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A man walks with a face mask on in Toronto, on March 11, 2021.CARLOS OSORIO/Reuters

Do you remember where you were when the mystery illness became a pandemic? It was two years ago this week.

In late 2019, a novel coronavirus began causing havoc in China. But for months, the threat seemed comfortably distant, and easy to ignore. Maybe Canada could keep it outside our borders. Maybe it would be nothing worse than the flu. Maybe it was a false alarm.

At first, the foundations for such hopes crumbled hardly at all. And then they collapsed all at once.

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. By then, community transmission had quietly become widespread in Canada, and cases were exploding. To check that explosion, Ottawa and the provinces imposed a nationwide shutdown.

It was the right thing to do. It was also the only thing to do. There were no medical treatments. There was no vaccine. Which is what made it so scary.

Do you remember the fear? Part of it was the unknown, since it wasn’t clear how the virus was transmitted, or how dangerous it was. But unknown fears gave way to fearsome facts, as hospitals were strained and the tally of lives lost grew, particularly in long-term care homes.

Two years ago, we said that beating COVID-19 was going to be like a war. It would be our generation’s Second World War, calling on everyone to work together for the common good. And as it was for Canada and the Allies in 1945, the goal was to push on to total and final victory – V-E Day.

We were right about much of that. But we were wrong about how the war would end.

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Getting through the pandemic with the fewest casualties possible called for mass mobilization of financial resources, widespread co-operation and a lot of scientific genius.

Canadians got the job done, and better than most. Our death rate over the past two years is one-third that of the United States. And our economy bounced back, thanks to a lot of government stimulus, and has more jobs today than two years ago.

The human cost was great, but less than it could have been, and less than in many other developed countries. All of us – Canadians – did this. We did it together.

But the expectation that the war would end with something as clear cut as a V-E Day has not come to pass. The virus has not surrendered unconditionally. It may never.

Vaccines were developed with remarkable speed, going from conception to approval in less than a year. It was widely hoped they could get Canada to herd immunity, meaning a point where transmission stops because almost everyone is immune. That would mean COVID-19 disappearing, like polio or measles.

That does not appear to be in our future. But something almost as good is already here: the ability of vaccines to minimize and normalize the impact of COVID-19, at least for most people, at least for now.

For the vast majority of Canadians, current variants of COVID-19 carry a relatively low risk of severe illness, so long as you are not very old or suffering from an underlying condition – and so long as you get vaccinated.

COVID-19 is now a lot like smoking, or driving a car at high speed without seatbelts or airbags. There are low COVID-19 risks for those who don’t engage in risky behaviour, and high risks for those who do. The key risky behaviour is not being vaccinated, particularly for those middle-aged or older.

According to data provided to us last month by Dr. Peter Juni, scientific director of Ontario’s independent COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, the risk of being hospitalized by a COVID-19 infection for an unvaccinated person in their 50s is approximately 1 in 60.

But if that same person had received two doses of vaccine, the risk would drop to 1 in 300. And with a booster shot, the odds of hospitalization drop to 1 in 1,500.

In other words, the risks for the unvaccinated are about 25 times as high – as are the risks from the unvaccinated, and to the health care system.

As we prepare for future waves of COVID-19, and the possibility of new variants, likely this fall and perhaps sooner, that is the new bottom line.

We may not be able to eliminate the virus, but we can minimize it. Science has given us the tools. We just have to use them.

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