Afsun Qureshi is a dual British-Canadian citizen who is the former head of communications for the Institute for Research on Public Policy.
I’ve lived in Britain for the past 20 years, and yet I’ve rarely felt particularly proud of my British citizenship. Between the Brexit debacle, the U.K.’s awful approach to refugees and the rise of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the times I’ve felt most pride are when my family have come under the care of the glorious National Health Service. This admiration for the NHS was only turbo-changed last week, after I received my first COVID-19 jab.
In Canada, members of my large extended family are spread across the Greater Toronto Area and in Montreal. No one has had the vaccine to date, except a lone cousin who is a health care worker. I routinely phone my elderly mother in Toronto and ask her with trepidation when her vaccination is scheduled. Neither she nor her long-term care worker have heard anything.
At the time of writing, approximately one million Canadians have had the vaccination, compared with 12 million in Britain. Justin Trudeau has waffled on the timing, saying that after delays and storage issues, most of the jabs will arrive at the end of March. Contrast that with the U.K. government, which set a target that will see the majority of those over 50 years old vaccinated by the same time – a target that it’s on track to meet. It’s enough to make me feel like the Brits are taking COVID-19 more seriously.
That was reaffirmed by my own personal experience when I was diagnosed, bewilderingly and terrifyingly, with COVID-19 in April of last year. What helped me through it were the thrice-weekly, empathetic calls from my doctors, the prompt delivery of medicine and the knowledge that 111 (or “999 lite,” the equivalent of 911) was just a call away.
After I recovered, the NHS identified me as being in the vulnerable category because of my asthma, and asked me to shield at home. To assist, they delivered weekly food parcels containing everything from tinned beans, bags of apples and lavender soap, in a joint effort between the government, the military, volunteers and some truly heroic catering companies. As Communities Secretary of State Robert Jenrick said last year, these deliveries are the biggest effort to deliver supplies to those in need since the Second World War.
The war spirit was everywhere, and that, to me, was good news: the Brits always rise to the challenge in the face of war.
The superb care from the NHS just kept on rolling after that. Last week, I received a text asking me to attend my doctor’s office for the jab. I never asked for it, but did as I was told.
Once there, I realized quickly that this was not like a military operation – it was one. I was greeted in the parking lot by surprisingly cheery PPE-clad staff who thoughtfully laid out chairs placed two metres apart to a large queue. The first health care worker took a few notes down on his clipboard, and within three minutes I was shunted to the front of the line. Once inside the building, another staff member took my temperature and sent me off to the next room, trilling: “Have a lovely jab!” The atmosphere was charged.
The upbeat doctor looked at my medical notes and tut-tutted at my body’s annoying habit of falling into anaphylactic shock. “We are going to keep you here for 15 minutes after, because if you are going to have a reaction, I would rather you have it here with the medical personnel around.” Then, before I could even turn my head to look away, the jab was over.
After 15 minutes, during which jolly staff buzzed over me with EpiPens at the ready just in case, I was told I could leave, and at the exit, two broadly smiling army lads implored me to have a good day. Total time elapsed: 25 minutes, in what was one of the most well-coordinated and efficient events I’ve ever experienced.
Later, it struck me why the atmosphere was downright giddy and celebratory: this was my generation’s version of V-Day. After the dystopian hell of multiple lockdowns, ill health and dire uncertainty, there was a real sense the worst was behind us. History was being made, and that was not lost on anyone in the doctor’s office that day.
It all made me feel a rush of national pride for my adopted country – God bless the NHS, indeed. But sadly, nothing like this in Canada has taken place. I can only hope that the Canadian health care system will provide the same compassionate and efficient care for my family. In this test, Mr. Trudeau cannot afford to fail.
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