Skip to main content

As the world staggers unsteadily toward the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, and Canada braces warily for a fifth wave, the situation is as unstable as it has ever been.

In late December, 2019, we were unsure what the emergence of a novel coronavirus in the Chinese city of Wuhan would mean to the world.

In December, 2021, we are almost as unsure what the emergence of a new coronavirus variant, Omicron, will mean to the pandemic trajectory.

After more than 700 days of uncertainty, you would think we would be a lot better at dealing with uncertainty.

One thing that would certainly help is learning from our mistakes and not repeating them, wave after wave. And yet, the same patterns are repeated over and over again.

It begins with denial. Our Western arrogance deludes us into thinking that pathogens respect borders – or at least border police. The 2019 dismissal, “that only matters in China,” became the 2021 denial, “that only matters in South Africa.”

So what do we do? We shut down borders.

That feels like action, but it has limited effectiveness. By the time border controls were brought in, the Wuhan strain of COVID-19 had already spread widely in Europe. Similarly, as we began slapping travel restrictions on South Africa and its neighbours, Omicron was already in Europe and on its way to North America.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for travel restrictions in a pandemic. But they have to be administered smartly, with universal vaccine passports and testing, not by singling out groups of people based on their passports.

What sense does it make for Canada to shut out South Africans while allowing citizens of the United States (the hardest-hit country on Earth) to cross the border with minimal restrictions?

One lesson COVID-19 should have taught us is that instead of building ever-higher walls, we should be reaching out to those in need – out of rational self-interest, if nothing else.

The single biggest barrier to ending the pandemic – and, yes, it will end – is inequitable distribution of vaccines.

But just as Western countries bought up and hoarded first doses of vaccines, they are now moving overly aggressively on booster shots, further delaying the administration of vaccines in the developing world.

The news is not all grim, though: 7.8 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered in just over a year; 3.3 billion people – roughly 43 per cent of the world’s population – have had at least two doses.

The vaccines are also working relatively well, with hospitalizations and deaths falling, except among the unvaccinated.

Yet, we continue to pander to those who selfishly refuse to do their civic duty by refusing to get vaccinated. And we’ve done far too little to counter the disinformation that is fuelling vaccine hesitancy.

Probably the most common and harmful mistake we have made repeatedly is lifting restrictions too quickly. Our impatience has allowed COVID-19 to surge anew, time and time again.

Who can forget Alberta Premier Jason Kenney essentially declaring the pandemic to be over and then the province being hammered by COVID in the months that followed?

In uncertain times, we make unequivocal statements and policies at our peril. No one should dare declare victory until long after the pandemic has passed.

Uncertainty is difficult to deal with on a personal level. It causes a lot of anxiety.

It’s probably even more difficult to cope with on a policy level. We like rules to be clear. We want precise parameters and deadlines.

But for the past two years, the rules have been ever-changing and in flux – and that has been made worse because our government apparatuses are not built to be nimble.

Too often, governments are paralyzed by ideological and economic arguments that result in head-scratchingly bad public policies.

What has served us well during the pandemic is pragmatism, a willingness to embrace the discomfort of not knowing what’s coming next and being willing to adapt.

There are few, if any, perfect responses to the challenges posed by COVID-19. But there are many good responses, and they will allow us to muddle through.

The COVID-19 pandemic is complex because there are many interdependent and unpredictable elements, but many of the solutions are not complicated, and have been successfully implemented.

We have to shift our mindset from treating COVID-19 as an acute problem and see it as a chronic one.

What we need now is not despair, but realistic optimism – the knowledge that we will succeed eventually, even though it won’t be easy.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe