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Vaccines have created the illusion that the pandemic’s end is close at hand. It’s giving rise to competitiveness, frustration, envy and utter carelessness. Meanwhile, the third wave is just getting started

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Illustration by The Globe and Mail

Philip Preville is a freelance writer based in Peterborough, Ont.

At the beginning of March, I made what felt like a momentous decision: I decided to book a family summer vacation. Things were looking up at the time. COVID-19 case counts were on the wane. Vaccine shipments to Canada had resumed, immunization clinics were gearing up and two more vaccines had just been approved for use. I confidently put a deposit down on a cottage in Prince Edward Island for early July and booked hotel stays for the two-day drive to Souris from my home in Peterborough, Ont.

Since then, I’ve watched my vacation go up in smoke.

Canada is now in the midst of a brutal third wave, and hospital ICUs are nearing capacity. The Atlantic Canada premiers have announced the return of their regional travel bubble. Ontario can’t seem to get its act together, lifting many public-health restrictions in February and March amid rising case counts, then imposing a month-long lockdown on Thursday that appears full of loopholes. And Canada’s vaccination campaign is beset with problems. If this keeps up, I fear travel restrictions are sure to follow.

I think both the Trudeau and Ford governments have done a poor job managing the pandemic. It’s not just because I think they could handle the vaccine rollout better. It’s also because they keep messing with my plans.

Like everyone else, I’m utterly worn down by the pandemic. Just one month ago the finish line was in sight, and it gave me a jolt of energy and optimism. Then spread of virus variants and inept governments moved the yardsticks.

I am not alone in my predicament, and the frustration goes far beyond personal travel. Vaccines have given us all hope for playdates and date nights, for backyard barbecues, for small business survival, for steady work, for the sight of our children hugging their grandparents.

We would not permit ourselves such visions were it not for the appearance of the finish line.

Last fall, when there was no end in sight, we all came to terms with running a perpetual race without end, believing that we had to adapt our routines and keep them that way. Now that we can see the finish line, we are dreaming of life on the other side. And rather than relieving our anxiety, it’s only making it worse.

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Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

In 1932, the Yale University psychologist Clark Hull, noticing how rats in a maze moved faster as they approached their food-pellet reward at the end, posited what’s known as the goal gradient hypothesis: The closer organisms get to achieving a goal, the harder they work to get it. It’s a form of anxiety in itself, a clinical way of describing what’s commonly called the mad dash to the finish: increased alertness, competitiveness, anticipation and effort.

Vaccination is more than just the jab; it now symbolizes the finish line. In the public imagination, “the race to the finish” is quickly supplanting “the war against the virus” as the dominant narrative frame for making sense of the pandemic. And we have all, whether we realize it or not, become captive to its logic.

Christopher Ankersen, a clinical associate professor at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University and a former member of the Canadian Armed Forces, has been studying the effects of narrative framing on the pandemic. His own work has focused more on the war narrative but, as he says, “all framing is problematic. No matter which framing you use, you get trade-offs and side effects.”

In Prof. Ankersen’s view, narrative framing always serves a social purpose, particularly in terms of what he calls taming effects. “Taming puts things into some social order,” he explains. “It’s basically a disciplining effect. The framing doesn’t just make the situation relatable, it’s about making it relatable so that certain things can kick in” – meaning helpful social attitudes and behaviours.

When the pandemic is framed as a war, its taming effects are more collective in nature: A war effort emphasizes that we are all in this together, that we need to support those on the front lines, that our individual sacrifices are part of a greater common goal. Once the pandemic becomes framed as a race, those collective taming effects are lost. Even a team of runners, as they approach the finish line, compete for position. Individualism supplants community.

This narrative shift has thrown a wrench into Canada’s pandemic response, because we have not yet reached the point where we can forgo communal efforts. But Canada’s slowpoke vaccination rollout is testing our social cohesion, because it feels like we are losing the race.

Canada’s vaccination campaign has been eclipsed internationally by many countries we’ve typically considered beneath us in status and capability, such as Poland, Finland and Portugal. And watching the United States leapfrog us in a matter of weeks, going from last-place basket case to finish-line victor, has been deeply demoralizing. Hence the question on many people’s lips: Does our government still know how to get anything done any more, other than write cheques?

That question typically gets phrased in the abstract, wonkish sense – “whither government in the pandemic era?”– but it’s actually one with a cascade of detrimental real-world consequences. If Canadians see this as a race, and if they don’t believe their federal and provincial governments can get them all across the finish line in fairly short order, they’ll find their own way across.

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Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Queue-jumping is the simplest and most obvious expression of finish-line anxiety. The fewer vaccine doses we have on hand, the more our governments stratify the population to prioritize who gets access to them: the elderly, those with pre-existing medical conditions, front-line health workers, disadvantaged groups, restaurant staff and so on. Meanwhile, as the third wave rolls in, promising more hospitalizations and deaths than ever before – particularly among younger, otherwise healthy adults who are last in line for vaccination – the stratification process becomes an existential threat. It feels a bit like being passed over for a spot in the bomb shelter.

No wonder, then, that people are using connections, money and deceit to butt in line. The more finish-line thinking takes hold the more such behaviour seems rational, and the longer Canada’s vaccination campaign languishes the more of it we can expect. Prof. Ankersen argues that shifts in narrative framing also come with shifts in blaming and shaming, in who we hold accountable to whom. So long as the pandemic is a war, we shame others for failing the group. Once it becomes a race, we are more likely to shame ourselves: “If you didn’t cross the finish line, it’s because you didn’t run fast enough, or hard enough – you didn’t do what you needed to do.”

That’s why people take matters into their own hands. For high fliers such as Mark Machin, the former head of the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board who went to the United Arab Emirates to get his jab, jumping the queue is a matter of sheer self-interest. If you are a Bay Street deal broker or a Vancouver venture capitalist, and you are watching your competitors in New York, London and Tokyo cross the finish line and return to international travel and deal-making, you’ll do what you must to rejoin your business circles.

Finish-line anxiety also helps explain Canada’s rising tide of street-level bullhorn rebellion. Every call for an end to lockdowns is, at its core, a demand for a clear finish line. Anti-masking activism is an expression of a basic finish-line impulse: I’m done looking out for others. The same goes for clandestine house parties.

Meanwhile, for those of us still trying to think collectively and act responsibly, all these behaviours act like anxiety loudspeakers. The actions of others keep pushing the finish line further into the distance and booby-trapping the homestretch with outbreaks. That wave of fatigue you’re feeling is what happens when you were convinced the end was at hand, only to realize you’ve still got a long way to go.

None of these realities is lost, I don’t think, on our governments. They encouraged the wartime framing during the pandemic’s early stages because its taming effects were helpful to them. The race-to-the-finish framing has taken hold more organically, to the point that they, too, are beholden to it.

Finish-line thinking certainly explains the decision by the federal government’s National Advisory Committee on Immunization to double the delay between the first and second doses of the approved two-dose vaccines, to four months from two. This is government-sanctioned queue-jumping, allowing healthy adults to butt into line and get their first shot before many elderly people and front-line workers receive the second dose and the full vaccine protection they were promised.

But it also means Canada will be able to administer a first dose to all adults by the summer, moving everyone a tangible step closer to the finish line, shoring up social solidarity and easing our anxiety. Except that NACI recently announced it is now revisiting its second-dose guidelines, and any decision to reverse them will move the finish line further away once again. Just this week, NACI recommended pausing the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine in adults under 55. Where is the blasted finish line now? How long can this go on?

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Matt Smith/The Canadian Press

The real finish line, the moment when our lives and work and play can all return to normal, is herd immunity, and it’s nowhere near where we want it to be. It is, in fact, a moving target. Its eventual location will depend upon declining global case counts, better medical treatment for the afflicted, second-generation and third-generation vaccines that can counteract emerging variants, and more. Even the world’s most knowledgeable scientists, those “cursed with true understanding,” as Prof. Ankersen puts it, have no idea where that finish line is located. They’ll know it when they see it. Right now, from their vantage point, it’s not on the horizon.

The finish line the rest of us think we see, and have been trying to plan our lives around, is a mirage. The Public Health Agency of Canada has yet to release guidelines for how to prevent infection for the four warm, sunny months between our first and second doses, when we are all merely halfway-protected. Chances are we’ll be asked to continue physical distancing, wearing masks, and limiting our contacts and our travel. There goes my summer vacation. It will be months yet before your children can hug their grandparents.

This is a brutal reality to face, given the finish-line anticipation we’ve all been feeling. But all narrative frames are just metaphors to help us make sense of things. They are never a perfect fit for reality, and eventually they let us down. The reality is that we are probably headed for some kind of perpetual management, with public-health bureaus mounting annual vaccination campaigns, hospitals preparing for seasonal surges of infections, and people being asked, during flare-ups, to return to masking and distancing.

Recognizing the reality of a distant finish line is, paradoxically, the best way for people to alleviate their individual anxiety. In an essay in this newspaper last November, writer Alex Hutchinson eloquently summed up the counterintuitive psychology of finish lines: “It turns out that, if you ask yourself, ‘Can I keep going?’ rather than ‘Can I make it to the finish?’ you’re far more likely to answer in the affirmative.”

But while it helps to recognize that the finish line is just a narrative device, mindfulness alone won’t make it disappear. It’s a social construct, not an individual one; we can manage our personal anxiety, but the social anxiety will still linger. And anxiety on that scale is for governments and their public-health agencies to manage. Officials need to recognize that they have, quite literally, lost the plot on the pandemic. The way they talk about it bears little resemblance to the way the public is thinking about it. People are searching for a finish line; their job is to help guide us toward it, with a realistic assessment of how far remains to go.

“Once the frame has been set in motion it’s very difficult to change it, so you have to work the metaphor you’ve got to get the result you want,” says Prof. Ankersen. The challenge here is to keep people believing that the race is a team event, not an individual one. One way for governments to do that would be to talk about the need to “finish strong.” The race isn’t over, so don’t start your final sprint just yet. You’ve made it possible for others to reach the finish ahead of you, and they’ll be waiting when you get there. Don’t quit on them now. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau touched upon some of these themes this week, though in the face of widespread anxiety his remarks were timid. Work the metaphor.

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Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

Another way for governments to alleviate finish-line anxiety would be to publicly declare a specific, targeted end date for a national adult vaccination campaign and stick to it. That date would not represent the true herd immunity finish line, but it would still be an important milestone with its own cascade of positive effects, including a more sure-footed reopening for business activity and the welcome ability to see a little further into our personal futures. South of the border, U.S. President Joe Biden has been crystal clear: vaccination for all by May 31, and a loosening of restrictions by the Fourth of July. Americans are making plans. Canadians are still hedging theirs.

Since last December, the federal government has provided only a vague assurance that vaccinations would be complete by the end of summer. This week it became clear just how precarious that timeline always was: Mr. Trudeau announced that millions of vaccine shipments would be arriving earlier than planned, yet somehow the end-of-summer finish line didn’t budge. No wonder so few Canadians trust it.

The Prime Minister and the premiers should pick a date and say it loud. They should also emphasize what that date means: It’s the day when the last stragglers get across the line, with minimal hospital admissions and COVID-19 fatalities between now and then.

Once committed to a date, it would be harder for governments to pursue policy measures that jeopardize it, such as half-measures amid a spiking third wave or constant revisions to second-dose vaccination timelines. They can even use the date as the justification for third-wave lockdowns: If we don’t, we won’t get everyone across the finish.

And finally, officials should do all they can to move that date closer, without offering false hope or empty optimism. The best vaccination rollouts happen as fast as possible, fully stocked with supply and working to push everyone through in rapid succession, because doing it that way minimizes social conflict and individual anxiety.

That’s not going to be possible in Canada for the first dose of the two-shot vaccines; those began last December and will likely take six months to complete. But it should be our governments’ objective for the second dose: to procure and deliver it all in six weeks instead of six months. After all, global vaccine production is only going to grow in capacity. The United States projects that it will have an oversupply of vaccine by mid-May. It’s distinctly possible to get every Canadian adult fully vaccinated before Sept. 30, if our governments can finish strong. No one expects miracles at this point, but there is time yet to gain some ground.

Canada’s vaccination campaign began last Dec. 14 with a photo-op of 89-year-old Gisèle Lévesque receiving the country’s very first dose. But the only photo-op that ever mattered is yet to come, when some perfectly healthy twentysomething hoser becomes the last grown Canadian to get the jab. That’s the photo finish. That’s the moment we can say we made it.

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Illustration by The Globe and Mail

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