Have we taken social distancing too far? Reflections on the Nova Scotia shooting

We woke on Monday morning to the news of an active shooter situation in mainland Nova Scotia. A man, armed and dangerous, was driving a police car, wearing an RCMP uniform, flagging down cars and executing the passengers. As of today, 23 are dead, including the shooter. The whole country is reeling from the largest mass shooting in Canadian history, trying to process how this could have happened—what moved this man to commit such senseless violence in his small community? He seemed to be well-off and was in the news just a few years ago for donating dentures to a cancer survivor because “it’s the right thing to do.” So, what changed? His motive is still unclear, and police may uncover even more bodies as they try to piece together this tragedy. 

Could it be possible that social isolation pushed him to the brink? He operated a denture clinic in Dartmouth; since the province enacted a state of emergency, all non-emergency dental work has been halted and dental practices shuttered. This man was known to have an alcohol problem and lived alone in a small town. No doubt, he seems to have had some atypical obsession with police and has been known to make dubious financial moves. But were these the beginnings of a mass murderer (or terrorist, as some may call him)? I’m not convinced. 

We’ll have to wait for the authorities to conclude their investigation before we know for sure what prompted him to go rogue and murder his neighbors and random strangers alike. But I think it’s possible that we won’t ever know for sure the whole picture. Perhaps the social isolation rules enforced by police due to covid-19 were enough to crack this already unstable individual. Perhaps there are more like him, ticking timebombs sitting in their homes who will do something terrible if they go another few days, weeks, or months without adequate social interaction, work, or a purpose for their lives. 

Have we taken the social distancing rules too far? Parks are closed, thousands of Canadians are out of work, relegated to their neighborhood blocks where they dare not venture too far from the sidewalk lest they be fined by police or shamed by their neighbours. On the subreddit r/Halifax, I see daily posts by Haligonians shaming people they deem not following the rules set by the Premier and the MOH to a tee. In other countries, the rules have increased fascistic tendencies: in the UK, for example, people have been reporting their neighbours to police if they see them leaving their house for exercise more than once. Hell, even one pro cyclist was publicly shamed after posting his 8-hour-long ride to his Strava profile. Other countries and governments still have used the situation as an opportunity to grab even more power, solidifying their dictatorships and authoritarian rule. 

I think we all need to relax a little. Yes, the situation is dire in many places, especially for our neighbours south of the border. But could opening the parks and letting some people go back to work be a net good? I think it could. 

The stay-at-home orders to mitigate the spread of the virus have had many benefits: Businesses are realizing that it’s not the end of the world for their employees to work from home and, in fact, that they’ve been able to maintain a high degree of productivity; more people are out walking, running, and cycling, which will be great for their cardiovascular health and mental wellbeing; families and friends are finding ways to stay connected and support each other. Most of all, the world is waking up to the reality that we are no more than a fragile spec in the vast abyss of the cosmos, and it wouldn’t take much more than a slightly more contagious, slightly more deadly disease to wipe us all out in an instant. If we learn anything from this, it better be that we need to be prepared for such a contagion to happen in our lifetimes. Epidemiologists and philosophers alike have been harping about the possibility of a catastrophic global contagion for decades and people are finally listening.

But social isolation is known to lead to spikes in anxiety and depression, domestic abuse, alcoholism, etc. We have taken the “one death from covid is too many” mantra too far. I predict these downstream effects will become clearer in the weeks and months ahead if we don’t loosen the restrictions. This mass shooting could be just the beginning of the social unrest. 

Let’s start by reopening the public parks for exercise. Have police or park rangers officiate and enforce social distancing. It’s not much different than allowing people to flood the sidewalks or streets to walk, run, and bike. But being in nature is known to have many positive health effects, both physical and mental. If this goes well, then maybe we should consider allowing some more people to go back to work. Offices could operate at 30% or 50% capacity to obey social distancing guidelines. We need not entertain the false dichotomy of public health vs economic stability. We might be able to have both if we play our cards right. 

It’s likely that we’ll see restriction-relaxation cycles for the next year or two as we try to extinguish the remaining pockets of the virus. Or the hammer and the dance, as Tomas Pueyo called it. But normality may be closer than we think. It would probably be better for everyone. 

Cody wants to go to the park

One thought on “Have we taken social distancing too far? Reflections on the Nova Scotia shooting

  1. Very well put!! I have been (necessarily due to my job and unnecessarily beyond that) obsessing over numbers and approaches to mitigation. I tend to agree with this: https://www.realclearpolitics.com/video/2020/04/18/swedish_epidemiologist_johan_giesecke_why_lockdowns_are_the_wrong_policy.html?fbclid=IwAR0CBPEdX4JlCHjzkNzhL-QC_2Y6TMIYpvq8aiMvszr-wEPika-leFZ8nN4

    We won’t know if tighter lockdowns were worth it, or just prolonged the agony, but thus far I have definitely seen more suffering and death due to the lockdown than from COVID. Both suck, but whether we like it or not there is no easy, painless, death-free way out of this so we need to look at who is dying, of what, what their QALY left are, and then make some hard decisions. Putting all the eggs in the “if you care about people you’ll lock down forever” basket is NOT benign, and may do more harm than good.

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