Jaason Geerts is director of research and leadership development at the Canadian College of Health Leaders, and honorary visiting fellow at the University of London’s Bayes Business School.
Experts across Canada have declared that we have entered the seventh wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, but where once such announcements might have induced anxiety and fear, that effect appears to have largely dissipated. Most of us have become immune – not to the virus, but tragically, to any grave concern about it.
This is partly because the uptake of vaccines, alongside recommended and enforced public-health measures, has apparently dispelled worries of mortality at a population level and, to a good extent, the individual level. Cognitively, many vaccinated people have downgraded the threat to flu-like: inevitable at some point, but not that bad. Governments across Canada have also ceded to mounting public pressure, in some cases overruling public-health advice, in lifting most if not all restrictions.
So many Canadians have wanted work, business, school, child care, travel, weddings, concerts, and in-person human and community connections – in short, our lives – to go back to “normal,” as things were before. People are done with this crisis; they’ve let their guards down, hung up their masks, and turned their backs on the fight and would be reluctant to concede an inch of progress willingly again.
And indeed, we have survived a few rounds. The problem is that while the opponent may be bruised, it is not beaten – and it still has punches left to throw.
Yes, the risk of the pandemic becoming a mass-extinction event may be gone, but the clear and recurring danger to society’s most vulnerable is simply not. Our health care systems continue to flash signs of collapse, despite the superheroic dedication of front-line staff and leaders.
We also still don’t know enough about the pandemic’s lasting effects – including around post-traumatic stress disorder and burnout in our work force, as well as long COVID – and gambling that these issues won’t later surface seems reckless.
Perhaps most worryingly, given the behaviour of the hyper-contagious subvariant (BA.5), the previously heralded panacea of vaccines and immunity derived from recovering from an infection are now generally reduced. For otherwise healthy people, it appears that they are only protective against severe disease and hospitalization, not against contracting and potentially spreading the virus.
Ignoring the apparent and persisting reality, as massively inconvenient as it may be, is not the solution. Dismissing masking, boosters and other recommended precautions altogether unless mandates return and to stop trying, basically, is a particularly precarious approach. We need a wiser strategy that aims to allow us to do the things we have to do or want to do, while avoiding or mitigating risk of infection – even if this sometimes this means foregoing experiences we enjoyed prepandemic.
Indeed, there are activities allowed within the rules now, such as going maskless on public transit, in schools, at work, while having an indoor dinner with a group whether at a restaurant or not, or at a music festival, that can result in consequences we may soon or later regret. At higher-risk events, there is greater the potential for repercussions of getting infected with COVID-19. The mildest of them include disruptions and jeopardizing important events that will be embittering to forego. We may be able to live with postponing a coffee date to isolate, for instance, but missing a best friend’s wedding or a parent’s funeral, having to cancel a much-needed family vacation at the last minute, or withdrawing from a pivotal work opportunity – these are tougher to stomach.
The ramifications for others of us contracting the virus, such as bringing it home and seeing your family suffer or causing them to have to miss a special event, spreading COVID-19 at an in-person gathering and being responsible for the ripple effects starting with attendees, or, worst of all, infecting a vulnerable person, this all lumps an infusion of guilt on top of any potential personal loss.
The continuing toll on our battered health care system and on organizations and other societal functions when the virus spreads only reinforces the message that we appear to have forgotten: COVID-19 precautions are not just a matter of personal choice or freedom. No one is an island in this.
When people need to isolate, others either need to cover for them, which takes these individuals away from their families and from rejuvenation outside of work, or extra stress is heaped on staff who have to perform short-handed. In some cases, services may have to be delayed or cancelled, which can be painfully disruptive for users. Some organizations have the capacity to handle absences and continue operations, but many do not, and they all have a breaking point, as we have seen recently with temporary closings of hospital emergency departments across the country, from Clearwater B.C., to Perth, Ont., to Whitbourne, N.L.
The cost of these disruptions isn’t always quantifiable, but when we can prevent them, they can be hard to justify. By opting for safe options when we have the choice, we help protect those who don’t.
Although the science continues to evolve, we’ve learned that there’s a lot we can do right now to lessen the danger to ourselves, to our families and to our systems. We know now that there’s no need to leave delivery packages in the garage for three days or to boycott the park, but that vaccines and boosters, meticulous hand hygiene, masking indoors and during close interactions, high-quality ventilation, physical distancing, avoiding buffet dinners, and isolating when symptomatic or potentially exposed, are helpful measures. While some Canadians may be hesitant to get their fourth vaccination until they see how things evolve, the fact that about 40 per cent of Canadians older than 12 have not received even their third doses is cause for concern.
Yes, we have to live our lives; we need to connect; and some degree of risk and disruption is unavoidable. But, among the permitted activities, we should be making wise and measured choices by keeping safety – ours and that of others – front of mind and seeking creative ways to work, come together, and enjoy our time when risk creeps in. After all, some sacrifices are fairly effortless, such as masking, whereas others can be much tougher, especially when we want things to be like they were before. They just aren’t, and we need to understand that they may never be.
So, we each must ask ourselves vigilantly: what should be strictly or generally avoided? What can be done more safely in alternate ways? And, when an alternative isn’t possible, what is the safest way to approach in-person situations?
Likewise, organizations should continue to examine how they can thrive, while prioritizing the safety of their staff and consumers and aiming to minimize disruption. This requires taking the long view and building capacity to be adaptive, knowing that more interruptions will arise. For example, many restaurants have followed recommended public-health protocols with improved ventilation and table distancing. Creating or expanding patios, introducing or augmenting take-away services, and developing in-person and virtual cooking classes could diversify their lines of business and make them more resilient.
Although we cannot be at high alert indefinitely, the reality is that this fight isn’t over; there will be other fights and pandemics. But here’s where my first analogy – of us in the boxing ring against COVID-19 – falls short. First, battling the pandemic is not a sport – there are real casualties – and it certainly is not an individual one. Second, COVID-19 is not an opponent who will allow us to hang up the gloves and walk away without the wider potential for consequences for us, for our families and for others that we may regret once it’s too late.
So, let’s make wise and measured choices and find creative alternatives when necessary. It is our best approach in dealing with a foe that we may feel done with, but is not done with us.
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