This wasn’t even Gabriel Alphonso’s most important medical appointment of the week.
The dapper widower, in a floral mask and flat cap, his phone number taped to his cane, was glad to get his COVID-19 vaccination – but even gladder to get his final cataract removed a few days earlier.
For 15 years, he had looked forward to the operation, and doctors had finally pronounced the cataracts “ripe” for surgery. (“I said, ‘What is it, an apple?’”)
Against that timescale – or, for that matter, the “82 years, three months, and a couple days” of his eventful life – what is a year of COVID-19?
Sure, he said with a grin, the vaccination meant he could start dating again. (His son-in-law blushed beside him.)
But Mr. Alphonso’s response to getting his shot was measured, muted – and par for the course.
At a vaccination clinic in Mississauga on Thursday, anti-climaxes erupted everywhere. In the cavernous sports hangar of the Paramount Fine Foods Centre, near Pearson airport, the thrill of receiving a long-awaited, life-saving inoculation clashed with the reality of Canada’s vaccine rollout.
For every Maryann Baird, 57, who said it felt like “Christmas morning,” there were two like Tom Sawa, a chiropractor, who said, “It’s not going to change anything at all.”
No balloons fell from the ceiling, no tears of joy rolled down flushed cheeks, no phones lit up in exhilarated selfies. Yo-Yo Ma did not play the cello, as he notably did after getting his second shot in Massachusetts last week.
Instead, the atmosphere was reminiscent of a low-turnout election day, as people lined up without fuss, sat briefly at evenly spaced booths and then filled out forms, quietly doing their civic duty.
Confusing schedules, limited supply and delayed second doses have left many feeling like normalcy, let alone celebration, is still many months away. A dimmed basketball court across the hall from the makeshift clinic – its phantom sneaker squeaks almost audible – spoke to everything that will remain in suspended animation for the foreseeable future.
“It’s not like that shield goes up instantaneously,” Jean McKellar, a 71-year-old physiotherapist, said as she waited her required 15 minutes after getting the vaccine. “It’s two weeks before this is effective at all, and four months for the second one.”
A few chairs over, the precious serum would soon start boosting Daniel Smikle’s immunity to COVID-19, but it was doing nothing for his mood. “It feels no different than an hour ago,” the 37-year-old kinesiologist said. “It’s good to get the vaccine, but it’s not going to change everyone’s life right away. … I can’t take my mask off right now and talk to you.”
Maybe, he suggested, the hangar’s occupants seemed low-key because “we’re Canadian,” and therefore not given to dramatic displays of emotion. Or maybe it was because of another national trait: our sluggishness at procuring and delivering vaccines. He had heard on the radio that U.S. President Joe Biden was going to reach his goal of delivering 100 million shots before his 100-day deadline, and wondered why Canada was so far behind.
“It’s a little frustrating; I don’t want to say depressing, but maybe a little shameful. We’re still a G7 country,” Mr. Smikle said from behind his tight, black fabric mask. “I’ve seen the reactions from people in the U.S.” – whooping, crying, hugging – “but you’ve got to be realistic.”
There are also more scientific reasons for a feeling of letdown in vaccine recipients, said Julie Downs, a professor of social psychology at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh (who received her second dose two weeks ago and feels pretty good about it).
Researchers have studied the feeling of anti-climax that university students experience after their school team wins a big game, attributing it to “focalism,” the tendency to put too much weight on the impact of one event in anticipating how we will feel in the future.
This can easily be activated by getting your COVID-19 shot, Dr. Downs said, citing a “mismatch” between the magnitude of getting a miracle vaccine for a terrible illness and how “small” the actual experience is.
“What’s happening in your body is huge, but it’s invisible,” she said. “It won’t feel huge when the needle comes out of your arm, and they put that bandage over your owie, but it is huge, and you should grab it.”
Chris Paiero, 36, remained “conflicted” about receiving his shot on Thursday. On the one hand, the logistics technician for Peel Regional Paramedic Services felt “super positive and happy” about getting a last-minute invitation to the clinic that morning.
But looking at dozens of empty chairs in the vast, open space, he lamented, “This could be so much more efficient.”
Canada’s slow procurement of vaccines means normal life won’t return to most of the country this spring. There was still joy in the hangar on Thursday, visible in the glowing face of Virginia Soriano, 79, who saw the shot as her ticket home to the Philippines. But in this stage of our slow, strange exit from the pandemic, emotions were just as often muddled, or confined to a low simmer.
“My frustration at this point is outweighing my happiness,” Mr. Paiero said. “Because when I go outside, I’m still in a COVID world.”
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