Lori Lee Oates is an instructor in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Memorial University in Newfoundland who has worked in the senior levels of the provincial and federal governments.
Newfoundland and Labrador is often seen as a province in turmoil. Either the cod fishery is shutting down or the provincial government has overspent on a dam in Labrador. But we have had successes in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ve had relatively low case counts and deaths, and while other provinces have become embroiled in nasty disputes on vaccination, Newfoundland has quietly become the most vaccinated province in the country.
An eyebrow-raising 96 per cent of people over 12 years old are double vaccinated in our easternmost province, compared with the Canadian average of 88 per cent. The rate of 5-to-11-year-olds with their first dose in Newfoundland and Labrador – 75 per cent – puts the national average of 48 per cent to shame. When the Omicron variant blew up just before the holiday season, Newfoundlanders and Labradorians lined up outside of vaccination clinics and pharmacies. Currently more than 180,000 people have received a booster shot, which at approximately 35 per cent of the total population, also puts the province above the national average of 28 per cent.
These realities raise the question of exactly how a province that is so frequently in economic trouble can be a world leader in pandemic management. There certainly have been some successes on the policy side in terms of the vaccine rollout. When vaccination rates lagged in central Newfoundland, the regional health authority added clinics and uptake increased. Premier Andrew Furey, a surgeon, has personally administered vaccines in locations around the province himself. In terms of children, Newfoundland already boasted the highest rate of regular vaccinations before the pandemic. With the COVID-19 vaccines, a quick rollout and offering doses to kids in their schools are seen as factors that spurred uptake.
Our citizens have been some of the most compliant with public health orders since the beginning of the pandemic. Chief Medical Officer Janice Fitzgerald has enjoyed a high level of personal popularity and her authenticity in media briefings engenders trust. The province has seen little in the way of protests against public health orders and those that have taken place were small. Newfoundlanders and Labradorians seem to understand that citizenship brings both rights and responsibilities to keep your fellow citizens safe. Close to 100 per cent of our public servants have complied with vaccine mandates.
Newfoundland and Labrador is a province where tuberculosis persisted into the 1970s. My own mother still talks about my grandmother spending time in “the san.” A sanatorium was a place where people with tuberculosis were sent to heal, separating them from family and friends, sometimes for long periods. The memory of vaccines eliminating the threat of tuberculosis and polio are still strong in our provincial consciousness. So is the memory of infant mortality and women dying in childbirth in outport communities with little access to doctors. As the province with the highest average age, memories are long. The people of this province know well the importance of access to health care. The persistence of doctor shortages is a present-day reminder.
Not so many decades ago, your survival in rural Newfoundland and Labrador depended on your neighbours as families worked together to hunt, fish and build infrastructure. We are accustomed to working together to get things done. There is literally a Broadway musical about how good we are at working together to get things done. Come From Away tells the story of how on Sept. 11, 2001, we welcomed the world to central Newfoundland as American airspace was shut down and planes from across the world were diverted to Canada.
While much has been made of how easy it is to manage a pandemic on an island, the reality is that Newfoundland and Labrador is a province that depends extensively on rotational workers. Many travel to remote work camps outside the province that have sometimes been super spreader locations for COVID-19. These workers have had to go through the difficulties of quarantining away from their families, and some have been keen to get vaccinated in order to reduce quarantine times. It is wrong to suggest that an effectively managed pandemic was easy here. We have made hard choices.
The desire to do our part and be helpful is who we are in a world of rugged individualism. This pandemic has made it painfully clear that individualism will not serve any jurisdiction well going forward. In a globalized world, more co-operation is the only solution to increasingly transnational problems such as pandemics. Newfoundland and Labrador is so retro that we’re ahead of our time.
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