Spin Doctors

How Media and Politicians Misdiagnosed the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Tadzio Richards

by Nora Loreto
Fernwood Publishing
2021/$35.00/368 pp.

The pandemic in Canada had the potential to be an explosive moment of change,” writes Nora Loreto in Spin Doctors. “Canadians could see that money was available to help people out of poverty; that the state had the power to make massive new social programs in a matter of weeks…. With the right social movement structure, the right spark or the right confluence of events,” she asserts, governments could have enacted policy to address issues from “systemic racism to structural inequality, from an overburdened healthcare system to crowded classrooms, from a broken and exploitative residential [long-term] care system to a broken and exploitative food services industry.” All of these issues “had long been established as problems” before the pandemic, she writes, and they all “made COVID-19 worse.” But little was done. Instead, Canadian governments and most media worked “to ensure that as little as possible would change.”

A Quebec-based author, activist and co-host of a popular political podcast, Loreto began writing this scathing book of analysis early in the pandemic—when she compiled Canada’s first, and only, publicly available and daily updated record of COVID-related deaths in long-term care. Based on her reading of “nearly 30,000 articles and web pages from news organizations and public health units across Canada,” each chapter in the book—covering the period from March 2020 to June 2021—“examines how a set of problems related to an industry or an issue were exacerbated by COVID-19.” It’s an essential book for policymakers and, frankly, anyone trying to make sense of the gong show that was life in the pandemic.

Loreto is especially strong on long-term care, which, she writes, “was so unprepared for a pandemic that thousands of residents would be sitting ducks, waiting for the virus to attack them in their beds.” While governments deserve blame for “the problems that plague Canada’s systems of residential care,” she writes, media coverage isn’t innocent. Rather than focus on systemic reasons for catastrophes in long-term care, in food-processing plants, on farms dependent on migrant labour and everywhere else that COVID-19 got out of control, most media stories focused on individuals. The pandemic was framed as a matter of personal, not collective responsibility; a temporary problem from which vaccines would save us. This frame benefited politicians that didn’t want change, and who want citizens to continue to see ourselves “through an individualized, neoliberal lens.” As Loreto shows, however, that’s a path to failure, and “‘going back to normal’ will not fix anything that COVID-19 revealed to be broken.”

Tadzio Richards is associate editor at Alberta Views.

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