The Citizens Handbook
Citizens needed in disasters

Charles Dobson

Transmission towers destroyed in the giant ice storm of 1998

Under normal circumstances private citizens contribute little to public life. But in a large-scale emergency, they are needed to do the extra work that must be done when government becomes overwhelmed.

Still, those in charge rarely turn to citizens. Bureaucrats obsessed with control, politicians obsessed with command, and academics obsessed with knowing better, all prefer to exclude citizens. While publicly claiming to encourage citizen involvement, governments more often regard citizens as nuisances to be tolerated rather than assets to be nurtured.

Contrary to the Hollywood trope, private citizens do not behave badly in large scale emergencies. Quite the opposite, they step forward to do what they can to help.

In her book, A Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit examines numerous large-scale emergencies such as the San Francisco Fire of 1906, the Halifax Explosion of 1917 and the London Blitz of 1940. In all of these disasters, ordinary citizens banded together to help one another, their efforts faster and more effective than anything provided by government.

When a devastating ice storm struck Qu├ębec,in 1998, collapsing over 1000 transmission towers and leaving 1.2 million residents without electricity, the federal government brought in troops to address the emergency. Subsequently, then Premier Lucien Bouchard said the province had failed to tap the great outpouring of citizen goodwill that might have helped to mitigate the disaster.

In the current health emergency, it has been no different. Ordinary citizens have volunteered in extraordinary numbers to be infected with COVID-19 to help test potential vaccines. Still, governments focus on side-lining citizens, telling them to stay at home and endlessly repeating the mantras of masking and distancing. Few have employed citizen volunteers to help with contact tracing; few have considered training volunteers to inject vaccines.

By facilitating a diy sniff test based on recent scientific research, governments might have enabled ordinary citizens to check themselves for COVID infection daily, reducing the length and extent of the pandemic. Instead they relied on medical experts and government-approved tests that required far too much time to process.


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