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As COVID-19 and Omicron continue to shape our lives in 2022, there is light at the end of the tunnel – but what it illuminates may be unsettling

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Source photo: Niko Cingaryuk/The Globe and Mail

Begin with the faint panic and the ongoing confusion. They’re not COVID symptoms. They’re the way we live now.

On Dec. 10, 2021, a Sunday, my wife woke up with a hangover after a dinner party the previous night. My wife and her friends were all double vaccinated, some were also boosted; therefore the gathering was permissible under Ontario’s guidelines for safe behaviour in what was then a waning pandemic.

By mid-afternoon, she was still in bed and incapable of getting out of it. She was beset by sweats and chills, and an unstoppable 360-degree headache. “My skin hurts,” she said.

I donned a mask, moved some clothes into the separate basement apartment in our house, and cadged two rapid tests from a neighbour. I ruined one (the instructions aren’t clear) and re-administered the other, jabbing the swab up my wife’s nose to the first point of resistance, per the instructions. I carried the swab in its plastic test tubette to the kitchen and, using a peeled but unseparated tangerine as the test-tube holder, conducted the test. She was positive.

The hypervigilant state of mind that had prevailed while I awaited the results coagulated instantly into resignation: She had it, so I probably had it. We were out of commission for 10 days, and maybe worse.

I wangled another rapid test from another friend, and tested myself. Negative. My spirits rose. I felt like the most resilient man on earth.

This was back in mid-December, the good old pre-Omicron days of last month, when our vaccines still prevented infection and the rules didn’t change daily.

I spent the better part of two days contacting and e-mailing and apologizing to the handful of people with whom my wife and I had had unwitting “close contact” prior to the appearance of her symptoms. Close contact has a precise definition: within six feet, without a mask, for more than 15 minutes over the course of 24 hours. My e-mails had a faintly legalistic whiff. To my surprise, people were invariably gracious, and did not hold her (or me) responsible. To my further surprise, because I was double-vaxxed and had no symptoms, I didn’t have to self-isolate, as long as I wore a mask in public. Trust the vaccines, the rules implied.

Two days later, on Tuesday – the day my wife’s symptoms began to subside – we drove to the hospital for two PCR tests, per public-health regulations. She was positive. I was negative. I was the king of the world.

The following night, I donned another mask and drove an hour northwest to Rexdale, out by the warehouses and the Toronto airport, and stood in line for an hour with hundreds of people in a converted Hudson’s Bay store in a mall to get a booster. We were a large, mostly older, obediently patient crowd, shuffling in a snaking, well-spaced line. The place was packed. By then I was getting used to the exotic ordinariness of living with COVID, its dull excitement. Everything changed all the time, but nothing happened. Somebody, I can’t remember who now, said that’s the way it is with plagues.

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Days ticked by slowly, but hours evaporated instantly. My wife stayed inside, upstairs. I could hear her through the ceiling, walking, exercising, on the telephone. I settled into the cellar like a mole, emerging only in a mask to cook her dinner or walk the dog. Occasionally, I caught a glimpse of her through a window. It seemed unlikely I would escape infection – I’m 67 – but every day I didn’t have a symptom felt like I’d won a prize in the mail.

The following Monday, I returned as required to the hospital for a follow-up PCR test, eight days after my exposure. The line wrapped around the block, even if you had an appointment.

Twenty-four hours later, I logged on to get my test results. There it was, in small block letters: DETECTED. It felt like a bit of an understatement. I was now one of 300 million human beings who had contracted COVID-19. As my wife came out of quarantine, I went in for 10 more days in the basement. After all, we didn’t know if we had the same mutation.

This is not the beginning of the end of the pandemic, as seemed to be the case in November. It may, however, be the beginning of its endlessness.

The pandemic keeps obliterating the future. Plans are impossible. It settles down, fools us into thinking we can aim for steady ground, and then throws us off again, as it did this week, shutting schools and malls again, exploding schedules, demolishing sports and concerts and plays and movies, threatening to ruin everything with a variant that is milder but anywhere from four to 15 times more infectious than its predecessor. We aim for routine anyway. We vaccinate and boost, we isolate and mask, but new worries creep in: the likelihood that we’ll get it and have to stay home for a week, maybe more than once; the likelihood that others near us will get it, ditto; the unknown effect it has on kids (hospitalizations of children under 18 were up fivefold in New York in the two weeks before Christmas); that sinister long-haul symptoms will still show up in 15 per cent of cases; and of course the darkest possibility, that gentle Omicron will mutate into a killer that is as lethal as it is infectious. Instead of the end of the nightmare, this stage might mark the start of an entirely new horror.

For the first time in decades, life in Canada has edged (ever so slightly) toward being the unpredictable, provisional venture it is in less fortunate parts of the world. How well equipped are we to deal with that? I suddenly had a lot of time on my hands. I decided to see if anyone had a reliable answer.

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A new year in B.C.: At top, a swimmer prepares for the New Year's Day polar dip at Victoria's Willow Beach, and at bottom, a masked pedestrian passes the Vancouver Art Gallery's snow-covered square. As 2022 began, the Omicron variant of COVID-19 challenged many Canadians' hopes that vaccinations would bring the pandemic to an end any time soon.Chad Hipolito and Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

Andrew Morris doesn’t like to make predictions. A professor of medicine in the labyrinth of the University Health Network and an infectious-diseases specialist at Sinai Health in Toronto, he also writes a weekly COVID-19 newsletter that has 50,000 readers and is a member of the Ontario science table that advises the provincial government, not that it always listens. Dr. Morris is a paragon of calm, complex, conservative, science-based analysis.

“Omicron is truly unknown,” he told me over the phone.

But it had blown through South Africa without destroying the place. I was super keen to point this out.

“I think the more likely thing,” Dr. Morris said, and I could tell he was trying to be gentle, “is that because we don’t have prior immunity like the Africans, and an older population” – their median age is 29, Canada’s is 41 – ”we’re going to have a system that is going to really struggle over the next six to eight weeks.” (This is now happening.)

But the Ontario government has cut isolation time for asymptomatic patients from 10 days to five! It no longer requires a negative test to emerge from isolation!

“That’s to keep the work force going,” Dr. Morris said. “You could say, we’re going to require either you get tested daily or you’re not at work. But that would collapse the system in hospitals right now. I guarantee you that in our hospitals, probably even in our intensive-care units, there are people who are infected right now who are taking care of patients. We don’t have the supply to test everyone daily to reduce the risk of people getting infected by health care workers.” I think he paused at that point. “Because we’re going to have to cut corners in terms of isolation, this is going to exacerbate this wave.”

I recovered and delivered my coup de grace. Omicron caused only mild disease. A lot of experts were suggesting Omicron represented the fading of the pandemic, and the beginning of endemic, livable COVID.

To my surprise, Dr. Morris almost agreed.

“I’m fairly confident that it’s almost kind of cured,” he said. “But I’m old enough to remember when semi-credible virologists said Delta was going to be the last variant. And they were totally wrong. It may be that we’ll have further variants, but they won’t be nasty, and our immunity will be protective. And if that happens, you know, fantastic. I’ve been accused of fear-mongering. But the problem is, people lack imagination. Hoping that something’s going to happen doesn’t mean that is necessarily going to be the outcome.”

Pandemics always end. The 1918 Spanish flu lasted two years and was forgotten by the Roaring Twenties. The Black Death, on the other hand, hit London 40 times over 300 years.

“People need to recognize that some pandemics lasted decades primarily because of vector control,” Dr. Morris said.

“And the circumstances around this pandemic in so many ways do not have parallels with prior pandemics. It could be the harbinger of the end of the pandemic in the Northern Hemisphere and then subsequently in the Southern Hemisphere. But I just really don’t know.”

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New Year's Eve was a joyless affair in Montreal: At top, giant nutcrackers look out on a deserted St. Catherine Street before the start of a new 10pm-to-5am curfew, which the police officers below came to enforce by questioning the woman at middle.Peter McCabe/The Canadian Press

We did Christmas by Zoom, me in the basement, my wife and daughter in the living room upstairs. Opening presents on Zoom gives the ritual an abstract, less convincing feel: you give each other gifts, you obviously care for one another, but you are teleporting from Mars, so how committed are you, really?

On Boxing Day, my daughter began to feel ill; she subsequently tested positive for Omicron, having (probably and unwittingly) caught it from a friend a week earlier. But she had close contact with my wife, which (by my calculations) meant another five days in the basement for me.

My symptoms were so mild as to be almost unnoticeable: the faintest sore throat, a runny nose or two, the occasional bout of sagging tiredness. I submerged like a submarine every day for an hour at lunch. By now, the rules were changing so fast they were contradicting one another. Toronto Public Health required self-isolation for 10 days after exposure, or 20 days if you hadn’t had a test. Women’s College Hospital wanted 14 days, regardless of test results. Then, 10 days of isolation became five days of isolation, provided you were asymptomatic. The rules changed as the data changed.

Three days after I tested positive, I received a call from a public-health official. She asked when I first experienced symptoms, because that was the day from which to count my 10 days of isolation. I explained that I barely had any symptoms. “Then you date from your positive test.” But that meant five extra days of isolation! “It’s up to you,” she said. It’s up to you is not the sentence I wanted to hear. Meanwhile, the individual penalty for violating restrictions in Ontario ranges from $750 to $100,000. Two days later, a second public-health nurse called to say my symptoms were definitely symptoms, that I was sprung at the end of the day after Christmas. I stayed inside an extra three days, just in case.

I watched what I could get on the bare-bones basement TV: a couple of Harry Potter movies, quirky British romances, documentaries. I gawked at Joan Didion’s sparrowy arms and wished she was still alive. I read endlessly: disappointing “autofiction,” some Chekhov, Michael Ignatieff’s excellent book On Consolation.

It was especially interesting to read about COVID now that I had COVID: the disease ceased to be an invading Vandal and became merely a dull guest who refused to go home, someone I needed to negotiate with. I read Ivan Krastev’s Is It Tomorrow Yet? and Laura Spinney’s Pale Rider, a history of the Spanish flu. In two years between March of 1918 and March of 1920, the Spanish flu infected 500 million people (a third of the Earth’s population); most cases were mild, but it still managed to kill somewhere between 50 million and 100 million human beings. Most of the deaths occurred in a single 13-week stretch. The Spanish flu was so huge it influenced other huge events, pushing India closer to independence and introducing the notions of universal health care and regular exercise to the world at large. The 1918 flu had its own telltale symptoms, like the (brief) coming and going of any sense of smell and taste that my wife and daughter experienced with COVID: the Spanish-flu giveaways were an inability to see at night, and (graver) two ashen dots over the cheekbones. Nurses at the time said the illness smelled like musty straw. Churches stopped ringing their bells in eulogy to the dead because the pealing was incessant. The American Medical Association of the day disavowed the use of vaccines, which Africans shunned because they thought white men with needles were trying to kill them. Good instinct. But not that time.

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A poster from Alberta’s health board in 1918 warns of influenza.Glenbow Archives

The Spanish flu pandemic was the deadliest event of the 20th century, yet only 400 books have been written about it; there have been 80,000 penned about the First World War. “It’s difficult to turn a pandemic into a good story,” Mr. Krastev writes, by way of explanation. “It lacks a plot and a moral.” The Spanish flu consumed the world, and then we forgot about it.

But this pandemic will prod us to remember for a while to come. “The light at the end of the tunnel is not a train,” Mark Bayley, the director of rehabilitation medicine at the Toronto University Health Network, told me one morning. “I think the light at the end of the tunnel is actually visible now.” But even endemic COVID, if it arrives, won’t obscure some of the most serious remnants of the pandemic, the people who suffer from long-haul COVID.

Symptoms can last anywhere from three months to life. “We’re going to see a whole bunch of people who are unfortunately casualties of the pandemic,” Dr. Bayley said. Compromised hearts and lungs, lingering Parkinson-like neurological effects. Some of them can’t wash their hair without feeling dizzy and disoriented. Some can’t breathe. There were originally a dozen symptoms of long-haul COVID: according to Alexandra Rendely, a physician at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute, the most recent World Health Organization roster lists more than 100.

The victims aren’t the old and weakened people you might imagine. They tend to fall between the ages of 30 and 60. “The problem is that the old died and the young survived,” Dr. Bayley said of the prevaccination waves of COVID. “In between were the people who didn’t go into the hospital, but were left with devastating effects. People that got very, very sick but didn’t get so sick that they had to be intubated. And now they’re left with the long-COVID symptoms.” A third of them have mental-health issues.

The end of COVID? If only. “There’s just so much still unknown about the virus,” Dr. Rendely said one afternoon. Will it be seasonal? Will there be a small subset of victims admitted to the ICU every fall? How do doctors plan an end game for a disease that may have no plans to retire? Before Omicron hit – and no one knows yet if Omicron will produce long-haul effects – Dr. Rendely estimated that as many as 78,000 people in Ontario alone (“a very conservative estimate”) would require continuing care because of long-haul COVID.

Of course, “the best way not to get long COVID is to not get COVID,” Dr. Rendely said. It’ll be another eight months before she can tell how common long-haul symptoms are in the double-vaxxed and boosted cohort. Meanwhile, two years after the virus showed up, less than half the world is double vaccinated. “I think our society is set up in such a way that the vulnerable are always the most vulnerable,” Dr. Rendely said just before she hung up. The longer the pandemic lasts, the more unpredictable it becomes, the larger that group gets.

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The pandemic around the world: At top, a Filipina woman nurses her arm after getting the AstraZeneca vaccine in Quezon City; at bottom, a woman sunbathes in a cordoned-off section of a Lima beach on Dec. 21, days before the Peruvian government closed beaches temporarily to slow the resurgence of COVID-19.Aaron Favila/The Associated Press; ERNESTO BENAVIDES/AFP via Getty Images

The sharpest irony of the endless pandemic is that the economy, the behemoth that its defenders were so terrified would be demolished by the shutdown, is in better shape than ever, at least in aggregate.

Admittedly, prospects looked bad for a while. In the first half of 2020, according to Shutdown, a sparkling history of the onset of the pandemic by Columbia University historian Adam Tooze, 95 per cent of the world’s economies suffered a simultaneous contraction. That had never happened before. Three billion adults were furloughed from their jobs, or tried to work from home. That hadn’t happened either. More than a billion and a half young people had their schooling interrupted. That’s still happening. The sum of lost earnings – again, in just the first six months of the pandemic – was US$10-trillion, more than a tenth of global GDP.

And yet: the economy is back. I could hear the calm uplift in the voice of Rebekah Young, a Scotiabank economist and the bank’s director of fiscal and provincial economics, when I called her. She was in Nova Scotia. Scotiabank, like other banks, planned to resume office life in mid-January, the first hard return date the bank had decreed. That’s no longer happening.

Unemployment is now 5.9 per cent, versus 13 per cent a year ago. GDP is back to where it was. The S&P 500 Index is twice as high as it was in March, 2020. Household wealth in Canada has risen by a full quarter above prepandemic levels; the average Canadian household added $5,000 to its savings account. Nor was she worried about inflation.

In fact, Ms. Young claimed, the economy has recovered so quickly and unexpectedly that forecasters like her have had to abandon some of their traditional economic predictors in favour of more fluid data that reflect the speed at which the pandemic shifts course – restaurant bookings, for instance, which seem to track public optimism.

True, she said, our now hugely inflated provincial and federal deficits might cramp spending in five to 15 years. “There has to be an educated discussion about what Canadians expect from health care, because we’re going to have to expect less.” Otherwise, Ms. Young said, “I do think we will, somewhat surprisingly, go back to some kind of normal.”

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Game personnel get PCR tests at Toronto's Scotiabank Arena before a match between the San Antonio Spurs and Toronto Raptors.John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

How did the economy bounce back so fast, given the size of the shock it endured? Because the federal government hyper-injected more than $300-billion into the economy. And because we let the people who stood to gain from saving the economy make money by saving the economy.

Prof. Tooze notes in Shutdown that by January of last year, of the US$2.7-trillion appropriated by Congress under the CARES Act, only US$610-billion – less than a quarter – ended up in the hands of households. (He lauds Canada’s more generous payouts to the middle class as an “underrated innovation in the history of the welfare state.”) Meanwhile, he adds, the wealth of the world’s billionaires increased US$1.9-trillion in 2020, with US$560-billion of that benefiting America’s wealthiest people.

If you use the financial system to help dig yourself out of a hole, you enrich the people who invest in the financial system. (The top 10 per cent of U.S. households, measured by net worth, own 84 per cent of all stocks.). “For all the talk of a new social contract and the scale of the spending,” Prof. Tooze writes, “coronavirus fiscal policy was as much a reflection of pre-existing interests and inequalities as any other area of government action.”

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A masked chef cooks at a Toronto restaurant open for curbside pickup.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

One thing hasn’t changed in the course of the pandemic – the one that might need to change most of all, because it is the precariousness that underlies all the others. Prof. Tooze mentioned it right away when I called him last week – he was on vacation in Kentucky, visiting his wife’s family – and asked whether any aspect of the pandemic had surprised him in the months since he finished writing his book last April.

“I think the big surprise for me,” he said, “is that there hasn’t been – despite everything and now with Omicron – a sustained push for a global vaccination campaign and a truly dramatic ramping up of vaccine production.”

South Korea designed a COVID test within weeks of the virus’s appearance in the early spring of 2020; why is there still a global shortage of tests, two years later? Scientists around the world made medical history when they created working vaccines within six months of the virus’s arrival. Why, nearly two years later, are we still desperately short of boosters and shots? And that’s in Canada, where 76 per cent of the population is fully vaccinated. In Angola, that number is 12 per cent.

This is shameful but also stupid: the longer the virus rampages in the less-vaccinated parts of the world, the greater the odds of a new variant roaring back to clamp the world shut again. Furthermore, the global vaccine imbalance was avoidable. In the spring of 2020, the estimated cost of vaccinating the entire world (via COVAX, the agency that accepts vaccine donations from rich countries for distribution to poorer ones) was US$25-billion. That’s nothing. Canada announced three times that amount of new spending in its last budget. “Every member of the G20,” Prof. Tooze writes, “could have justified the spending needed to end the pandemic and restart the world economy, on grounds of self-interest alone.”

Alas, no one did. Prof. Tooze put it down to a vacuum of leadership. “We trust in governments to save us,” he said over the phone. “And that was really quite profoundly shaken at the beginning of 2020. We’ve seen how partial the ability of governments is to guarantee the kind of protection we’ve taken for granted in the rich world. And that’s the sense in which I think of this crisis as being a harbinger of more to come. That’s why I end the book the way I do, with the line, ‘we ain’t seen nothing yet.’ ”

Prof. Tooze’s wife, incidentally, works in the travel business – another industry shattered by the coronavirus. And yet he watches her help people make plans every day, regardless of the pandemic’s continuing uncertainty. “What I’ve seen,” he said, “is adjustment. Stress, but very high levels of coping. It makes you feel uncertain. But I happened to be in LaGuardia airport yesterday, and it was absolutely packed with people. My sense is, as in the rest of the world, that our sense of danger adjusts. We find ways of coping and then we get on with it. I don’t think it’s any longer true that the majority of people are completely paralyzed.”

In other words, Europeans and North Americans in the richest nations in the history of civilization are finally learning to live with the daily anxiety that the rest of world accepts as a given. You can do this even living in your basement. “It does put us much more in the position of people in emerging markets or low-income countries who have to deal with these kind of risks,” Prof. Tooze said. The pandemic isn’t close to over yet, but the wily virus may make it possible for us to begin to feel equal. That could be its gift. Whether we’ll accept the offering is another story entirely.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story said the Hudson’s Bay store was abandoned. In fact, the store is operating on one floor to make space for the vaccination clinic.

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