Skip to main content

A sign for the Outrigger restaurant announcing in restaurant dining in Toronto on Jan 31.Fred Lum/the Globe and Mail

A do-it-yourself approach is no way to fight a pandemic.

Yet, we’re all on our own now.

Masks are coming off. Vaccine passports are disappearing. Vaccine mandates are lifting. Crowd limits are gone. Testing and contact tracing are all but abandoned.

“Getting back to normal” has become the rallying cry. At all costs, it seems.

That approach will be welcomed by many. After two years of pandemic restrictions, there is an understandable eagerness to throw off the shackles for good.

We are in a period of pandemic quiescence. Hospitalizations and deaths are down. Case numbers and positivity rates probably are, too, however unreliable the numbers are. Spring is in the air.

We should loosen up a bit, give ourselves some breathing room. But not at the cost of being unprepared for the next wave.

No one is suggesting that there should be lockdowns or curfews or that the rules shouldn’t adapt to new realities.

The debate we need to have is not about whether we should lift pandemic restrictions, but how and when. And, more importantly, how and when we will reinstate some mitigation measures should they be needed again.

Yet, we seem to have simply abandoned the notion of collective action. It’s all up to individuals now.

“We should all take personal responsibility” has become the stock response of politicians and public-health officials alike. I’ll do me and you do you, and tra-la-la.

That would all be well and good if the pandemic playing field was level. But it’s not. Far from it.

An 85-year-old is about 340 times more likely to die of COVID-19 than a 20-year-old; at age 75, it’s about 140 times more likely; at 65, a mere 65 times more likely. The orders-of-magnitude risks are similar for people who are immunocompromised and/or have chronic health conditions such as cancer and heart disease.

We’ve done a poor job of protecting the most vulnerable in society. Just look at the carnage that occurred in long-term care homes.

Now, by abandoning all mitigation measures at once – even simple, almost effortless ones such as mandating the wearing of a mask in indoor public spaces – we’re shifting the pandemic burden entirely onto the immunocompromised, the unboosted, and the unwillingly unvaccinated (read: young kids.)

We’ve gone from failing the vulnerable to forsaking them. And for what? More freedom for the already free? COVID-19 is bad enough; we don’t need to morph into a pandemic of selfishness.

The primary role of public health is to reduce harm to the public, and to protect the most vulnerable in society in particular. It should not be about promoting personal preference for the privileged.

Again, no one is suggesting that the draconian measures employed in the dark, early days of the pandemic in the spring of 2020 are appropriate today.

But nor should we be pretending we can magically get back to the so-called prepandemic normal. Rather, we should be focusing on “Getting To and Sustaining the Next Normal,” to quote the title of a recent report from a blue-ribbon panel in the U.S. led by Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, co-director of the Healthcare Transformation Institute at the University of Pennsylvania.

The expert panel cautioned that instead of pretending the pandemic is over (which it isn’t, based on spiking cases in Europe and Asia) we should be focusing on what comes next – whether it’s a sixth wave or a new pandemic.

Practically, that means building a comprehensive testing and surveillance system, instead of simultaneously ending data collection and analysis and telling members of the public to do their own “personal risk assessment.”

It also means making rapid testing affordable and ubiquitous, investing in vaccines and therapeutics, developing a better understanding of long COVID-19 and improving public-health communication.

One of our greatest successes in Canada has been vaccination. More than 85 per cent of those eligible have had at least two shots. But fewer than 47 per cent have received a third dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. That’s a lot like building a great fortress and then leaving the drawbridge open.

We should not, after two years of solid effort and no small amount of sacrifice, be so foolish as to abandon prevention.

By saying the only metric that matters any more is hospitalization, we are making COVID-19 a medical problem, one that our beleaguered health system can’t handle.

It’s also an approach that will keep us in the endless cycle of neglect and panic.

The best way to get the pandemic behind us is to not declare it over, prematurely.

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