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Protesters and police stand off on Highway 104, in Cumberland County, N.S., on June 23, 2021.Riley Smith/The Canadian Press

Joan Baxter is an award-winning journalist and author in Nova Scotia.

With the COVID-19 pandemic seemingly headed toward its conclusion here in Canada, an unseemly kerfuffle broke out last week on the border between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick – one that was not at all typical of how Atlantic Canada had handled the crisis before this point.

People in the region have prided themselves on how well they’ve dealt with the pandemic, staying the blazes home and keeping COVID-19 rates and fatalities relatively low.

Their reward was the “Atlantic bubble,” created almost exactly a year ago to allow people from Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia to move freely between provinces without having to quarantine for two weeks. The approach made sense for a region that shares enough in the way of history and spirit that the idea of a “Maritime Union” is sometimes mooted for three of those provinces.

When the third wave hit, the Atlantic provinces each reinstituted restrictions on interprovincial travellers; in Nova Scotia, even intraprovincial travel was verboten for a few weeks. Once again, people (not all, but most) complied, because pausing the bubble was the right thing to do. Medical science told us so. And besides, the Atlantic bubble was supposed to open up again on June 23.

But then, New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs announced people from across Canada with just one vaccination could enter his province without quarantining. Nova Scotia Premier Iain Rankin responded by declaring anyone entering from New Brunswick would have to continue to isolate upon arrival, just like people from outside the bubble. After the pandemic’s extended period of regional unity, this felt like a betrayal to the communities along the border that share much more than a geographic borderline could divide.

And so, last week, a hodgepodge of protesters – some of them conspiracy-minded and stridently against vaccines – parked two pickups back to back across the Trans-Canada Highway to block the border. Egged on by a sitting member of the provincial legislature, the protesters declared they wouldn’t allow anyone to cross the border, apparently oblivious to the irony of their actions.

The blockade only ended when, after more than 24 hours, the RCMP gave up on trying “to engage the protesters in meaningful dialogue,” arresting three people and reopening the highway. The politician, Elizabeth Smith-McCrossin, was removed from the provincial Progressive Conservative caucus. Mr. Rankin eventually amended his decision, after he and the province’s chief public-health official felt enough time had passed, that they had received more information from New Brunswick’s public-health officials and that vaccination rates were continuing at a strong enough clip to allow New Brunswickers to enter Nova Scotia without quarantining, as of June 30.

It hasn’t been easy for anyone anywhere to keep up with all the complicated restrictions and changing goal posts around COVID-19. The disease is new, and public-health agencies have struggled to keep up with the evolving understanding of how to protect human health against COVID-19 and new variants of the virus that causes it.

But for the first time I can recall, political leaders (not all, but a good number) seemed to be making policy decisions based on the best available science. In this case, Mr. Rankin made an unpopular decision, but one driven by risk tolerance and evidence.

That is no small thing – and it’s only one of the important things we need to take away from the pandemic.

COVID-19 has shown us how vulnerable we are to new diseases, which are predicted to multiply if we continue to ignore the links between them, the destruction of the natural world and climate change. The threats posed by COVID-19 pale next to the almost inconceivable threats posed by a global temperature rise of 2.7 to 3.1 C above preindustrial levels that are projected for this century. And unlike the science on COVID-19, the science on climate change is not new. We’ve known about it for decades. We’ve just not treated it as the emergency it is.

The Atlantic bubble was seen as symbolizing the region’s “spirit of pandemic unity,” and it served us well. But what is needed next is not a regional or even a national bubble. Rather, we need a worldwide one to address inequities in access to vaccines and health care, and to take on the massive challenges of climate change, which will cause disproportionate suffering for those who are least responsible for it.

COVID-19 is just the warm-up. And as much as a protective bubble has its appeal, Atlantic Canada has proved that’s not how the world works. The real crisis facing our species now is the climate, and to tackle that our bubble has to encompass the whole planet.

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