It’s a snowy Thursday afternoon in Toronto and the vaccination clinic at the Woodbine Mall is getting ready to welcome its first visitors of the day. The news is full of the demonstrations in Ottawa against pandemic restrictions. Similar protests are about to come to Toronto. But at the clinic, the mood is purposeful, unruffled, even buoyant.
Nurses sit at tables filling syringes with vaccine and loading them into trays. Helpers lay out colouring sheets to amuse kids coming in for their jab. One greeter brandishes a little Canadian flag that she waves to show visitors when a booth is free.
As opening time approaches, operations manager Simone Richards gathers everyone for the daily huddle, a combination of pep talk, check-in session and revival meeting. Smiling behind her mask, she warns the group: “We are running low on teddy bears.” The local police station donated a pile of the toys to soothe nervous kids and there are only a few left.
After singing a rousing Happy Birthday for their clinical manager Arturo Villasan, staffers put their hands in, like athletes before a game, for a go-team cheer – except that, pandemic style, their hands don’t actually touch. Then they open the doors to let people through. They get hundreds a day, most of them happy to get the protection offered by the vaccines against COVID-19.
The scene at the Woodbine clinic tells a different story than you see in the headlines. In a week in which all the oxygen was consumed by noisy and sometimes obnoxious protesters, it is worthwhile to remember that most Canadians don’t feel their rights are being trampled by a despotic government. Most believe in vaccines and are eager to get jabbed. Most wear their masks and obey the rules on gathering and distancing. Though it will disappoint the Russell Brands of the world, Canada is not in revolt. Quietly, capably mustering all the available tools of technology, science and human collaboration, the country is getting on with the task of combating a deadly and insidious virus.
Toronto’s vaccination campaign, the biggest in its history, is an impressive success story. More than 6.5 million doses have been administered. Ninety per cent of residents 12 and older have one dose and 87 per cent two. Sixty percent of eligible residents have a booster, the result of a stepped-up Team Toronto drive to meet the threat from the Omicron variant. More than half of kids have one dose and a quarter have two.
To inoculate all those people in a city of 180 languages, dozens of cultural groups and scores of neighbourhoods has been a staggering task. To reach the hesitant, the disadvantaged and the disengaged, the city has hired hundreds of community ambassadors and translators to get the word out. It has dispatched mobile clinics from one end of the city to the other. It has bombarded residents with text messages, robocalls and flyers.
On the same afternoon that Ms. Richards and her team were greeting visitors to their big clinic in a Hudson’s Bay store at Woodbine, workers were going door to door in a Parkdale seniors’ building and soothing nervous kids at a Mount Olive school. At a small clinic in a mall at Jane and Finch streets, they don’t just wait for people to walk in. They recently persuaded the busy lady at the local roti joint to sit for a vaccination right in her shop. Every vaccination counts.
Leading me on a clinic tour, Joe Cressy, a city councillor who is chair of the city’s board of health, called it a brilliant example of breaking down silos and bringing everyone together in a common cause: pharmacies, hospitals, public-health workers; community and neighbourhood associations; cops and firefighters; care homes and schools.
Though we hear a lot these days about conflict and anger, what really stands out is the way all these groups are working arm in arm. As Mayor John Tory puts it, “the city has been united.”
Of course, it’s taking a while. It’s only natural that people are frustrated with the persistence of this virus and the annoying, limiting measures put in place to control it. If some believe that governments are to blame for much of the misery, they have a perfect right to say so, as long as they do it peacefully and lawfully. But while thousands are taking to the streets, hundreds of thousands of others are still lining up to get their shots and do their bit to quell the virus.
Ms. Richards and her Woodbine crew are standing ready to help them, with kindness, efficiency and good cheer. More teddy bears are coming.
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