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Did the political art of compromise fail Canada during the pandemic?

“I know I’ve said the same thing before every major holiday over the past year,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Tuesday as he asked Canadians to avoid getting together for Easter or Passover.

“But this time, what’s different is that even if the end of the pandemic is in sight, the variants mean the situation is even more serious.”

By the time Trudeau spoke, Premier John Horgan’s government already had implemented new restrictions in British Columbia after the daily COVID-19 case count in that province reached a record high. On Thursday, with new infections in Ontario exceeding 2,000 each day for the past week, Premier Doug Ford’s government followed suit. Other provinces presumably will go next, however belatedly.

This was the week the third wave’s arrival became obvious. It only remains to be seen whether this wave will be less painful than the last one — or worse.

When government responses to the pandemic are studied in the years ahead, there will be any number of questions to answer and theories to test — particularly related to preparedness and decisions made during the first four months of 2020.

We had time. Why didn’t we use it better?

But there will be important questions to ask about those second and third waves — especially since we can’t claim to have been caught by surprise.

Maybe that first wave a year ago was never going to be the end of the pandemic in Canada. But did it have to be this bad? After what we learned from the first wave, and with the time everyone had last summer to prepare, shouldn’t we have managed the second wave better? And did governments fail to bury the third wave when they had the chance?

During the second wave in Ontario last fall, Colin Furness, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto, argued that the Ford government was approaching COVID-19 as if it were a “political problem” instead of the “public health problem” it is.


Crosses representing residents who died of COVID-19 are pictured on the lawn of Camilla Care Community, in Mississauga, Ont., on Jan. 13, 2021. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

In the fog of war, it can be dangerous to draw firm conclusions. And each province responded to the pandemic in its own way. But Furness’s words offer a good place to start thinking through what happened over the last seven months.

Politics is reactive. Politicians react to public concerns and crises as they arise. Politicians also tend to seek compromises between seemingly competing interests — such as the greater public interest in curbing the spread of a deadly disease and business owners’ interest in minimizing the effects on their livelihoods.

You can’t make deals with a virus

But an optimal public health response would be proactive and uncompromising in attacking the real problem — the virus.

“A public health approach is marked by proactive, preventative action that can seem unreasonable,” Furness said in an email this week. “A political approach is marked by trying to negotiate between the wishes of the virus and the wishes of people, like having lockdowns take effect after the holidays.”

Trying to calibrate restrictions and policies to find compromises might have been futile. “We’re trying to negotiate with COVID and it’s not working,” Furness said in an interview earlier this year.


A demonstrator marches inside a plastic ball during a weekend protest in Montreal against the Quebec government’s public health measures to curb the spread of COVID-19. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Preemptive action can be politically challenging, of course.

“The challenge with this pandemic … is that you really need to react before the problem is apparent and that politically can be really difficult,” said Ashleight Tuite, also an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto. “Asking people to make very large sacrifices when it’s not really clear what the sacrifices are being made for can be very challenging.

“It’s a continual problem in public health. Because when it’s working, you don’t see it.”

But more sweeping and faster lockdowns might have offered a greater degree of normalcy to businesses and citizens between outbreaks.

This could have been avoided

Both Tuite and Raywat Deonandan, an epidemiologist at the University of Ottawa, suggest that more could have been done last summer to bolster testing and contact tracing — investments that could have been made last summer. Deonandan also would have gone further to ban non-essential travel when concerns arose about variants that originated elsewhere.

But the larger point might be that the case counts of the current moment and the second wave were not inevitable.

“We understand enough about the virus to mitigate it. We may not be able to eliminate it completely, but we know how to control it,” Tuite said. “And so it’s really a matter of doing all the things that needed to be done. And we just didn’t do that.”

This does not seem to be an exclusively Canadian problem. The line graphs for infections in Germany and France, for instance, look broadly similar; French President Emmanuel Macron just ordered a national lockdown to combat a third wave in his country.


Passengers wear protective gear as they wait for a flight at Halifax Stanfield International Airport in Enfield, N.S. on Monday, March 16, 2020. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

It’s also easy to wonder whether other provinces could have emulated the success of the Atlantic provinces, which have largely kept infections low within their regional bubble. Have we allowed ourselves to accept higher levels of infection outside of that bubble?

If we go back to work out where the collective response fell short — where the pandemic was approached with a political mindset instead of a public health one — we end up talking about things like paid sick leave.

The wisdom of making it easier for people to stay home from work if they’re not feeling well is obvious. The federal government introduced a new sickness benefit last fall that those who fall ill can apply for, but it falls short of full sick leave, which would be automatic and obligatory.

Health and labour advocates have called on provinces to implement paid sick leave — something that could be particularly helpful for the people working low-income but essential jobs who seem to be suffering disproprotionately from COVID-19. But the provinces haven’t moved.

It’s easy to imagine why they might be reluctant.

Business owners struggling with the impact of the pandemic would balk at having to pay for new sick leave. Provincial governments might dread introducing a temporary program that would be politically difficult to repeal later. And the new federal program might provide a handy excuse for not doing more.

In politics, that might seem like a reasonable compromise. But once this ordeal is over, we might look back and conclude that the moment demanded more than what we thought would suffice.

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SpaceX Starship SN11 Blows Itself Apart During High-Altitude Test

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The in-development Starship rocket is key to SpaceX’s future plans, from lunar missions to Mars colonization. Elon Musk’s spaceflight company has been open with its Starship testing, even with the results haven’t been flattering. In the most recent test, the Starship SN11 reached an altitude of about eight kilometers, and then something went wrong. We don’t know exactly what happened yet, but the vessel came down in pieces. Musk quipped on Twitter that at least the crater was in the right place. Say what you will about Elon Musk, he’s pretty unflappable, even when his most ambitious aerospace project struggles to get off the ground. 

The Starship is being developed with reusability in mind like the Falcon 9. SpaceX envisions a fleet of reusable Starships that can take off, land, and then fly again after refueling. While it shares this property with the Falcon 9, the two devices don’t share hardware. The Starship is larger, made of different materials, and has new engines. 

SpaceX has thus far only succeeded in landing the rocket after a low altitude test. In the last flight, featuring SN10, the rocket flew high into the atmosphere, and then landed on the launch pad. It looked like everything would work out, but damage to the fuel system from the harder-than-expected landing led to an explosion several minutes later. The new SN11 flight looks like a step backward as it didn’t even reach the ground in one piece. 

The final image from the Starship (see above) live stream featured one of the craft’s three Raptor engines reigniting for the descent sequence. Contact with the vehicle was lost moments later. Musk said following the incident that the issue appeared to be with the number 2 engine, which didn’t reach operating pressure, but it shouldn’t have been needed to get the rocket on the ground safely. Something else, possibly related to the engine, occurred after the landing burn was supposed to start. However, SpaceX can’t begin to piece together the specifics until it can examine the debris later today. 

This failed test is one more potential setback for SpaceX’s aggressive timeline. Musk has said he hopes to fly a group of passengers, including Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, around the moon and back in 2023. He’s also pushed the idea that Starships could begin transporting Mars colonists in less than a decade, a timeline that most scientists consider unreasonable. Musk might not have a chance to convince everyone his vision is possible if the rocket doesn’t stop exploding.

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GM Cuts Pickup MPG to Ship Vehicles During Semiconductor Shortage

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According to GM, the ongoing semiconductor shortage has forced it to ship certain pickups without a fuel module they would otherwise carry. We’ve known automakers were having trouble sourcing necessary chips, but the decision to ship vehicles without a previously intended part is a startling acknowledgment of how semiconductor demand is warping the world.

Reuters reports that vehicles using a 5.3L EcoTec3 V8 with a six-speed or eight-speed transmission will have lower fuel economy by one mile per gallon. The EcoTec3 is reportedly rated for ~16 miles per gallon. Mathematically, it’s a 6.25 percent reduction. A little napkin math assuming 13,500 miles per year and $ 2.86 per gallon suggests the difference comes out to ~$ 161 per year in additional fuel costs.

GM 5.3L V8 Ecotec3 engine. Image by GMAuthority

We’re guessing that the chip in question is responsible for GM’s Active Fuel Management implementation. AFM allows an eight-cylinder car to turn itself into a four-cylinder vehicle when only being lightly driven.

GM was a bit cagey on exactly which models would be impacted. Spokeswoman Michelle Malcho stressed that GM was protecting the profitability of its pickup line and did not name the number of vehicles that would ship without this specific module. The change is only expected to run through the end of 2021. In car terms, that happens in the late summer or early fall. Even money on whether the change actually gets extended to 2022.

How’d We Get Here?

The semiconductor industry and the auto industry work on very different timelines. Auto manufacturing relies on just-in-time delivery (JIT). The semiconductor industry expects long lead times. TSMC and Samsung build different chips for different companies at different times of the year. Keeping a fab at full utilization requires careful scheduling, especially when ramping production ahead of a major smartphone launch.

GM and the other automakers cut their orders in the early part of 2020. When car demand re-emerged faster than expected, they attempted to book new orders with TSMC and Samsung only to discover that both companies had no capacity to spare. The auto manufacturers have accused foundries of playing favorites based on volume. The foundries have pointed to rabid consumer demand, the increased silicon required for 5G devices (up to 40 percent more), disrupted supply chains, and that the auto manufacturers refuse to maintain chip inventories.

The foundries seem to have the superior argument, but we need to acknowledge the scope of the problem. Yes, GM and other auto companies should maintain larger chip inventories as a buffer against disruption, but the scope and length of these shortages would have already exhausted any reasonable inventory.

It’ll be interesting to see if other car manufacturers follow GM’s lead on this. Estimates on when the semiconductor shortage will ease currently suggest Q3 or Q4. Dates fluctuate by industry and market. If you’re wondering if anyone actually has a clue or if everyone is just guessing, you are not alone.

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Power restored to more Texas residents, but water crisis persists during deep freeze

Power was restored to more homes and businesses in Texas on Thursday after a deadly blast of winter this week overwhelmed the electrical grid and left millions shivering in the cold. But the crisis is far from over, with many people still in need of safe drinking water.

Fewer than a half million homes remained without electricity, although utility officials said limited rolling blackouts could still occur.

The storms also left more than 320,000 homes and businesses without power in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. About 70,000 power outages persisted after an ice storm in eastern Kentucky, while nearly 67,000 were without electricity in West Virginia.

And more than 100,000 customers remained without power Thursday in Oregon, a week after a massive snow and ice storm. Maria Pope, the CEO of Portland General Electric, said she expects power to be restored by Friday night to more than 90 per cent of the customers still in the dark.

Meanwhile, snow and ice moved into the Appalachians, northern Maryland and southern Pennsylvania, and later the Northeast. Back-to-back storms left 38 centimetres of snow in Little Rock, Ark., tying a 1918 record, the National Weather Service said.

The extreme weather has been blamed for the deaths of at least 40 people, some while trying to keep warm. In the Houston area, one family died from carbon monoxide as their car idled in their garage. A woman and her three grandchildren died in a fire that authorities said might have been caused by a fireplace they were using.

Utilities from Minnesota to Texas implemented rolling blackouts to ease the burden on strained power grids. Southwest Power Pool, a group of utilities covering 14 states from the Dakotas to the Texas Panhandle, said rolling blackouts were no longer needed, but it asked customers to conserve energy until at least Saturday night.

Drinking water affected

In Texas on Thursday, about 325,000 homes and businesses remained without power, down from about three million on Wednesday. The state’s grid manager, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, said the remaining outages are largely weather-related, rather than forced outages that were made early Monday to stabilize the power grid.


A sign advises customers entering a convenience store that they have no running water. Residents of Arlington, Texas, were told to conserve and boil water after a potential water main break. (Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News/The Associated Press)

“We will keep working around the clock until every single customer has their power back on,” said ERCOT senior director of system operations Dan Woodfin.

Woodfin warned that rotating outages could return if electricity demand rises as people get power and heating back, though they would not last as long as outages earlier this week.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott warned that state residents “are not out of the woods,” with temperatures remaining well below freezing statewide and south-central Texas threatened by a winter storm.

Adding to the state’s misery, the weather jeopardized drinking water systems. Authorities ordered seven million people — a quarter of the population in the nation’s second-largest state — to boil tap water before drinking it following days of record-low temperatures that damaged infrastructure and pipes.

Water pressure has fallen across the state because lines have frozen, and many residents are leaving faucets dripping in hopes of preventing pipes from freezing, said Toby Baker, executive director of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Abbott urged residents to shut off water to their homes, if possible, to prevent more busted pipes and to preserve pressure in municipal systems.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said he expects that residents in the nation’s fourth-largest city will have to boil tap water before drinking it until Sunday or Monday.

Hospitals cancel some surgeries

In Austin, some hospitals faced a loss in water pressure and, in some cases, heat.

“Because this is a state-wide emergency situation that is also impacting other hospitals within the Austin area, no one hospital currently has the capacity to accept transport of a large number of patients,” said David Huffstutler, CEO of St. David’s South Austin Medical Center, in a statement.


A patient at St. David’s South Austin Medical Center is prepared for transport. Earlier on Wednesday, hospital officials said some patients at the facility would be moved over to other hospitals in the area after the building began losing heat due to low water pressure. (Bronte Wittpenn/Austin American-Statesman/The Associated Press)

Two of Houston Methodist’s community hospitals had no running water but still treated patients, with most non-emergency surgeries and procedures cancelled for Thursday and possibly Friday, said spokesperson Gale Smith.

Emergency rooms were crowded “due to patients being unable to meet their medical needs at home without electricity,” Smith said. She said hospital pipes had burst but were repaired.

Texas Children’s Hospital’s main campus at the Texas Medical Center and another location had low water pressure, but the system was adequately staffed and patients had enough water and “are safe and comfortable,” spokesperson Jenn Jacome said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) sent generators to support water treatment plants, hospitals and nursing homes in Texas, along with thousands of blankets and ready-to-eat meals, officials said. The Texas Restaurant Association also said it was co-ordinating donations of food to hospitals.

WATCH | Some Texas gas stations run out of fuel:

Extreme winter weather in Texas has delayed delivery of gasoline to some fuel stations in northern Texas, leaving drivers to scramble. 0:42

Mayor resigns 

The now former mayor of Colorado City, Texas, said he had already turned in his resignation when he wrote a controversial Facebook post on Tuesday.

Tim Boyd said it was not the local government’s responsibility to help those suffering in the cold without power. “Only the strong will survive and the weak will parish,” the typo-ridden post, which was made as millions in Texas were without power following the storm, said.

Boyd also wrote that he was “sick and tired” of people looking for handouts and that the current situation is “sadly a product of a socialist government.”

Boyd deleted his post but stood by the sentiments in a follow-up message. He also wrote that his original message was posted as a private citizen, not the mayor of Colorado City.


Father John Szatkowski, left, and Deacon Bob Bonomi of St. Paul the Apostle Church in Richardson sweep water out of the church. (Tony Gutierrez/The Associated Press)

“I was only making the statement that those folks that are too lazy to get up and fend for themselves but are capable should not be dealt a handout,” Boyd’s follow-up post said.

Turtles rescued from cold

Thousands of sea turtles unused to cold temperatures have been washing up on the beaches of South Padre Island, off the southern coast of Texas.

WATCH | Hundreds of sea turtles shelter in Texas convention centre to escape cold:

Volunteers in South Padre Island, Tex., have rescued about 2,500 sea turtles who ran ashore to escape icy waters and are now being warmed at a convention centre. 1:10

Ed Caum, executive director of the South Padre Island Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the turtles are “cold-stunned.” That’s a condition where cold-blooded animals suddenly exhibit hypothermic reactions such as lethargy and an inability to move when the temperature in the environment around them drops.

Volunteers have brought some 4,700 of them to the convention centre, where they are being kept in tubs and enclosures before they can be released when the weather warms up.

Although, as this Tik Tok user demonstrated on Tuesday, fish weren’t faring much better in their indoor tanks during the blackouts.

‘An extreme challenge’ in Mississippi

The weather also disrupted water systems in several southern cities, including New Orleans and Shreveport, La., where fire trucks delivered water to hospitals and bottled water was brought in for patients and staff, Shreveport television station KSLA reported.

Power was cut to a New Orleans facility that pumps drinking water from the Mississippi River. A spokesperson for the Sewerage and Water Board said on-site generators were used until electricity was restored.

And in Jackson, Miss., Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said almost the entire city of about 150,000 was without water Thursday night.


A person warms up using a combination of towels, clothes and gloves in the warming shelter at the Johnnie Champion Community Center in Jackson, Miss., on Wednesday. Some people at the shelter had lost power, water and heat at their homes following winter storms, but many are people experiencing homelessness. (Rogelio V. Solis/The Associated Press)

Crews were pumping as much water as possible to refill the city’s tanks, but there was a shortage of chemicals to treat the water, and road closures made it difficult for distributors to make deliveries, Lumumba said.

“We are dealing with an extreme challenge with getting more water through our distribution system,” he said. “This becomes increasingly challenging because we have so many residents at home.”

Drinking water was made available at fire stations throughout Jackson, and officials also planned to set up bottled water pickup sites.

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Texas power outages below 500,000, but water crisis persists during deep freeze

Power was restored to more Texans on Thursday, with fewer than a half-million homes remaining without electricity, but many still were without safe drinking water after winter storms wreaked havoc on the state’s power grid and utilities this week.

Meanwhile, the Appalachians, northern Maryland and southern Pennsylvania braced for heavy snow and ice. Snow fell in Connecticut, New Jersey and New York. Little Rock, Ark., got 38 centimetres of snow in back-to-back storms, tying a 1918 record, the National Weather Service said.

More than 320,000 homes and businesses were without power in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. In Tennessee, 12 people were rescued from boats after a dock weighed down by snow and ice collapsed on the Cumberland River on Wednesday night, the Nashville Fire Department said.

The extreme weather has been blamed for the deaths of more than three-dozen people, some of whom perished while struggling to keep warm. In the Houston area, one family succumbed to carbon monoxide from car exhaust in their garage. A woman and her three grandchildren died in a fire that authorities said might have been caused by a fireplace they were using.


Father John Szatkowski, left, and Deacon Bob Bonomi of St. Paul the Apostle Church in Richardson sweep water out of the church. (Tony Gutierrez/The Associated Press)

Cruz acknowledges Mexico travel

Meanwhile, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz acknowledged on Thursday that he had travelled to Mexico for a family vacation this week, leaving his home state as thousands of constituents struggled after the powerful winter storm.

The high-profile Republican, a potential White House candidate in 2024, said in a statement that he had accompanied his family after his daughters asked to go on a trip with friends, given that school was cancelled for the week.

“Wanting to be a good dad, I flew down with them last night and am flying back this afternoon,” Cruz said after The Associated Press and other media outlets had reported details of the trip.

“My staff and I are in constant communication with state and local leaders to get to the bottom of what happened in Texas,” Cruz said. “We want our power back, our water on, and our homes warm.”

The revelation drew immediate criticism from Democrats and Republicans in Texas and beyond as Cruz, a key ally of former president Donald Trump, contemplates the possibility of a second presidential run. The two-term senator’s current term expires in early 2025.

“That’s something that he has to answer to his constituents about,” state Republican Party Chairman Allen West said when asked whether Cruz’s travel was appropriate while Texans are without power and water.

“I’m here trying to take care of my family and look after my friends and others that are still without power. That’s my focus.”


Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is under fire following the revelation he travelled to Mexico on Wednesday for a family vacation as his home state struggled with extreme weather. (Erin Scott/Reuters)

Earlier, Cruz’s office had declined to answer specific questions about the family vacation, but his staff reached out to the Houston Police Department on Wednesday afternoon to say the senator would be arriving at the airport, according to department spokesperson Jodi Silva. She said officers “monitored his movements” while Cruz was at the airport.

Silva could not say whether such requests are typical for Cruz’s travel or whether his staff has made a similar request for his return flight.

The Texas senator, who once described Trump as a “pathological liar,” championed the-then president’s call to block the certification last month of Democrat Joe Biden’s election victory. That stand led to calls for Cruz’s resignation after a violent mob stormed the Capitol as Congress was affirming Biden’s win.

“Ted Cruz had already proven to be an enemy to our democracy by inciting an insurrection. Now, he is proving to be an enemy to our state by abandoning us in our greatest time of need,” Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa said Thursday. “For the 21st time, the Texas Democratic Party calls on Ted Cruz to resign or be expelled from office.”

Drinking water affected

In Texas, just under 500,000 homes and businesses remained without power, down from about three million on Wednesday. The state’s grid manager, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, said the remaining outages are largely weather-related, rather than forced outages that were made early Monday to stabilize the power grid.

“We will keep working around the clock until every single customer has their power back on,” said ERCOT senior director of system operations Dan Woodfin.

Adding to the misery, the snowy weather has jeopardized drinking water systems throughout the state.

Texas officials ordered seven million people — a quarter of the population in the nation’s second-largest state — to boil tap water before drinking it following days of record-low temperatures that damaged infrastructure and froze pipes.

In Austin, some hospitals faced a loss in water pressure and, in some cases, heat.


A patient at St. David’s South Austin Medical Center is prepared for transport. Earlier on Wednesday, hospital officials said some patients at the facility would be moved over to other hospitals in the area after the building began losing heat due to low water pressure. (Bronte Wittpenn/Austin American-Statesman/The Associated Press)

“Because this is a state-wide emergency situation that is also impacting other hospitals within the Austin area, no one hospital currently has the capacity to accept transport of a large number of patients,” said David Huffstutler, CEO of St. David’s South Austin Medical Center, in a statement.

Water pressure has fallen across the state because lines have frozen, and many residents are leaving faucets dripping in hopes of preventing pipes from freezing, said Toby Baker, executive director of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott urged residents to shut off water to their homes, if possible, to prevent more busted pipes and to preserve pressure in municipal systems.

Supplies run short

Grocery store shelves have gone bare in several Texas cities, including Austin and Lewisville. Frozen goods had to be disposed of after the blackouts.

Gas shortages have also hit parts of the state as people search for fuel for their vehicles and back-up generators. Some oil production facilities, responsible for an estimated three million barrels per day, remain offline.

WATCH | Some Texas gas stations run out of fuel:

Extreme winter weather in Texas has delayed delivery of gasoline to some fuel stations in northern Texas, leaving drivers to scramble. 0:42

Mayor resigns over insensitive comments

The now former mayor of Colorado City, Texas said he had already turned in his resignation when he wrote a controversial Facebook post on Tuesday.

Tim Boyd said it was not the local government’s responsibility to help those suffering in the cold without power. “Only the strong will survive and the weak will parish,” the typo-ridden post said.

Boyd also wrote that he was “sick and tired” of people looking for handouts and that the current situation is “sadly a product of a socialist government.”

The post was made as millions in Texas were without power following the storm. Utilities from Minnesota to Texas and Mississippi implemented rolling blackouts to ease the burden on power grids straining to meet extreme demand for heat and electricity.

Boyd deleted his post but stood by the sentiments in a follow-up message. He also wrote that his original message was posted as a private citizen, not the mayor of Colorado City.


A woman collects ice cream that had been thrown out because of power outages at a Kroger store in Arlington. (Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News/The Associated Press)

“I was only making the statement that those folks that are too lazy to get up and fend for themselves but are capable should not be dealt a handout,” Boyd’s follow-up post said.

Turtles rescued from cold

Thousands of sea turtles unused to cold temperatures have been washing up on the beaches of South Padre Island, off the southern coast of Texas.

Ed Caum, executive director of the South Padre Island Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the turtles are “cold-stunned.” That’s a condition where cold-blooded animals suddenly exhibit hypothermic reactions such as lethargy and an inability to move when the temperature in the environment around them drops.

WATCH | Hundreds of sea turtles shelter in Texas convention centre to escape cold:

Volunteers in South Padre Island, Tex., have rescued about 2,500 sea turtles who ran ashore to escape icy waters and are now being warmed at a convention centre. 1:10

Volunteers have brought some 4,700 of them to the convention centre, where they are being kept in tubs and enclosures before they can be released when the weather warms up.

Although, as this Tik Tok user demonstrated on Tuesday, fish weren’t faring much better in their indoor tanks during the blackouts.

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Director of UBC’s school of public health resigns over holiday travel during pandemic

Peter Berman has resigned as director of the University of British Columbia’s School of Population and Public Health just over a week after admitting to holiday travel during the school’s winter break.

Berman announced his resignation in a Friday statement posted online. He said it would take effect at the end of the day.

“I took this difficult decision based on my assessment that the conditions of distress and division currently prevailing at SPPH make it impossible for me to continue to provide effective leadership to grow and develop our school, our community and our profession in my role as SPPH director,” Berman said in a statement.

“I deeply regret any actions of mine that may have caused this situation. I am grateful to the many of you who have shared messages of support to me directly or to others in our community and faculty. I also respect the many different views expressed by those in our wider community.”

Berman said in a letter posted last week that he travelled to Hawaii.

Both provincial and federal authorities in Canada have repeatedly advised against unnecessary travel — especially international travel — as B.C. and other jurisdictions grapple with a second wave of coronavirus infections.

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Casual social contacts can help combat loneliness and improve well-being during pandemic, psychologists say

Jennie Aitken, 33, began noticing it weeks into the pandemic.

The Victoria woman has a family and was frequently checking in with good friends, but since her management job with a local health authority required her to work from home, she could go days without seeing other people.

“I realized how lonely I felt,” said Aitken.

With the second wave of the pandemic pushing more people into the isolation of their own homes, a second public health crisis with potentially deadly consequences has emerged: loneliness.  


Even though we need to be physically distant from others, it’s good to make an effort to be socially close to people, psychologists say. (Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images)

Not just an uncomfortable emotion, loneliness is a leading risk factor for death. Social isolation exceeds the health risks associated with obesity, inactivity, excessive drinking, air pollution and smoking over 15 cigarettes a day, according to a 2010 review of 148 studies by psychology professor Julianne Holt-Lunstad of Brigham Young University in Utah.

That’s bad news in a worsening pandemic where increasingly tighter restrictions are forcing many of us to be apart from family and friends.  

Yet there’s a surprising antidote that can tide us through the holiday season and beyond: informal, casual interactions with acquaintances and strangers, such as neighbours, baristas, delivery drivers, dog walkers and others we may encounter in the course of an average day.

Called “weak ties,” these interactions can be just as effective in restoring our sense of well-being and belonging as connecting with our stronger ties to family and close friends.

“It just takes a handful of interactions – like going to the grocery store – and suddenly, I felt OK again,” Aitken said of her own experience.  

Even superficial interactions can improve well-being

When the pandemic hit, Jolanda Jetton, a professor at the University of Queensland, about 915 kilometres north of Sydney, and a few of her social psychology colleagues wrote the book Together Apart, in which they argued that the very social connections being discouraged are actually key to maintaining health during COVID-19.  

We can physically distance without socially distancing, Jetton and her co-authors said. 

While we must adhere to public health guidelines, we also need social contact beyond our immediate families, says Susan Pinker, psychologist and author of the book The Village Effect

When comparing social isolation against other health risks, Pinker said, it’s not just close relationships but social integration – how much you interact with people as you move through the day – that can be  predictors of how long you will live.  


Despite having to be in individual bubbles, it’s still possible to find ways to connect with others. (Carlos Osorio/Reuters)

“We really have to be creative in finding ways to see each other,” she said.

As we’ve cancelled big family dinners and nights out with our friends, one way to boost our well-being is to interact with the people standing right in front of you.  

Gillian Sandstrom, a professor at the University of Essex, about 110 kilometres northeast of London, found that while the number of interactions with strong ties (such as family and friends) improved people’s sense of well-being and belonging, “the same was true of the weak tie interactions” – relationships involving less-frequent contact, low emotional intensity and limited intimacy (such as greeting a neighbour on the street).

Sandstrom, who completed her PhD at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, studied the issue on the campus. 

Part of her study looked at a group of 58 undergraduate students and an older group of 52 community members and counted the number of weak and strong tie interactions they had as they went through their days. 

Participants reported greater subjective well-being and sense of belonging on days when they had more weak-tie interactions.  


Psychologists say that speaking to people you encounter throughout the day can help stave off loneliness. (Carlos Osorio/Reuters)

In another part of her study, she measured how many interactions 242 undergraduate students had with classmates. Those who had the most interactions, regardless of whether they had any friends in the class, reported greater subjective feelings of happiness and belonging.

“Weak ties are so important, and yet, it feels like we underestimate them,” she said.

“We have so many more of them than we have strong ties, and they’re so much easier to build. And they can do a good job in filling in gaps.”

Effect of small interactions adds up

Such interactions can help people compensate for some of the deeper connections they’ve lost in the pandemic, Sandstorm said.

Victoria’s Aitken agreed.

“These interactions feel so superfluous that you don’t really seek them out in the same way,” Aitken said. “So for me, I’ve had to make a real point of scheduling in casual interactions, like going to CrossFit, where I largely just stand around and talk to people behind a mask four metres away. It’s honestly been a major thing to keep me well.”

Even chatting with a stranger at a coffee shop leads to a greater sense of belonging and happiness, another of Sandstorm’s studies suggested.  

WATCH | The challenge of solo living during the pandemic:

As public health officials urge residents to limit in-person social interaction to their own households, adherence is especially daunting for people who live alone. 1:52

Sandstrom instructed one-half of the 60 participants to smile, make eye contact and have a brief conversation with the barista at Starbucks and the other to be as efficient as possible. Those who made an effort to talk to the barista experienced more positive emotion and felt more of a sense of belonging after leaving.

This echoes the work of Elizabeth Dunn, a psychology professor at UBC in Vancouver, whose study of 78 people found that participants reported feeling greater well-being than expected when interacting with a stranger, equivalent to the mood boost they experienced when interacting with their romantic partner.   

However, Sandstrom said, we often don’t take advantage of these potential boosts in mood when we cross paths with each other.  

“I think people are so focused on efficiency that they’re losing out on these moments of connection and maybe not even realizing they are doing it,” Sandstrom said.  


Even casual connections with people can help foster a sense of belonging and community, psychologists say. (Carlos Osorio/Reuters)

“Each individual conversation with a stranger or weak tie isn’t necessarily anything special, but they add up to something which is even more important — a sense of trust and community.”

Sandstorm’s latest, yet-to-be-published study suggests that talking to strangers not only alleviates loneliness, but also increases feelings of trust and benevolence toward others. 

During the pandemic, she paired 64 strangers with each other and had them connect virtually for a conversation. Not only did people feel less lonely and isolated; she also found their general sense of trust in others and perceptions of others’ benevolence were higher after having a conversation with a stranger.

“Now, I go out of my way to talk to strangers,” said Sandstrom. “Even though I’m still an introvert.”

Community ties help — even at a distance

As jurisdictions around the world move to tighten restrictions in response to rising numbers of COVID-19 cases, these weak ties that we previously took for granted are threatened. Physical distancing has pushed most of us away from in-person interactions in favour of communicating by email or text, using self-checkouts, or doing our shopping online.

University of Queensland’s Jetton said it’s important to be aware of interactions.

“We have all these devices that measure our steps…. Maybe we need to start measuring the social connections that people have and help them make plans on how to expand their social network,” Jetton said.


Speaking to strangers, even in a lineup, can help boost your spirits. (Cole Burston/The Canadian Press)

While it might be hard to have casual social interactions in person, Jetton’s research suggests that merely belonging to a group can be one way to reap some of the benefits of weak social ties. Her studies suggest that belonging to a group, regardless of the strength of individual ties within the group or physical proximity, improves well-being.

We can still feel like a community member, even when the connection is impeded by something like a lockdown. Coming together for virtual church services, or art classes, or to sing, or cheer and bang pots and pans from apartment balconies are all ways we’ve adapted to stay connected, even when our immediate friends and family are physically distanced.

So while the provinces are tightening restrictions, limiting our chances for holiday gatherings, connecting with weak ties — from chatting with strangers on the street to singing as a group on Skype — can help substitute for some of the deeper connections that are physically out of reach right now.

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Ottawa launches $850,000 ad campaign advising Canadians to stay home during COVID-19

The federal government has launched an $ 850,000 digital-based ad campaign warning Canadians about the perils of travelling abroad during the COVID-19 pandemic, which could include grounded flights or lax health rules at their destination.

The ads follow a CBC News report in late September that some snowbirds were planning to fly south this winter, despite the government’s advisory to avoid non-essential travel abroad. Since that time, a number of snowbirds have already left Canada.

Several of the new ads target snowbirds, including a video posted on Facebook and Twitter in which a forlorn older man lies in a hospital bed while sombre music plays in the background. A caption at the bottom of the screen warns that seniors are at a higher risk of developing complications from COVID-19.

The government launched the ad campaign in November “on various digital platforms” and travel websites “to reach multiple target audiences,” Global Affairs Canada spokesperson Jason Kung said in an email. The campaign will run until March 2021 during peak travel times, he said. 


Kung didn’t provide details about the individual ads. CBC News found three anti-travel videos the government posted on social media in December and ads targeting snowbirds in two magazines that launched in November and December respectively. 

‘Missed the boat’?

Some snowbirds who are already at their winter destination question the timing of the campaign blitz.

“I think they missed the boat with that one,” said Lorraine Douglas, 67, of Osoyoos, B.C. On Oct. 24, she and her husband, David, flew to San Jose del Cabo, Mexico, where they own a condo. She said the flight was full.

“Most people who come to this area of Baja [Mexico] are coming down in October,” she said.

Kung said that “elements of the campaign were released in November when older adults typically consider travelling down south.” He didn’t specify which elements.

Regarding the campaign’s anti-travel message, Douglas said it doesn’t faze her because COVID-19 safety regulations are strict in her area.

“You have to wear a mask, even if you’re walking on the street,” she said. “We’re outside in the sunshine…. So we actually feel safer here than we would at home.”


Lorraine Douglas and her husband, David, of Osoyoos, B.C., flew to San Jose del Cabo, Mexico, on Oct. 24, where they own a condo. (Submitted by Lorraine Douglas)

The federal government argues Canadians are safer at home, as COVID-19 cases continue to surge in many parts of the world.

But the government won’t stop Canadians from travelling abroad. Although the Canada-U.S. land border is closed to non-essential travel, Canadians can still fly to the United States, as well as to other countries with open borders, such as Mexico. They can also return to Canada, as long as they quarantine for 14 days.

Just over one million Canadian air passengers have entered Canada since March 21, according to the Canada Border Services Agency.

Canadian snowbirds typically head to U.S. Sunbelt states for the winter. According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, 244,244 Canadians have flown to the United States since October. 

You can have fun at home

One of the government’s new video ads targets families pondering travelling abroad over the holidays. It reminds them that the pandemic isn’t over and they can entertain themselves at home with activities such as playing in the snow.


Another large ad posted in Ontario’s Fifty-Five Plus magazine warns seniors that along with being more susceptible to complications from COVID-19, they also face potential pitfalls, such as inadequate medical coverage and less strict health measures at their destination compared to Canada.

Snowbird Shelton Papple, 66, of Brantford, Ont., said he didn’t see any of the government’s advertising before Dec. 4. That’s when he and his wife, Karen, flew to Buffalo, N.Y., and shipped their car to the city so they could drive the rest of the way to Florida — despite a closed U.S. land border. 


Shelton Papple and his wife, Karen, on the golf course in Fort Myers, Fla. The snowbirds travelled to Florida on Dec. 4, despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. (Submitted by Sandra Papple)

He said that contrary to the ominous ads, he and his wife feel safe in in their neighbourhood in Fort Myers. They have invested in medical insurance that includes COVID-19 coverage and live in a gated community where people are taking COVID-19 precautions, he said.

“Everybody’s wearing a mask, everybody’s social distancing. When we play golf, everybody takes her own cart,” said Papple. “We’re doing no different than what we would do at home … except there’s more to do and it’s outside.”

But there are many Canadians, including snowbirds, who have opted not to travel abroad this winter. They include Roy Graham, 65, of Toronto.


Roy Graham of Toronto normally spends the winters in Rotonda West, Fla. But he’s not going this year due to fears of being infected with COVID-19 while abroad. (Submitted by Roy Graham)

The snowbird and his adult daughter normally spend the winter in Rotonda West, Fla. But this year, Graham believes the stakes are too high for himself and his daughter, who has health issues.

“The uncertainty of what’s happening down south, with COVID running rampant in different states, you just don’t know what to expect.”

Graham viewed the government’s video ad targeting snowbirds at the request of CBC News and said the message it sends reinforces his decision not to travel this winter.

“It touches a nerve,” he said. “You don’t want to be a statistic.”

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Boeing ‘inappropriately coached’ pilots during 737 Max recertification, U.S. Senate report says

Boeing officials “inappropriately coached” test pilots during recertification efforts after two fatal 737 Max crashes, according to a lengthy U.S. government report released on Friday.

The report from the Senate commerce committee said testing of a key safety system known as MCAS tied to both fatal crashes was contrary to proper protocol.

The committee concluded Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Boeing officials “had established a pre-determined outcome to reaffirm a long-held human factor assumption related to pilot reaction time…. It appears, in this instance, FAA and Boeing were attempting to cover up important information that may have contributed to the 737 Max tragedies.”

All Max planes were grounded worldwide after crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia killed a total of 346 people in October 2018 and March 2019, respectively. Last month, the FAA approved the 737 Max’s return to service, and flights have resumed in Brazil. The first U.S. 737 Max commercial flight with paying passengers is set for Dec. 29.

According to a whistleblower who was an FAA safety inspector, Boeing representatives watched and gave advice to help test pilots in a flight simulator respond to a nose-down pitch of the plane in a few seconds. The reaction of three flight crews was still slower than Boeing had assumed, according to the report. Each time the plane would have been thrown into a nose-down pitch, although recovery would have been possible, the investigators said.

WATCH | Concerns remain after Transport Canada approves Boeing 737 Max design changes:

Experts and the families of crash victims are raising concerns about Transport Canada’s decision to approve design changes to the Boeing 737 Max, bringing it closer to returning to the skies, because they say there are still flaws and a public inquiry still hasn’t happened. 1:54

In the two Max crashes, a failure of the MCAS pushed the nose down repeatedly, sending the planes into fatal dives.

The FAA countered that it was an FAA pilot who discovered a separate computer issue in the plane, a flaw that took Boeing additional months to fix.

Investigators also said an FAA division manager was first invited, then excluded from a review of the Max crashes even though his position normally would call for him to participate in the review. The official said he believes he was excluded to shield the FAA from criticism.

Numerous reports have found Boeing failed to adequately consider how pilots respond to cockpit emergencies in its development of the 737 Max.

Boeing said Friday it takes “seriously the committee’s findings and will continue to review the report in full.”The FAA said Friday it was “carefully reviewing the document, which the committee acknowledges contains a number of unsubstantiated allegations.”

The agency added that it is “confident that the safety issues that played a role in the tragic [737 Max] accidents involving Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 have been addressed through the design changes required and independently approved by the FAA and its partners.”

‘Lapses in aviation safety oversight’

Senate commerce committee chair Roger Wicker said the report “details a number of significant examples of lapses in aviation safety oversight and failed leadership in the FAA.”

The committee also said “multiple independent whistleblowers contacted the committee to allege FAA senior management was complicit in determining the 737 Max training certification level prior to any evaluation.”

Boeing resisted requiring simulator training for pilots before operating the 737 Max but reversed course in January.

The report also noted Southwest Airlines was able to operate more than 150,000 flights carrying 17.2 million passengers on jets without confirmation that required maintenance had been completed.

WATCH | Transport Canada approves design changes to the Boeing 737 Max aircraft:

Transport Minister Marc Garneau briefed reporters on the changes in Montreal on Thursday. 2:12

The Senate report said the Southwest flights “put millions of passengers at potential risk.” Southwest did not immediately comment. Southwest said Friday it was aware of the report and added “we do not tolerate any relaxing of standards that govern ultimate safety across our operation.”

Boeing still faces an ongoing criminal probe into the Max. The committee said its review was “constrained due to the continued criminal investigation”

Last month, the Senate committee unanimously passed a bill to reform how FAA certifies new airplanes and grant new protections for whistleblowers, among other reforms, while the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously passed a similar bill.

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Amazon’s Satellite Internet Antenna Pulls 400Mbps During Testing

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For years, satellite internet has been a last resort for people living in remote areas. SpaceX has made waves offering its new Starlink service to select regions with much higher speeds than traditional satellite connections — testers are reporting as much as 150Mbps down. Amazon thinks it can do better with its new antenna technology. The company says its prototype for satellite internet is managing 400 Mbps right now, but we don’t know when consumers will be able to put it to the test. 

You’ve probably heard from people stuck with satellite internet from companies like HughesNet and Viasat. Most likely, they were not happy with the multi-second latency and anemic speeds, but it’s better than nothing. That’s actually what SpaceX called its Starlink beta this year: Better Than Nothing. Starlink is currently limited to the northern US and southern Canada, and it requires a hefty $ 500 setup fee. That includes the company’s satellite dish, which connects to the network over the Ka wireless band.

Amazon’s upcoming Project Kuiper service will be similar to Starlink, but the company claims its prototype Ka phased-array antenna will give it the edge. Amazon’s goal is to reduce the size and cost of the hardware — after all, every customer will need one to access the Kuiper network. However, that’s difficult with Ka-band equipment, which needs more physical separation between transmission (27-30GHz) and reception (17-20GHz) hardware due to the wide range frequencies.

Amazon’s new prototype antenna uses wireless elements overlaid on each other, something that has never been possible with Ka-band hardware before. The entire apparatus is just 12 inches in diameter, a third the size of legacy Ka dish designs. It makes up for the diminutive size by electronically steering Ka beams toward satellites passing overhead. That’s how Amazon is managing such high speeds in its tests. If it can keep real-life speeds anywhere close to the 400 Mbps seen in this test, Kuiper could be a viable alternative even for users in urban areas who have access to wired internet.  

Moving beyond the prototype phase will be no easy feat. Last summer, Amazon got FCC approval to launch 3,236 low-Earth orbit satellites for Project Kuiper. SpaceX, meanwhile, is already closing in on 1,000 thanks to its easy access to Falcon 9 rockets. Amazon hasn’t announced a timeline for launching its satellite constellation, but its regulatory approval calls for the full network to be operational by 2029. Amazon would need just 578 satellites to begin offering service, it claims. Perhaps Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space firm can help with that. 

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