Pos­i­tive and last­ing change may come out of COVID-19 pan­demic, says Ez­zat Fat­tah.

Vancouver Sun - - OPIN­ION - Ez­zat Fat­tah is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus, School of Crim­i­nol­ogy, Si­mon Fraser Univer­sity.

Could it be hoped that the cruise pas­sen­gers who were con­fined to their state­rooms, that trav­ellers who were forced into quar­an­tine … will be­come more sen­si­tive to the dev­as­tat­ing ef­fects and shat­ter­ing pains of im­pris­on­ment? Ez­zat Fat­tah

To me, as a so­cial sci­en­tist, things are never black or white. No phe­nom­e­non is en­tirely pos­i­tive or en­tirely neg­a­tive; no event is to­tally good or to­tally bad. All phe­nom­ena have a good side and a bad side. The pur­pose of this es­say is to draw at­ten­tion to some likely ben­e­fits of the COVID-19 cri­sis that may be ig­nored, over­looked or down­played.


It is sur­pris­ing how rarely we stop to re­flect upon and to re­al­ize how good our lives are. How of­ten do we ap­pre­ci­ate how lucky we are to be able to en­joy the com­fort­able, en­vi­able ex­is­tence we have been blessed with? How of­ten do we take time to think about the im­mense plea­sure we de­rive from sports, en­ter­tain­ment of all kinds, and recre­ational ac­tiv­i­ties that we watch or take part in? It is amaz­ing how lit­tle we ap­pre­ci­ate the free­dom of mo­bil­ity and ac­tion that make life worth liv­ing.


Hu­man be­ings have ev­ery rea­son to be ex­tremely proud of what they have ac­com­plished in most do­mains of ev­ery­day life. The tech­no­log­i­cal achieve­ments have been not only spec­tac­u­lar but out­right over­whelm­ing. They led us to be­lieve that we can con­trol any threat, counter any dan­ger, man­age any risk. While mak­ing us proud, they also made us lose sight of our vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties. We be­came obliv­i­ous and rather inc­og­nizant of our weak­nesses. We surely needed a wake-up call, a re­minder of our lim­i­ta­tions. Then came COVID-19.


Prior to the COVID-19 cri­sis, cli­mate change, global warm­ing, and air pol­lu­tion were con­sid­ered the ma­jor threats to the sur­vival of hu­man­ity.

Air pol­lu­tion in sev­eral in­dus­trial cities reached highly dan­ger­ous lev­els. What­ever mod­est at­tempts were made to re­duce it were un­suc­cess­ful.

Fol­low­ing the dras­tic mea­sures taken in se­verely pol­luted coun­tries like China and Italy to deal with the cur­rent threat, air qual­ity has dras­ti­cally im­proved, as may be seen in re­cent satel­lite im­ages.


His­tory shows that noth­ing uni­fies di­vided and con­flicted so­ci­eties more than the threat of a com­mon en­emy. Dan­ger leads peo­ple to cre­ate a com­mon front able to face and con­front the per­ceived threat. Lead­ers of dif­fer­ent fac­tions, dif­fer­ent po­lit­i­cal par­ties get to­gether to de­vise plans and strate­gies for ac­tion. Peo­ple ad­her­ing to dif­fer­ent or op­pos­ing ide­olo­gies swal­low their pride and join their op­po­nents to find the best ways and the most ef­fec­tive strate­gies to con­front and over­come the im­mi­nent dan­ger.


Busi­nesses ad­vis­ing or en­tic­ing em­ploy­ees to work at home, can­cel­la­tion of sports and en­ter­tain­ment events, the clo­sure of casi­nos, bars, pubs, night clubs, movie the­atres and other places where peo­ple spend a good part of the evening to al­le­vi­ate the stress of a work­ing day mean that those hours will be spent at home with fam­ily, thus strength­en­ing, en­hanc­ing and re­in­forc­ing fa­mil­ial and so­cial bonds. Par­ents with young chil­dren will have a greater op­por­tu­nity to spend time to­gether and this can only be ben­e­fi­cial for their re­la­tion­ship.


Five years ago, at the TED con­fer­ence in Van­cou­ver, Bill Gates, with re­mark­able fore­sight, of­fered a dire warn­ing and de­tailed plan on how to pre­pare for what he firmly be­lieved was com­ing. A global pan­demic, he main­tained, is a far more re­al­is­tic threat than a nu­clear war.

Sadly, his warn­ings fell on deaf ears. Had lead­ers lis­tened to Gates and fol­lowed his ad­vice, had they taken ac­tion, they would have spared the world a great deal of mis­ery, hard­ship and loss.

Many other pos­i­tive ben­e­fits are likely to ma­te­ri­al­ize, in­clud­ing the fol­low­ing:

im­proved work­ing con­di­tions in

hos­pi­tals, fac­to­ries, of­fices, etc.;

im­proved liv­ing con­di­tions in

se­niors’ homes;

im­proved trav­el­ling con­di­tions

in planes, trains, sub­ways, on cruise ships;

re­forms in the so­cial se­cu­rity

and un­em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance sys­tems;

pro­mo­tion of healthy habits that

will hope­fully per­sist;

in­creased re­spect for sci­ence

and more funds for sci­ence re­search;

in­creased in­no­va­tion and

re­mark­able dis­cov­er­ies in many fields, es­pe­cially mi­cro­bi­ol­ogy.

As a crim­i­nol­o­gist, let me end by high­light­ing the likely ben­e­fit of the virus as an in­sti­ga­tor of pe­nal and pri­son re­form and its po­ten­tial to sen­si­tize peo­ple to the pains of im­pris­on­ment.

The COVID-19 cri­sis has drawn at­ten­tion to the ur­gent need to al­le­vi­ate the chronic prob­lems of over­crowd­ing and in­hu­mane con­di­tions in pris­ons and jails. An L.A. Times edi­to­rial in March warned that “coro­n­avirus makes jails and pris­ons po­ten­tial death traps. That puts us all in dan­ger.” There were re­ports that U.S. doc­tors are de­mand­ing the im­me­di­ate re­lease of pris­on­ers and de­tainees to avert dis­as­ter. En­cour­ag­ing news in­formed us that Philadel­phia po­lice are “de­lay­ing” ar­rests for non­vi­o­lent crime and that non- vi­o­lent pris­on­ers are be­ing re­leased early across at least five Amer­i­can states.

Pro­po­nents of in­car­cer­a­tion have never per­son­ally ex­pe­ri­enced the pains of im­pris­on­ment. Could it be hoped that the cruise pas­sen­gers who were con­fined to their state­rooms, that trav­ellers who were forced into quar­an­tine, as well as those who wisely prac­tised soli­tary iso­la­tion, will be­come more sen­si­tive to the dev­as­tat­ing ef­fects and shat­ter­ing pains of im­pris­on­ment? Could this per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence sen­si­tize them to the cru­elty of de­pri­va­tion of lib­erty as a puni­tive sanc­tion? And if this hap­pens, will the coro­n­avirus be the one to thank for this much needed hu­man­i­tar­ian de­vel­op­ment?

The coro­n­avirus makes jails and pris­ons po­ten­tial death traps. That puts us all in dan­ger.


A woman wear­ing a face mask looks at a globe in a park in Wuhan in China’s cen­tral Hubei prov­ince as thou­sands of Chi­nese trav­ellers rushed to leave the coro­n­avirus-rav­aged city af­ter author­i­ties lifted a ban on travel.

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