Special Report: COVID-19

The COVID-19 Marshmallow Experiment

The public health experts have been pretty clear all along about what we should be doing. But really listening to them would require self-discipline and restraint - qualities of which we have not demonstrated a great abundance.

By Ryan McGreal
Published December 22, 2020

It occurs to me that COVID-19 is the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment on a global scale.

Countries whose leaders have the self-discipline and resilience to delay gratification and resist the marshmallow, i.e. adopt strong, comprehensive, even painful COVIDzero policies at the start of the pandemic, got it under control.

Those places have since had the fewest cases, fewest illnesses and fewest deaths, and have been the fastest to return safely to normal day-to-day life.

Some other countries, not so much.

There are countries whose leaders famously ignored, downplayed and scapegoated instead of acting quickly and decisively. Their leaders sneered at the science and encouraged the most narrowly selfish, short-sighted impulses of their citizens.

They couldn't resist scarfing down the marshmallow. And when asked about it, they of course denied it, accusing someone else of eating it or even denying that there was a marshmallow.

Those countries have generally had the worst outbreaks, the most overwhelmed health care systems and the highest overall mortality rates. And yes, they are almost uniformly governed by petulant man-children.

In between the two extremes are midpack countries (like Canada), which ignored the threat until it was too late to prevent, but at least started taking it seriously once it was impossible to ignore. Half a marshmallow is better than none, I suppose.

I sense that my analogy is getting strained, so I'll try to wrap it up: undertaking drastic measures early on, while painful and hard to sustain, pays the biggest dividends in terms of both saving lives and minimizing economic damage.

It takes self-discipline and resilience to maintain an effective public health system when there isn't a pandemic, but it means you're ready to move quickly when there is one.

Most of the countries that went through SARS in 2003 vowed they wouldn't get caught flat-footed again. Canada is a notable exception in that we did let our guard down, trimming costs in the relentless pursuit of neoliberal "efficiencies".

One of our national sins is the soft bigotry of comparing ourselves to America and saying, "It could always be worse." Imagine, instead, if we compared ourselves to the best performers instead of the worst ones.

It wouldn't have been that difficult to achieve a COVID mortality rate closer to Taiwan / Singapore / Japan / Australia / New Zealand / etc. than to the United States.

After all, we are a country that only borders one other country. We're not exactly an island, but we're not that far off, either.

But a combination of not having the plans and systems in place and not moving quickly back in January and February meant we had to go into panic mode in March.

At that point, a hard lockdown - not the Lockdown Lite we have been experiencing - would have been expensive and painful but could have eliminated community transmission altogether.

Instead, we decided that there was a level of transmission we were willing to live with and rushed to re-open as much of our economy as possible, as quickly as possible. That was a perfect recipe for what we're going through now.

Again, Canada is not alone and we're by no means the worst-performing country. But if there are countries doing significantly better than us, we should be asking what they did that we didn't do instead of hiding behind countries that are doing even worse.

The point here is not to assign blame but to learn from our mistakes and stop making them. Ontario could have gone into a hard lockdown in September or October or November and we'd be out of it now. Instead, we're going into half-assed Lockdown on Boxing Day.

The public health experts have been pretty clear all along about what we should be doing. But really listening to them would require self-discipline and restraint - qualities of which we have not demonstrated a great abundance.

So instead of a short, painful lockdown followed by a full recovery, we've limped from restriction to restriction, exhausting our resources, utterly failing our most vulnerable citizens and burning through the collective goodwill that carried us through a difficult spring.

I guess what I'm saying is: next time something like this comes along, let's agree to leave the marshmallow on the table until it's safe to eat.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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