Is this godforsaken pandemic over yet?
In the heat of our second pandemic summer, that’s the question many Canadians are asking themselves – a question to which everyone wants there to be an emphatic “yes!” in response.
Most of all, we want some certainty about where we’re headed. Uncertainty creates doubt, stress and fear – and after 15 months of living like this, we’re fed up.
In recent weeks, however, governments and public-health officials have been selling us the illusion of certainty. Every province and territory has spelled out a pretty detailed reopening plan – but this being Canada, of course, every plan is slightly different for no good reason. Political imprimatur seems to matter more than clarity.
Regardless, all the deconfinement blueprints have the same motif: The more people get vaccinated, the faster public-health restrictions will be lifted. The only point of contention is how fast the shackles will come off.
By Canada Day, some provinces, such as Alberta, will have virtually no restrictions. Throw off your masks and head to the Stampede. Giddy up!
Others, like Ontario, are going much more slowly, taking baby steps like allowing the number of people allowed to sit together for outdoor dining to grow from four to six this week.
Vaccination, meanwhile, is going great guns in Canada. As of Monday morning, 35.5 million doses had been administered, with 10.3 million people fully vaccinated with two doses.
Two-thirds of eligible Canadians have received at least one shot of COVID-19 vaccine; one-quarter have had two shots.
That level of protection should be rewarded. It should buy us some freedom. At the same time, we have to recognize that when we throw doors open, we may have to shut them again, if circumstances change.
Israel, one of the first countries to dispense with masking, has reinstated its mask mandate after a new spike in cases. Paradoxically, the most vaccinated countries on Earth – Uruguay, the Maldives, the Seychelles, Bahrain – have all seen their own surges.
That doesn’t mean vaccines don’t work. But it is a reminder they aren’t magic.
The Delta variant is being blamed for these depressing changes of fortune. While that variant may well be more contagious (and that’s a point of contention among epidemiologists), human behaviour still matters more than mutations.
The most likely explanation for these spikes of cases is that people relaxed a little too much. They got cocky and careless.
Closing quickly and reopening slowly is the best way to avoid new waves of infection. That lesson, which dates back to the early days of the pandemic in the spring of 2020, remains true.
If Canada wants to avoid a fourth wave, we need to heed that warning. Don’t throw away your masks, but wear them in select settings. Have larger gatherings, but don’t overdo it. Head back to restaurants, but don’t recycle the plexiglass barriers quite yet. Travel again, but get tested, before and after.
The Public Health Agency has actually provided some sensible guidelines on what fully vaccinated people can do with an easy-to-understand infographic.
Of course, there have been complaints that the guidance was late and incomplete. It’s easy to understand the reticence of public-health officials, however. If you try to stay current, you get accused of flip-flopping; if you try to envisage every possible scenario, the rules become incomprehensible.
Again, the age-old (ie. more than a year old, in pandemic time) rules still apply: Limit close contacts and avoid confined, crowded spaces. The only thing that has changed is that our limits are less absolute.
Where the guidance is fuzzy – for example, on the question of how fully vaccinated grandparents should behave around unvaccinated grandchildren – go with your gut. As David Naylor, the no-nonsense head of Canada’s COVID-19 Immunity Task Force (and proud grandpa) said on Twitter: “Oh hell, I’ll just hug them anyway.”
The future of the pandemic will be determined largely by our levels of patience – or impatience.
The coronavirus is going to be with us for the foreseeable future. The embers are still smoldering in the community, and the challenge will be to keep them from flaring up. We can expect the numbers to bounce around in the weeks and months ahead, as the tussle between vaccination, variants and our behaviours continues. To quote the famed Canadian physician William Osler: “Medicine is a science of uncertainty and an art of probability.” That tension is ever-present with COVID-19.
But while uncertainty remains, we’re learning a little more every day, and coping – often quite artfully.
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