This long form photoessay showcases the absences that have been wrought by the pandemic in my city of Toronto, Ontario. The essay provides a meditation on a world of social isolation and distancing, and how the spaces that have historically united and bound Toronto’s residents have been left empty or made safe in response to being associated with risk and disease. Throughout, people are represented as separate from one another in their efforts to socially and physically distance, with individuals, pairs, or very small groups standing in juxtaposition to the much larger built world they inhabit.
All of the images were created using a combination of a Fuji X100f, Sony rx100ii, iPhone 11 Pro, and iPhone 12 Pro. Images were edited to taste using Apple Photos (for cropping) and Darkroom; two images had some healing applied using Snapseed.
For the past year, the Toronto Star has repeatedlyrunarticles that take mobility data from mobile device advertisers, to then assess the extent to which Torontonians are moving too much. Reporting has routinely shown how people are moving more or less frequently, with articles often suggesting that people are moving too much when they’re supposed to be staying put.
The problem? The ways in which ‘too much’ is assessed runs contrary to public health advice and lacks sufficient nuance to inform the public. In the most recent reporting, we find that:
Between Jan. 18 and Feb. 28, average mobility across Ontario increased from 58 per cent to 65 per cent, according to the marketing firm Environics Analytics. Environics defines mobility as a percentage of residents 15 or older who travelled 500 metres or more beyond their home postal code.
To be clear: in Ontario the provincial and local public health leaders have strongly stated that people should get outside and exercise. That can involve walking or other outdoor activities. Those activities are not supposed to be restricted to 500 metres from your home, which was advice that was largely provided in more restrictive lockdowns in European countries. And we know that mobility data is often higher in areas with higher percentages of BIPOC residents because they tend to have lower-paying jobs and must travel further to reach their places of employment.
As has become the norm, the fact that people have moved around more frequently as (admittedly ineffective) restrictions have been raised, and that people are ‘region hopping’ by going from more restricted zones to less restricted ones, is being tightly associated with personal or individual failures. From a quoted expert, we find that:
“It shows that once things start to open, people just seem to do whatever, and that’s a recipe for disaster.”
I would suggest that what we are seeing is a pent up, pretty normal, human response: the provincial government has behaved erratically and you have some people racing around to get stuff done before returning to another (ineffective) set of restrictions, and a related set of people who believe that if the government is letting them move around then things must be comparatively safer. To put it another way, in the former case you have people behaving rationally (if, in some eyes, selfishly) whereas in the latter you have a failure by government to solve a collective action problem by downloading responsibility to individuals. In both cases you are seeing an uptick in behaviour which is suggestive that they believe it’s safer to do things, now, than weren’t before when the government assumed some responsibility and signalled that moving was less safe and actively discouraged it by keeping businesses and other ‘fun’ things shut down.
Throughout the pandemic response in Ontario, what has been evident is that the provincial government simply cannot develop and implement effective policies to mitigate the spread of the pandemic. The result of muddling through things has been that the public, and especially small business, has suffered extraordinarily whilst the gains have been meagre. The lack of paid sick leave, as an example, has seriously stymied the ability of lower-income workers to actually keep themselves apart from others while they wait for diagnoses and, if positive, recover from their infections.
To be fair, the Toronto Star and other outlets have covered paid sick leave issues, along with lots of other failures by the provincial government in its handling of the pandemic. And there is certainly some obligation on individuals to best adhere to public health advice. But we’ve long known these are collective action problems: there is a need to move beyond downloading responsibility to individuals and for governments to behave effectively, coherently, and accountably throughout major crises. The provincial government has failed, and continues to fail, on every one of these measures to the effect that individuals are responding to the past, present, and expected future actions of the government: more unpredictability and more restrictions on their daily lives as a result of government ineptitude.
Whereas the journalists could have cast what Ontarians are doing as a semi-natural response to the aforementioned government failings, instead those individuals are being castigated. We shouldn’t be blaming the victims of the pandemic, but I guess that’s what happens when assessing mobility data.
The coming war on the hidden algorithms that trap people in poverty || “A family member lost work because of the pandemic and was denied unemployment benefits because of an automated system failure. The family then fell behind on rent payments, which led their landlord to sue them for eviction. While the eviction won’t be legal because of the CDC’s moratorium, the lawsuit will still be logged in public records. Those records could then feed into tenant-screening algorithms, which could make it harder for the family to find stable housing in the future. Their failure to pay rent and utilities could also be a ding on their credit score, which once again has repercussions.” // The harms done by automated decision making are deeply under appreciated, and routinely harm those whom society has set aside as ‘appropriate’ test subjects for these inequitable technologies. It’s abhorrent, unethical, and unjust.
How Russia wins the climate crisis || “…agriculture offers the key to one of the greatest resources of the new climate era — food — and in recent years Russia has already shown a new understanding of how to leverage its increasingly strong hand in agricultural exports. In 2010, when wildfires and drought conspired to ruin Russia’s grain harvests, Putin banned the exporting of wheat in order to protect his own people, then watched as global wheat prices tripled. The world reeled in response. From Pakistan to Indonesia, poverty increased. High prices rocked delicate political balances in Syria, Morocco and Egypt, where about 40 percent of daily caloric intake is from bread. The shortages poured fuel on Arab Spring uprisings, which eventually pushed millions of migrants toward Europe, with destabilizing effect — a bonus for Russian interests. And much of this turmoil began with wheat. As Michael Werz, a senior fellow for climate migration and security at the Center for American Progress, says, “There’s a reason people demonstrated with baguettes in Cairo.”” // Bread will, once more, be a functional weapon of war as climate change devastates currently fertile land and enables authoritarian countries to express their will—and encourage chaos—by withholding the nutrients required for life itself. One can only hope that countervailing democracies in the Nordic nations and Canada can acts as sufficient counterbalances to withstand potential Russian malfeasance.
The outbreak that invented intensive care || “Comparisons are being made to the 1918 influenza pandemic — eerily, just over a century ago — which had a mortality that might turn out similar. But that outbreak occurred without a ventilator in sight. Is this new disease, in fact, more deadly? Thanks to what my predecessors learnt in Copenhagen almost 70 years ago, we can, in some parts of the world, offset the havoc of COVID-19 with mechanical ventilation and sophisticated intensive care that was not available in 1918. But it is as COVID-19 continues to spread in areas that do not have ICU beds — or not nearly enough of them — that we will, sadly, learn the true natural course of this new virus.” // It’s incredible that, until 1952, we didn’t have modern ventilators, and worrying that the ‘true’ mortality of the current pandemic may only be apparent after studies are conducted of countries where contemporary medical technologies are often unavailable.
How infectious disease defined the American bathroom || “When architects designed homes in the wake of the 1918 flu pandemic and World War I, they typically took one of two approaches to the recent traumas. The first was to start at the ground-up and rethink everything, like Modernists and the Bauhaus did in the 1920s. The second — and far more common — tactic was to try to forget about the trauma and make ourselves comfortable, which bolstered the popularity of Art Deco design, according to Dianne Pierce, adjunct professorial lecturer in decorative arts and design history at the George Washington University.” // The links between human perceptions of health and safety, and the design and configuration of where we live, are fascinating. The extent(s) to which there will be substantial changes in how we build out homes and living areas will similarly be curious: will design change as a result of the current pandemic or, instead, will we see an active effort to not change or to ignore the events of the past (and coming) year?
Frustrating the state: Surveillance, public health, and the role of civil society || “…surveillance in times of crisis poses another threat. By granting states unfettered power through emergency orders, data collected through digital surveillance could be shared across agencies and used for purposes beyond the original intention of fighting COVID-19. In states where democratic backsliding has been underway, surveillance could be used to deter dissent and silence government critics. According to Verisk Maplecroft, a risk consultancy firm, Asia is now the highest risk region in both their “Right to Privacy” and “Freedom of Opinion and Expression” indices as “strongmen” in Asia capitalize on the pandemic.” // Surveillance is, almost by its nature, inequitable and the potential harms linked with pandemic surveillance are neither novel nor unforeseeable.
Rebecca Solnit: On not meeting nazis halfway || “… the truth is not some compromise halfway between the truth and the lie, the fact and the delusion, the scientists and the propagandists. And the ethical is not halfway between white supremacists and human rights activists, rapists and feminists, synagogue massacrists and Jews, xenophobes and immigrants, delusional transphobes and trans people. Who the hell wants unity with Nazis until and unless they stop being Nazis?”
Instagram’s latest middle finger || “…Instagram is now nearly completely unrecognizable from the app that I fell in love with. The feed of images is still key, but with posting now shoved into a corner, how long until that feed becomes a secondary part of the service?” // Cannot agree more.
The Epicenter // The storytelling for this piece on the experiences of the Covid-19 outbreak is poorer areas of New York by the NYT is simultaneously beautiful and heartbreaking.
Poor security at online proctoring company may have put student data at risk || “Kumar, CEO of Proctortrack’s parent company Verificient, says students have “valid concerns” and that he sympathizes with their discomfort. Proctoring software is “intrusive by nature” he says, but “if there’s no proctoring solution, institutions will have to totally change how they provide exams. Often you can’t do that given the time and limitations we have.”” // Justifying producing a gross product on the basis that if you didn’t other organizations would have to behave more ethically is a very curious, and weird, way of defending your company’s very existence.
China rethinking its role || “China’s use of war memory to shape its international position has been much less effective overseas than it has at home. However, the significance of its efforts is real, and may become more effective over time. China wants to create a global narrative around itself which shares a common understanding of the modern world – the idea that 1945 is the beginning of the current order – but places China at the heart of the creation and management of that order. The narrative had more power during an era when the US, anomalously, had a leader who cared little for the order shaped by America in Asia since 1945. Now that a president with a more long-range view of the role of the United States is about to take office, we may see something different again: two differing versions of what 1945 meant in Asia, as defined by Beijing and Washington – and the competition for moral standing that comes from the embrace of that legacy.” // This is a fascinating recounting of how China is re-interpreting activities undertaken by Nationalist forces during World War Two, today, to justify its efforts to be more assertive in the international order today. Like so much in China, understanding how narratives are built and their domestic and foreign rationales and perceived utility is critical to appreciate the country’s foreign policy ambitions, and those ambitions’ potentials and limitations.
“Across the country, governments failed to invest enough resources in test, trace and isolate systems. In most provinces, they did not make timely investments in school ventilation or hire more teachers, or prepare the restaurant industry for prolonged winter closing, or shut down workplaces that exposed minimum-wage workers to infection, or hire more long-term care home workers. They issued conflicting, byzantine communications to individual people that boiled down to ‘don’t do any activities unless you’re paying a private company to host them’.
Provincial governments did not come up with compassionate policies that addressed structural barriers to people staying safe. They came up with “personal responsibility,” telling citizens to knock it off or they’ll turn the car around right now. The only realm of life governments seemed willing to regulate was our social lives. It does no good being scolded to stay home if you live in a tiny, cold apartment and have to take public transit to your low-paid, unsafe workplace because you need the income.
As someone who lives in a city going into lockdown I cannot agree more strongly.
Last hundred days?. “The last hundred days of the Trump presidency—if that’s the period we’re in—thus gives rise to a number of distinct concerns about the excesses of an involuntarily lame-duck president of, shall we say, an unconventional disposition. These concerns often get blended together, but they are worth separating into four broad categories. The most alarming of the set, but probably the least likely, relate to the possibility of a contested election. A far more likely possibility involves the president’s delegitimization of an election that he cannot fruitfully contest. A third set of concerns involve self-dealing and other abuses of power during the transition. The final category involves simple mishandling of the transition itself.” // Here’s hoping that things don’t turn as badly under that last dregs of the Trump presidency as some fear. But I wouldn’t personally bet a lot on hope right now.
Deep-freeze challenge makes pfizer’s shot a vaccine for the rich. “Even for rich countries that have pre-ordered doses, including Japan, the U.S. and the U.K., delivering Pfizer’s vaccine will involve considerable hurdles as long as trucks break down, electricity cuts out, essential workers get sick and ice melts.” // It’s going to be miserable to keep hearing about possible vaccines and then, after the initial euphoria of media, realize just how incredibly hard it is going to be to distribute them. Hopefully with a competent America returning to the world scene we’ll see the various superpowers of the world work together on this issue to coordinate probably the most significant logistics campaign in humanity’s history.
The brouhaha over google photos. “[Google] has decided that the photos uploaded to its system have trained its visual algorithms enough that it doesn’t have to eat the cost of “free storage.” // Om definitely has one of the best assessments for why Google is no longer offering unlimited (non-premium) photo storage. The company has done the training it needed to do, and now it’s time to monetize what it’s learned from the data which was entrusted to it.
‘Are we getting invaded?’ U.S. Boats faced Russian aggression near Alaska. “As Russia has ramped up its presence in the region, U.S. officials have accelerated their own efforts. The Coast Guard has long complained that its lone pair of aging icebreakers are struggling to stay in service but may now have the opportunity to build six new ones. (Russia has dozens.) The United States is also discussing a northern deepwater port, perhaps around Nome. Currently, the nearest strategic port is 1,300 nautical miles away in Anchorage.” // It’s increasingly becoming evident that the Arctic, long a place where ice kept the different major powers from seriously competing for territory and resources, is going to heat up as a result of a warming climate. It’s truly worrying that Canada and the United States seem to be utterly lacking in preparation for what is coming.
I really appreciate and respect the journalists who are trying to explain to their audiences why location tracking isn’t a panacea to Covid–19. But holy hell is it ever tiring to schedule multiple interviews a day to walk each of them—and their audiences—through the efficacy and human rights issues linked with such surveillance.
Mobile device tracking only starts being a real possibility when absolutely massive testing is possible, especially when up to 50% of asymptotic persons can spread the disease without knowing they are infected. And even then there are strong indications—such as from Korea—that a multifaceted approach is required that needs to be pre-planned and -coordinated before an outbreak.
Diverting telecommunications engineers, now, from better securing networks or bringing networking capacity online towards developing surveillance systems of limited effectiveness is about the worst idea that could be promoted right now. Unless, as a society, we really want to develop superior surveillance systems that will certainly be repurposed by law enforcement and security agencies, that is.