Two years ago, on March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the spread of COVID-19 to be a global pandemic.
“We have rung the alarm bell loud and clear,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s director-general.
At the time, there were 118,000 cases and 4,291 deaths recorded worldwide.
What followed was unprecedented global upheaval: Sweeping restrictions on civil liberties and mass death on a scale rarely witnessed outside wartime. But there were also dazzling scientific advances in vaccine technology in record time, and massive government investments in social programs not seen since the Great Depression.
Six million deaths and almost half a billion cases later – both likely large underestimates – we have all but silenced the alarm bell.
The masks are coming off, the vaccine passports are being ditched. The vaccines we were once jostling to get first are now being shunned. We’ve even largely stopped doing testing and surveillance.
On this day of March 11, designated as the National Day of Observance by the Canadian government to commemorate the people who lost their lives to COVID-19, we’ve largely opted to forget and carry on as if the pandemic is over.
As much as we don’t want to hear this, it’s not.
In Canada, the single deadliest day of the pandemic was six weeks ago. We had more cases in the first two months of 2022 (1.1 million) than in all of 2020 (581,428), despite the fact that we are testing far, far less. (For those keeping track, there were 1.6 million cases in 2021.)
The number of COVID-19 patients in hospital is around 4,500, close to a peak. The strain on the health care system and workers persist.
None of this means that some restrictions should not be lifted. With COVID-19 here to stay, we have to learn to live with it. But that’s not the same as doing nothing.
Yes, COVID-19 is becoming endemic. But we can’t buy into the delusion that is a synonym for harmless.
If there is one overarching lesson from the pandemic, it is that messaging matters. And the messages need to be nuanced. We need a lot less black-and-white, and a lot more grey.
Vaccines are a good example. We are, unquestionably, in a far better place today than we otherwise would be thanks to them. Yet, the shots have been a balm, not a panacea. Vaccination has slowed (not stopped) spread of the coronavirus, and it has lessened (not eliminated) hospitalizations and deaths.
That doesn’t mean we should be shunning vaccines, but acknowledging their limits. For most people, a three-dose series is required (like several other vaccines). In some cases, like frail elders and immunocompromised patients, boosters will be required. We also have to work at making vaccines better.
As much as anything, the COVID-19 pandemic has fractured our democratic norms.
In the early days, there was an incredible burst of “we’re all in this together” solidarity. We’ve gone from banging on pots and pans to thank health workers to wailing on them. We’ve shifted from embracing mask-wearing in public spaces to protect our neighbours, to viewing it as the greatest imposition known to man.
The pandemic has become politicized. After two years, this is natural. It’s perfectly normal for people to have differing views on social and economic policies.
Throughout the pandemic we have consistently looked for ways to downplay its severity, from claiming older people felled by COVID-19 were going to die anyhow, to distinguishing people hospitalized “from” COVID-19 from those “with” COVID-19.
In our rush to put the pandemic behind us, we risk making that mistake going forward, too. Rather, we should be preparing for the impact of “long COVID” and the mental-health fallout of these past two years, especially on kids.
In an open letter to mark the day of commemoration, Quebec Premier François Legault said of the pandemic response: “We did what was necessary to save as many lives as possible.”
For the most part, that is true. Our government response was not perfect, but it was adequate. But the alarm bell is still ringing, albeit more quietly than two years ago.
The question now is whether we will continue to do what is necessary – even if it’s unpopular – or succumb to alarm fatigue because we’re fed up.
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