Think back to that first lockdown in March, when you could practically hear the clock ticking and calendar pages seemed doubly wide. March felt never-ending.
Initial musings about flattening the COVID-19 curve in just a couple of weeks and returning to something of a normal life were far-fetched even then. On Feb. 20, B.C. health authorities announced that a COVID-19 patient had shown up in an emergency room after recently travelling to Iran, even though Iran hadn’t yet reported any COVID-19 cases. That was a signal that the virus had silently spread out of control, and that “normal” wasn’t anywhere close to a few weeks away.
Nine months later and on the cusp of another lockdown, the mood is less of restless angst than it is of exasperation and anger. Exasperation because of the months of seclusion and modified living that compliant citizens have endured (all while watching others break the letter or spirit of the rules) and anger because of the failure of our leaders to hold up their end of the lockdown bargain. The implicit deal was that we would give up our lives – businesses, friends, special occasions – for a finite period of time and, in exchange, governments would get their acts together in preparation for the second wave.
With the exception of governments in the Atlantic bubble, that did not happen in Canada. Rapid testing at airports is still in the pilot project phase. Millions of belatedly procured and approved rapid tests have yet to make their way to the ground.
Manitoba had to enlist the Red Cross to assist with contact tracing. Ontario is again seeing COVID-19 outbreaks ravage its long-term care homes. B.C. public health is struggling to convey coherent instructions (masks are recommended, but not mandated; restaurants are open, but residents are encouraged to stick with their bubbles indoors). Quebec currently has the highest number of deaths and hospitalizations in the country, but its testing per population lags behind Alberta, Ontario, Prince Edward Island and Saskatchewan.
We flattened the curve the first time not only to avoid overwhelming hospitals, but so that our governments could procure rapid tests, shore up contact tracing, implement emergency fixes to aggregate living facilities, nail down their communications and bolster their COVID-19 testing programs in anticipation of a second wave. Their dereliction in these areas might explain why, rightfully chastened, certain provincial leaders appear reluctant to enforce comprehensive lockdowns once more, even as case numbers soar and ICU volumes reach maximum capacity. Governments are also wary to levy further restrictions on business, even though non-essential businesses are currently languishing in an untenable limbo state where they are permitted to stay open, but patrons in many regions are actively discouraged from engaging in non-essential activities.
The promise of a vaccine, however, which is finally on the horizon, may provide a fresh tool for political leaders to convince COVID-fatigued citizens to lock down once more – without having to sheepishly pledge that they will get it together this time, they swear. This time, the lockdown won’t be forever. There’s an end in sight – we just have to try to spare as much suffering as possible along the way.
On Wednesday, Pfizer announced that it had completed its trial for a COVID-19 vaccine, which appears to be 95-per-cent effective with no serious side effects. On Monday, Moderna announced that preliminary data showed its vaccine to be 94.5-per-cent effective. Canada has signed purchase agreements for millions of doses of each, as well as agreements with five other vaccine manufacturers, all of whom are currently working their way through clinical trials.
Pfizer says it will submit an application for emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration within days, which is the next step along the road to get the vaccine in people’s arms. There are still plenty of logistical hurdles to get through, including approval by Health Canada and sorting out the storage and distribution of limited vaccine doses (Canada has so far only purchased enough of the Pfizer vaccine to inoculate roughly 10 million people), but the news is nevertheless optimistic, and it represents the first real sign that an end to the pandemic is a measurable distance away.
Canadians will have to trust that these vaccines are indeed effective and will make it to market, and that our governments can competently see to their efficient and equitable distribution. But the prospect of a return to normality within the next year makes the idea of another lockdown suddenly more palatable. Leaders hoping for better compliance may use that carrot (of course, at the personal risk of being wrong and vaccine relief somehow falling through) to ask for smaller Christmases, Hanukkahs and New Year celebrations this year, with the promise that next year’s festivities will look just as they did in the past. March, 2020, is, finally, coming to an end. We just have to hold out for a little bit longer.
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