“Today, we face a pandemic paradox,” Dr. Hans Kluge, regional director for Europe at the World Health Organization, said last week.
“Vaccines, on the one hand, offer remarkable hope. On the other hand, newly emerging variants of concern are presenting greater uncertainty and risk.”
That’s not the only paradox.
In Canada, we have contracts to purchase 398 million vaccine doses – enough to vaccinate the population at least five times over – and yet we have a dire shortage, with only 1.1 million of those doses having been delivered to date.
Coronavirus cases are coming down steadily, and hospitalizations are too, if a little more slowly. And yet COVID-19 deaths are increasing.
Similarly, we’re told that international travel accounts for a tiny percentage of new cases. And yet the federal government has clamped down on cross-border movement, as are many countries around the world.
Some of these seeming contradictions are easy enough to explain.
Deaths are a lagging indicator. The people dying today were infected four, six or eight weeks ago. Slowing infections today will mean fewer deaths in a month or two.
The vaccine puzzle is not that puzzling, either. To date, only two vaccines have been approved in Canada – ones from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. In the coming weeks, however, we can expect approval of more products from AstraZeneca, Novavax, and Johnson & Johnson.
It takes time to manufacture billions of doses and, whether or not there’s a signed contract, not every country can be first in line for shipments. There are economic and political realities that determine who gets dibs, and it’s not going to be a country such as Canada, which has a small population and no domestic coronavirus vaccine production.
Canada’s supply problem will be resolved with time. By summer, we will likely be swimming in vaccine and, instead of bemoaning lack of supply, the provinces will be complaining that they don’t have the fridge space for all the doses Ottawa is sending their way. (Rule No. 1 of federal-provincial relations: The glass is always too empty or too full.)
All told, despite the grim numbers – 100 million cases and 2.2 million deaths worldwide, with 785,000 cases and 20,000 deaths in Canada alone – this should be a hopeful time. One year into the pandemic, we know how to control the spread of coronavirus, and mass vaccination will bolster our defences considerably.
Yet, the dark cloud of mutation lurks. The variants that have emerged to date – B.1.1.7, B.1.351 and P.1, first detected in Britain, South Africa and Brazil respectively – appear to spread more readily. More worryingly, some vaccines may not be quite as effective against some variants.
These curveballs thrown at us by biology are a challenge, but we can’t forget that, variants or no, the good old-fashioned approaches – including mask-wearing, physical distancing and avoiding mass gatherings – work.
In short, if we limit interactions, we limit spread, giving variants less of an opportunity to gain a foothold and giving vaccines time to be administered and take effect.
But this brings us to another paradox, perhaps the most difficult to digest: As things improve, as the vaccine rollout picks up steam, and as cases continue to drop, it becomes all the more important to hold the line on public-health measures – or even step them up.
Despite pandemic fatigue, the worst possible thing we can do right now is relax lockdowns too quickly. This is no time to rush to the mall.
Yet, Quebec and Alberta are talking about easing restrictions beginning Feb. 8. Both those provinces have made good progress in recent weeks – cases are down sharply, and the pressure on hospitals has eased – but they shouldn’t risk throwing it all away just to toss a bone to businesses.
The constant open-close cycle has probably been the most exasperating aspect of Canada’s pandemic management. We always get a little too impatient, ease the rules too quickly, and give the virus an opportunity to spread anew.
It’s pandemic Groundhog Day. (The rodent-watching tradition, it’s interesting to note, can be traced back to Candlemas Day, a Christian festival where candles were burned in the dark days of winter to ward off illness and plague.)
We need to break the chains of transmission in the community. The arrival of faster-spreading variants only make that all the more urgent.
Failing to embrace a little more suffering at this paradoxical time could be disastrous. The second wave was worse than that the first – and if we give the coronavirus and its variants too much slack, a third wave will be even more brutal.
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