Sunday evening.

Well, that was interesting… As per Canada’s travel restrictions, travelers must take a covid test at home (using the kit they get at the border) on the 10th day of their two-week quarantine. (For some reason, they counted the border-crossing day as day one. That’s a bank error in my favour, even though I crossed the border around 7:30pm.)

I checked the instructions first thing this morning. They seemed easy enough: open the kit, get everything ready, don’t touch the specimen collection tube thingy, and log on the SwitchHealth site to have a nurse walk you through the process during a video chat. You’d think it’d be easy. You’d think wrong.

I went so far as to wash my hair, actually put on some clothes, and arranged my chair so it’d get the best lighting available in this single-light-bulb studio. And then… When I logged on at 10:20am, it said I was #1,456 in line. It also said “The nurse will be with you shortly.” Heh. It moved fast, but not fast enough: approximately 400 people per hour, so it would’ve taken over three hours to get to me. I set my phone down and did some light gaming on my PC, all the while making sure the phone didn’t fall asleep. About three hours later, I got to #360 in line, and then it just died. The error message said the connection timed out. Their site’s FAQ claimed that if there are connection issues, you can just refresh the page and get back to your spot in line. That claim was incorrect.

It was 1:45pm, and now I was #2,231 in line. It was moving faster – about 500-600 people per hour were getting either helped or disconnected. By 5pm, I was once again #360 (or thereabout), when it kicked me out again. When I refreshed, it said my new spot in line was approximately #1,400 or so. Their site said there was an option to do the testing over the phone if I had no computer or no Internet connection. (The fact that you needed Internet access to read that on their site was pretty ironic.) I then spent 45 minutes on hold without encountering a single human being. I did, however, get blasted with an annoyingly cheerful and loud little tune. Remember that Walking Dead episode where Darryl got tortured with the “Easy Street” song? It was a little bit like that.

Finally, after I posted an angry thread on Twitter, I got that company’s attention. After a lot of back and forth, they called my cellphone and walked me through the process: all voice, no video. That was a simple nasal swab test where you swab your nostrils, not the brain-poking test that people hate. I scheduled the courier pickup for tomorrow.

…I am not proud of my reaction, but there’s no point in lying on my own blog. I felt rage. Passionate, incandescent, I-want-to-destroy-something-beautiful rage. They had one job. They literally had one and only job: to help people with their take-home test kits. And yet they still managed to fuck it up. Every single step of the way was a failure: their process (with about 50-100 nurses, I think) didn’t scale, their site didn’t restore your place in line, their customer support lines weren’t staffed…

But that was a third-party company that somehow won the contract. (I hope it was through nepotism. If they are indeed the best tech/health company out there, we’re all in deep trouble.) The local health authority was supposed to send people to check up on me and make sure I was actually staying at home. Today is the 10th day, and all I got was three robo-calls that asked five incredibly simple yes/no questions. I could’ve answered them from anywhere. The threat of enforcement, of home visits, of everything else, was just so many empty words. The paperwork they gave me mentioned large fines, too, but if the way US tourists who strayed from the road to Alaska got treated last year is any indication, there’ll be no fines, either. (At no point during the pandemic did they actually enforce the rules or use the power the rules granted them.)

A couple of years ago, I used to co-manage a giant fee program that affected 200,000 people and had the annual revenue of several hundred million dollars. There were only two of us running it (with some colleagues who owned separate, adjacent pieces), and we had to make sure everything was flawless. All our customer support people were provided with the latest FAQs and manuals. The customer-facing pages on our site were modified, proof-read, made crystal-clear, and had multiple examples. The communications were sent out several times, in several languages. The data on the projected fees was available in multiple places. All that work, for a single (though large) recurring campaign at a single corporation. And here we have a prosperous industrialized country that tried to roll out a quarantine procedure (which they had a full year to brainstorm) for all of its residents and visitors, and this bureaucratic nightmare was the best they could come up with. The very fact that this could be done over the phone and not by video means that a sufficiently long (and slow-motion) YouTube video could’ve done the trick. Instead, they got thousands of people spending an entire day hoping they don’t get disconnected.

At first, earlier this morning, I tried to cheer myself up by thinking how cool it was that over a thousand of my fellow travelers were waiting with me – all of us, separate but united, doing our part. (The whole “waiting in line” thing also reminded me of the Soviet Union, much like the book I’m currently reading.) Now I’m just angry. I know that it’s basic human nature to look the other way until some calamity (in this case, incomprehensible level of incompetence) affects you personally. I know all that. I tried making excuses when Canada failed to set up any sort of quarantine for international travelers. Or when the quarantine was so inefficient that people could literally walk away from the airport and the police did nothing to stop them. Or when so many provinces put unqualified generals in charge of their vaccine efforts. Or when it turned out there were no vaccination plans aside from “um, maybe we’ll vaccinate every last person over 80 first before giving to any other ages or high-risk groups?” Every step of the way, I tried to rationalize it, to assume that was just a coincidence, over and over and over again. Until that bureaucratic hell hit me personally. Heh.

Let’s be honest: most countries fucked up in their pandemic response. Very few did most things right. But even with that in mind, Canada’s efficiency is closer to Brazil than to New Zealand. So many perfectly avoidable mistakes. So much basic incompetence. So few effective leaders. So little planning, especially since they’d had so much time… Not even the year-long prep between the first cases and the first vaccines: Canada never implemented the recommendations in its own official report after bird flu outbreak over 15 years ago. At some point in the future, there might be yet another full-scale postmortem analysis of all the things that went wrong. It’s possible but unlikely that anyone will lose their job. It’s possible but unlikely that the report’s recommendations will get instituted for the next pandemic.

I still like Canada. I’m still glad I moved here. But ye gods, what a shitshow. Lessons learned: next time you start seeing sporadic online reports about some mysterious new virus that seems to be very good at killing people, go ahead and jump on the first plane to Taiwan, New Zealand, or Vietnam. It’ll be a bloody mess everywhere else, same as it has been.

I’m quite certain that today’s rage shaved off at least a few days from my life expectancy. The bad news is that I’ll have to deal with the same bureaucratic stupidity three weeks from now, when I finish my second and final quarantine. The good news is that after that, I’ll hopefully (toes and fingers crossed!) be free of bureaucrats for the foreseeable future. I’ll never be a self-sufficient handyman like Ron Swanson from that Parks & Recreation show, but I’m starting to think that by the end of this year, I’ll share his incredibly cynical attitude to all things government. I guess it takes a pandemic to break a political science major’s faith in the system, eh.

Stay safe, y’all. I hope your Sunday was more pleasant than this mess.