Imagine there is someone in your family who is irrational and difficult – maddening, even – and, in your view, completely wrong in how they look at the world. Most of us don’t have to imagine this, because life is messy and families are part of life, and so most people have someone around them with whom they will never see eye to eye.
Would you hector them every time you saw each other about how their worldview is warped? You might have the urge to do that, certainly, but it wouldn’t accomplish much except making holiday dinners miserable. You might want to cut them out of your life to minimize conflict, but what if that wasn’t possible?
That hypothetical family resembles life in a divided Canada, one year after protests against COVID-19 public health measures in downtown Ottawa and various other points across the country. There are the willing and there are the refusers, and feelings still run hot on both sides.
Depending on your own outlook, in this scenario, your frustratingly wayward relative might be a member of the freedumb-fighting horde who won’t stop hollering about conspiracy theories, or they might be one of those sanctimonious sheeple swathed in a face diaper. Membership in these tribes – and so many of the other schisms that cut across public life right now – is so entrenched that they don’t subscribe to the same set of verifiable facts, let alone views about the facts.
A year or two ago, an us-versus-them framing had a grounding in reality, even if it wasn’t terribly productive. Now, it simply doesn’t make sense; on a practical level, the line between “us” and “them” has dissolved.
In the fall of 2021, close to 90 per cent of Canadian adults had two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, which was considered “fully vaccinated” at the time. Team Willing: 90. Team Refusal: 10.
Health Canada authorized boosters that November, and according to a survey by Statistics Canada soon after, 86 per cent of Canadians aged 12 and over were likely to get one.
Today, just over half of all Canadians have gotten a first booster and only 24 per cent have gotten a second. That’s despite the fact that the National Advisory Council on Immunization recommends boosters six months after the previous dose, and we’re a year and a half out from the mass immunization campaign that got those first two doses into millions of arms.
At the same time, the COVID-19 Immunity Task Force estimates, based on studies that measure antibodies resulting from infection, that nearly three-quarters of Canadians had COVID at some point, as of the end of 2022.
Zain Chagla, an infectious diseases physician at St. Joseph’s Healthcare in Hamilton and an associate professor at McMaster University, points out that as a result, there are now many different versions of immunity walking the streets of Canada. There are the unvaccinated, the two-dosers, those with three, four or five doses, people with and without infection on top of the vaccines.
Research suggests that “hybrid immunity” from vaccination and infection offers pretty good protection from severe outcomes, Dr. Chagla says, and the more relevant point of distinction is risk factors like age or other health conditions.
“Everyone’s immunity pathway is so different now,” he says. “It’s incredibly difficult to spell out who is fully vaccinated. It’s almost impossible to start putting a line down to say it’s X or Y.”
Where you could once split Canadians into two opposing teams based on vaccination status, that cleavage has dissolved into shades of grey in the real world. But the political and culture boxes live on, as glaring as ever. If someone lined up as soon as they could to get doses one and two, but they’ve slacked off since, do they belong on Team Willing or Team Refusal? These distinctions don’t make sense anymore, and to continue underlining them gets us nowhere good, fast.
Some political leaders have plucked happily at those nerve endings in search of a cheap sugar high, and that has to end. But the rest of us have to stop retreating to our corners, too. Tribalism can be a momentary thrill, but it’s a terrible way to live together.
The unavoidable fact is we’re stuck with each other – perhaps not at family gatherings, but in our shared citizenship, at the ballot box and in our negotiations about how to run life in this country we share.