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An analysis published Monday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal provided the cheering news that, in spite of the deaths, illnesses, lockdowns, school shutdowns and travel restrictions during the first two years of the pandemic, Canada’s response to COVID-19 was better than those of most countries.

The report compared Canada to Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, Britain and the United States – countries that have similar economies, systems of government, and health care capacity.

In a nutshell, Canada’s rate of COVID-19-related deaths was 919 per million, the second lowest of the group, behind Japan. The U.S. rate was three times higher, at 2,730 per million. In Britain, it was 2,330 per million; in Italy, 2,480 per million. Canada also had the second lowest per-capita infection rate.

The report gives the credit for our relative success to two things: tough restrictions and high vaccine uptake.

In the first year of the pandemic, Ottawa and the provinces imposed “among the most sustained stringent policies regarding restrictions on internal movement, cancellation of public events, restrictions on public gatherings, workplace closures and international travel controls” of the countries in the report.

Once vaccines became widely available, Canada overcame a slow start to lead the most successful first- and second-dose vaccination campaign of any of its peers. By February of this year, just 64 per cent of Americans of all ages had received both shots, versus 80 per cent of Canadians. (Among Canadian adults, the figure today stands at 90 per cent.)

This is not to say Canada’s response was perfect. Far from it. We spent two years publishing editorial after editorial urging the feds and some provinces (notably Ontario, Quebec and Alberta) to do better, and pointing to the success of others (notably Nova Scotia). There will forever be arguments about whether some measures were too strict, or not strict enough, or brought in too late, or lifted too quickly. Or whether the side effects of the lockdowns, on everything from mental health to education and child development, were worth it.

But on balance, and graded on a curve, Canada’s inevitably imperfect response was notably less imperfect than that of most other countries – especially on the metric that matters most: lives saved.

What’s important now, however, is not to dwell on the past but to take the lessons of the last two years and apply them to the situation today.

Canada is unlikely to resort to lockdowns and widespread school shutdowns again as a means of controlling the spread of the virus. Thanks to vaccines, it shouldn’t be necessary.

But how to convince Canadians to get much-needed third shots? That’s the big question now. The booster campaign has stalled out, obstinately stuck at just under 50 per cent of the population, and falling behind many of our peer countries.

The report suggests that booster uptake could be improved “if governments and public health leaders provide more and clearer information about the protective effect of boosters” – a message that got through about the first two doses, but which is clearly missing when it comes to boosters.

Third shots, a long-term plan for better ventilation in indoor spaces, and the possibility of temporarily bringing back mask mandates during periods of high viral spread, are likely to form the bulwark against resurgences COVID-19 in the coming months and years.

So too will the public’s acceptance of new generations of vaccines that target the virus’s variants. We may need to regularly boost everyone, and not just the most vulnerable, in the years to come. Or we may not. It’s still uncertain. The best course of action will depend on how the virus evolves, and how vaccine science progresses.

In a way, it was simpler to lock down the country when the pandemic struck, and promise Canadians that vaccines eventually would liberate them. The message was exceptionally clear. But things have turned out slightly differently than expected.

The current vaccines greatly reduce the dangers of a COVID-19 infection but do not confer full immunity. The enemy is diminished but still dangerous. All this complexity and uncertainty may make it harder to enlist Canadians in the ongoing fight, but doing so will be the only way to build on Canada’s successes to date.

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