our way out of this pandemic:

We have a choice now. We can call the police on the kids playing basketball in the street and tell ourselves that doing so will help, or we can decide to put our efforts behind the real things that we know we need to contain this virus—widespread testing and better protections for essential workers. We can recruit more police officers, or we can recruit more health care workers. We can demand tougher punishments for pastors who hold church services, or we can demand a real social safety net to ensure we are never caught off-guard again. The U.S. government has made clear that it doesn’t know how to do both. Most importantly, we can stop blaming others’ hand-washing techniques and instead refuse to forget this truth: Because our leaders failed to rise to the occasion and enact meaningful preventive measures months ago, all of us are now being asked to make extraordinary personal sacrifices to clean up their mess. And for the most part, people have agreed to do the right thing for as long as it takes.

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