It’s been exactly one year since the first COVID-19 case was diagnosed in Canada.
One year of being pummelled non-stop by news headlines, each seemingly more grim than the last.
In the past 366 days, Canada has gone from one case to more than 750,000 cumulative cases, from one patient with mild symptoms to overflowing hospital intensive-care wards and 19,000 deaths and counting.
Globally, the numbers are even more numbing: 100-million confirmed cases and 2.1-million deaths.
There are little glimmers of hope but no sooner is the good news uttered than it is overtaken by the bad.
Worst of all perhaps are the seemingly endless contradictions in the advice from politicians, public-health officials and scientists of all stripes.
Masks aren’t necessary; masks are essential. The coronavirus is spread by droplets; no, by aerosols – or maybe both. School is essential; school is dangerous. Staying at home is a must but there are some great travel deals; elders must be isolated to stay safe, but isolation is deadly. Rapid tests are the way to get people back to work; rapid tests don’t work well enough. Vaccines are our salvation; vaccines won’t end this pandemic.
It’s exhausting. It’s confusing. It’s depressing.
It feels like Lucy pulling away the football just as Charlie Brown is about to kick it, on an endless loop, magnified on social media.
So how do we deal with this barrage of mixed messaging without succumbing to resignation?
First of all, it’s worth remembering how our brains work and how humans behave, even in less stressful “normal” times.
Ideally, when we have a tough question to answer – such as, “should I send my kids to school?” – and complex information to process, we should carefully and calmly examine the available evidence for and against, and make a reasoned, rational decision.
But our brains tend to take shortcuts and look for things that support our beliefs and desires. This cherry picking has a name: confirmation bias.
It’s why two people can look at the exact same evidence and come up with diametrically opposed conclusions, such as “sending my kids to school is the safest option” and “sending kids to school is way too risky.”
Our biases are shaped by many things, from politics to personal circumstances, from personality to misinformation. Against the backdrop of the pandemic, the “send kids to school” equation is different for a firefighter who must be on the job than it is for a bookkeeper who can work from home. We all have different levels of risk tolerance too, from ultracautious to laissez-faire.
The information we use to make decisions, from newspaper headlines to chatting with co-workers, is changing constantly. It doesn’t help that there is so much misinformation out there that we can find support for virtually any belief, no matter how preposterous.
Scientists learn by studying, hypothesizing, adjusting and then learning some more. Knowledge moves a bit like a football advancing toward the end zone: a team using their skills to move it inch-by-inch against a wily opponent, the occasional fumble or big play, with some carnage along the way. Sometimes the football is pulled away entirely.
Unlike football though, the pandemic game doesn’t have set rules or a time limit; nor will there be a clear declaration of victory, or a trophy to hoist.
Eventually, in years, not months, the pandemic will sputter out as we turn out attentions to other things. The headlines will get smaller and the stories will be bumped from the front pages to inside the paper.
In the meantime, some truisms are worth remembering. Something that seems too good to be true probably is. There are no miracle cures – not hydroxychloroquine, vitamin D, colchicine or even vaccines.
Don’t misread this. Vaccines will help a lot, but not magically, not overnight and not in isolation. As much as we don’t like to hear it, public-health measures such as mask wearing, physical distancing and limiting crowd sizes and travel will continue for the foreseeable future.
The basic stuff works, even against variants.
Pragmatism also serves us well. Little is black and white in this fight. Crushing the pandemic is not about ensuring people’s health or a healthy economy. The two are inextricably linked.
The best way to keep our sanity is to keep our eyes on the long game, looking forward resolutely, not rehashing our past failures or successes.
Keep reading the news, but try keeping it in context.
In short, for the next year(s) of this pandemic, we need to embrace the mantra of mindfulness guru Jon Kabat-Zinn: “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn how to surf.”
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.