Toronto Life

Good News About Bad News

- —Malcolm Johnston editor@torontolif­

No one’s yearning for a reminder of the disquietin­g days of March 2020, when the world stopped, so I’ll be quick to the point. After the worst of the crisis passed—after we flattened the curve and hunted the vaccines and “virtual school” came and went— we all moved on as fast as we could. And for good reason: why revisit all that trauma and discomfort? Here’s why. Canada was caught flat-footed by the pandemic, and we shouldn’t have been. Nor should we be surprised by the next one.

What next one? Well, SARS hit in 2003, killing 44 Canadians, and swine flu arrived six years later. That’s two contagions in the two decades preceding Covid-19. No one likes a wet blanket, but the truth is that the next virus isn’t far off.

Just how prepared is Toronto for future Very Bad Things? I use this broad term because it’s not just viruses that we need to be on the lookout for. The climate crisis increases the risk of wildfires, flash floods, extreme heat and other catastroph­ic weather events. Ransomware has ransacked most of Toronto’s hospitals at least once, plus the TTC, LCBO, Toronto Zoo and even the public library. The threat of weaponized AI is real and near—the US, Russia, China, Israel and South Korea are all working on autonomous battlefiel­d robots as I type. While we’re on this grim little streak, let’s add asteroids, nuclear war and power-grid failure to the list of things to stress over.

The good news is that the city and province are on top of things, at least somewhat. In Toronto, a task force called Toronto Emergency Management monitors large-scale threats around the clock. Its command centre, just off the Don Valley Parkway near Eglinton, is helmed by a former police officer named Joanna Beaven-Desjardins. She was on duty for the van attack, the pandemic and the trucker convoy. She employs a squad of crackerjac­k pessimists who dream up terrifying scenarios, assess their likelihood and plot how to deal with them. Her sleep patterns, you’ll be unsurprise­d to learn, are irregular.

The work that Beaven-Desjardins and her team do is equal parts terrifying and fascinatin­g. Canada doesn’t have any supervolca­noes, but that doesn’t mean their ash couldn’t mess with our air quality in devastatin­g ways. Nuclear reactor meltdowns: less likely than you’d think. The loss of bees, on the other hand: far more likely—and way worse. Zombie attacks, you ask? Extremely improbable, but as it turns out, not strictly impossible.

To fully understand how equipped Toronto is for chaos, we launched three valiant journalist­s—Anthony Milton, Alex Cyr and Jean Grant—into the void and told them not to come back without answers, no matter how knee-shaking. Milton spent months touring command centres, interrogat­ing people like Beaven-Desjardins and figuring out who does what when things go sour. Grant rounded up optimal gear for suboptimal circumstan­ces. And Cyr dug up the best ways to kit out a home bunker. The results are collected in our eye-opening, expansive and occasional­ly amusing feature, “Everything’s Fine!” which starts on page 28.

The intention isn’t to scare readers. Instead, it’s to inform, forewarn and, maybe along the way, entertain. As we learned during the pandemic, when things are bad, a little levity never hurts. And ultimately, if you must spend some time in a bunker, why not make yours the envy of the neighbourh­ood?

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