Sunday, May 02, 2010

Change comes, but never easily

Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose, as French novelist Alphonse Karr so aptly noted a long, long time ago. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
A career in journalism really brings that home. I think I’d been a reporter for less than a year when I first experienced that sense of déjà vu that would eventually become so familiar to me.
I was flipping through the newspaper archives at the time, looking for one of those “25 Years Ago Today” items (hey, somebody has to write them). I came across a long string of stories about the regional district’s struggles to fix the outdated and underperforming hospital laundry system plaguing the Thompson Valley Regional District at that time.
Having just finished up a story that very afternoon about the district’s outdated and underperforming hospital laundry system - which everyone was still worrying about 25 years later - I wondered if my archival find was just an amusing coincidence.
It wasn’t. With many years of journalism now under my belt, I can assure you there’s definitely a lot of Groundhog Day in the things we call “news.”
That’s not to say that the daily news is always the same, or that nothing ever changes - if that were true, I’d still be pecking out stories about the annual stud auction in Kamloops on a typewriter, using hand-me-down carbon paper from the accounting department to satisfy our cheapo corporate owners.
But the big, difficult issues of this world - well, they do have a tendency to drag on.
Some assume a kind of mythic proportion, looming so large that mortal man is brought to his knees at the very thought of trying to find a resolution. I put sewage treatment for the Capital Region in that category, because nothing new has been added to the debate in the 21 years I’ve lived here and yet we still can’t sort it out.
Others present as problems that in fact end up getting fixed, at least for a while. But then everybody mistakenly takes that as meaning they can quit worrying about the issue. And then the money dries up, because nobody’s paying attention anymore.
And then the problems re-emerge, and you find yourself back at the beginning again as if nobody ever did anything.
The Victoria Health Project was a sad example of that. It was a fabulous three-year pilot project to test whether seniors with health and mobility problems could be maintained in their own homes with a few key homecare services, thus avoiding ending up in expensive hospital beds that they didn’t really need.
The pilot worked really well. And for a while, we all lived happily with the programs that grew out of the project - at least until one tight community-health budget after another over the next 20 years starved most of them to death.
Barely 10 years after the Victoria Health Project had identified a better way, health administrators were back grumbling to the media about old people blocking hospital beds. I started calling them to find out how this could be, and discovered not only that the programs were a shadow of their former selves due to funding erosion, but that most of the people now in charge of the health system had never even heard of the project.
That lack of institutional memory is clearly a major factor in why we spin our wheels over problems that we’ve already solved. But inertia strikes me as the primary reason for why the news repeats itself.
An example: Assisted suicide. Sue Rodriguez fought a hard battle in the early 1990 for the right to have someone help her die.
She was a perfect “poster child” for the issue: Smart, young, well-informed, and tragically dying of ALS with no cure in sight. If anyone was going to make us change the laws, it was her.
But nothing happened. Nearly 20 years passed, and all of a sudden my dear friend Bernice Levitz-Packford materialized in the local media earlier this year trying to resurrect the issue. Fortunately for her (but sadly for us), she died at home not long after at the fine age of 95, freeing us to ignore the issue for another couple of decades.
We can’t give up, of course. Inertia and institutional amnesia aside, some things are simply worth fighting for. Change is possible, but what’s striking is how difficult it is to make it last.

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