When we’re interested and it makes sense, Islanders can be very compliant and follow the rules. Most of us wear seat belts, sort our garbage, and never drink and drive.
We have a healthy respect for the law and respect community norms and boundaries.
But there is also an independent gene in our makeup.
I have witnessed that streak of independence and complacency in recent weeks as Islanders come out from under their coronavirus shells.
The majority of us obeyed public health directives early on, as COVID-19 spread internationally and throughout Canada, and inter-provincial borders were closed.
We stayed at home and limited our social interactions.
But when Premier King announced his re-opening plan, I think most Islanders just breathed a big sigh of relief and figured they had been given a Get Out of Jail FREE Monopoly card.
And it is a free-for-all right now as I see it.
“There’s no virus here on the Island,” I was told by an up west friend. “Islanders won’t take this seriously until they see a few corpses at Prince County Hospital.”
That dark humour conveys an important truth.
Without a visible and demonstrable threat, the independence and complacency gene dominates our behaviour.
No cases, no one in hospital, no concern.
And until the decision by government to allow cottage owners from other provinces to come to the province this summer, an extremely unpopular decision that now has been rethought from a public health and safety vantage point, most Islanders were behaving as if the pandemic was over.
Masks and social distancing?
I was at one of my favourite hardware stores last week, finally comfortable enough to pick up a few house maintenance things after reading online about all the COVID-19 measures in place to protect customers.
The place was a zoo, with lineups at the checkout, people wandering the aisles and not bothering to social distance, and it seemed I was the only customer wearing a mask.
One woman and her teenage daughter walked right up to me, obviously looking for something where I was standing. The girl gave me an astonished look and said something to her mother.
As they turned to walk away, I heard the mother say in a low voice “it’s all so stupid.”
I had another similar experience this past week at a garden centre.
Even though a Plexiglas barrier separated customers from the checkout clerk, I watched people go to the end of the Plexiglas and lean right over the counter into the clerk’s face, while nobody respected the circles on the floor to keep customers apart.
And not a soul except me was wearing a mask.
To be fair, the public health rules are very confusing with the move from one phase to another. What constitutes a household? Bubbles? Who is it safe to kiss? Masks or no masks? Dining with family or friends? Physical distancing indoors? Physical distancing outdoors?
But I’m not letting my guard down.
Someone on social media has been trumpeting that old Franklin D Roosevelt Inaugural Address rhetoric about having “nothing to fear but fear itself.”
Clearly, there is something to fear. It’s called COVID-19. It is a dangerous and highly transmissible respiratory virus, and for the elderly and immune-compromised in particular it can be deadly.
The tragic situation in northern New Brunswick where a medical doctor got infected with the virus after travelling into Quebec, and then failed to self-quarantine upon his return, exposing hundreds, is a reminder of how easily community spread can occur.
Imagine if that were to happen here.
Islanders are a kind and respectful lot, who do their own thing. However, a public health crisis like COVID-19 does require community responsibility. That is the essence of public health. We really do need to be our brother’s and sister’s keepers.
In one of her recent updates, Dr Heather Morrison remarked that “we need to learn to live with COVID-19,” and we would likely see more cases of the virus here on the Island. What I took from that comment, and I have no reason to doubt her guidance, is the pandemic is not over and Islanders should behave accordingly.
Who is that masked man anyway?