Social Distancing to Death

Pandemics are boring. My home office in Vancouver, British Columbia looks out on a beautiful sunny day I am powerless to enjoy. Snowfields stare at me from the North Shore mountains while my snowshoes gather dust. Running around my neighbourhood only does so much; I miss nature. I miss the fresh air. I miss content for my hiking blog. I miss trees. I miss campsites and dehydrated food and reading a book on a lightweight chair and worrying about the rain and putting on three layers of jacket as I finish up the last camp chores while a gentle white light swings placidly within my tent. I miss being sweaty and stinky for days on end and not caring. I miss it all.

On the list of problems in the world today this is, to be sure, not number one. We’re all in the same boat and I think we all understand why we’re doing it. At risk of sounding controversial, if we all died of coronavirus that would be sad. Probably all of us who can are social distancing in ways which would normally seem ludicrously anti-social and feeling pretty good about ourselves.

And while we all want to get outside, outside can be crowded. Smart people are avoiding busy beaches and crowded trails. The District of North Vancouver has closed down the ultra-popular Quarry Rock and Lynn Valley Suspension Bridge trails. The big Vancouver-area resorts, Cypress Mountain, Grouse Mountain and Mount Seymour, are shut down, along with every zoo, water park, or other outdoor playplace.

Anybody who’s ever crammed onto Quarry Rock or queued for an hour for the Grouse gondola will understand. They feel horrible, unpleasant, and toxic when there isn’t a pandemic.

But the powers that be are not stopping at popular places that happen to be outdoors. On Wednesday morning the Government announced that all BC Parks are now completely closed, with no public use of any kind permitted. This follows Parks Canada closing all facilities, including backcountry camping, and all vehicle access to all its parks, and Avalanche Canada discontinuing forecasting early to encourage people to stay inside. Similar closures are affecting most other provinces’ park systems.

This is self-evidently crazy. Even a crowded provincial park, like Garibaldi, is very rarely “unable to maintain social distance” crowded. Closing facilities or the occasional hazard spot is all you need. Closing down trails or backcountry areas which it’s unimaginable anybody with a fever and shortness of breath could even reach, as BC Parks and Parks Canada are, will kill more people than it saves.

To the accomplished backwoodsman, such closures are fairly nominal. The total area protected by the BC parks system is over 34 million acres, which is larger than Greece. If you really want to go outside in defiance of the law, and are smart enough to not visit the most popular trailheads in the province, you’ll get away with it. However we aren’t all accomplished backwoodsmen with private 4x4s. Some of us just want to go outside and taste some fresh air, and are willing to socially distance our way to that.

Nor will privacy or common sense necessarily protect you from the state. The city of Ottawa has been fining people hundreds of dollars for walking through parks alone. In England, Derbyshire county police used a drone to stalk and shame hikers enjoying the wilderness in tiny, socially-responsible groups as their trips are “not essential.”

Despite posts yesterday highlighting issues of people still visiting the #PeakDistrict despite government guidance, the message is still not getting through. @DerPolDroneUnit have been out at beauty spots across the county, and this footage was captured at #CurbarEdge last night. pic.twitter.com/soxWvMl0ls

— Derbyshire Police (@DerbysPolice) March 26, 2020

Maybe if you’re a parasite who uses drones and bylaw officers to bother people on a stroll, sun and exercise seem “non-essential,” but nobody with a functioning soul would say so. In shutting down public life our governments are already shattering the public’s mental health. Crisis Services Canada is experiencing technical difficulties due to high traffic. Unemployment something like doubles suicide risk, and through absolutely no fault of their own people are being laid off at the greatest rate in the history of Western civilization. We are told by our rulers that it’s worthwhile to slow the spread of the coronavirus, though I’ll be damned if I can find anybody who’s run the numbers.

You know what’s good for mental health? Outdoor exercise! Not only is working out good for you both mentally and physically, but there’s evidence that hiking in the wilderness is even better than an equivalent urban workout. Which makes sense; the current world of office or factory life is a tiny exception in the evolutionary history of our species. I daresay it matches all our experiences. Young, old, in-shape, out of it, hiking into the wilds, walking through the park, we all like experiencing nature and feel better for having been there. And this is without considering the benefits of good health, and particularly lungs strengthened by mountain hikes and trail runs, during a massive wave of respiratory illness. Coronavirus especially preys on the infirm and overweight.

The right thing to do is neither black nor white. One can say that huge crowds snaking across the Lynn Canyon Suspension Bridge is unacceptable without saying “therefore close every park.” One can get people out of the ice cream shop in Jasper without shutting down the backcountry. Whether the answer is closing the real hot spots and having officers in masks controlling crowds elsewhere, or enforcing one-way traffic on popular paths as the City of Richmond is doing in one of their parks, or even restricting paths to cyclists or pedestrians in Stanley Park, there are countless options. We have to get people outside, working out, being people, or suffer the consequences.

When closures trap us all in our homes while already under tremendous and increasing stress just to eat and stave off homelessness, there’s a price to be paid. At the local level people are close enough to the situation and far enough from the Twitter mob to occasionally think about that, but higher-level politicians and bureaucrats, not so much “risk-averse” as “non-conformity-averse,” will never tally the cost the population pays for them to grandstand at press conferences. No sooner is one restriction tightened out of superstition than the news is running articles with superstitious demands for further restriction. So we head towards being trapped in our apartments like animals, hoping our mental health lasts longer than the virus. Many people’s will not. However bad the pandemic is, it won’t be as bad as being factory farmed.

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