Omicron is our second shot at COVID redemption


I keep waiting for aliens from another galaxy to swoop down on the planet and save us from this wretched pandemic. Surprise!

I was sure that was going to be the case around this time last year when the Pentagon released video footage of U.S. navy pilots on routine recon flights encountering unexplained objects over the Pacific and it looked like Trump might steal the election.

Fast forward to 2021, and as Omicron triggers yet another insidious wave of the coronavirus, it feels like 2020 all over again with most of us looking for something (anything) to explain the mind-bending 20 months we’ve just been through. 

Between the #doomscrolling on Twitter, end-of-the-world movies trending on Netflix and warnings that there will be other variants and that COVID may in fact be endemic for some time to come, it’s difficult not to conclude we’re stuck in a time loop.

Many Canadians are just too tired to bother fighting anymore. Even the most conscientious among us are fed up, deciding to escape to sunnier climes over the holidays despite a federal advisory not to do so. “Fuck it,” has become a popular response to the coronavirus.

Yes, it’s been a hellacious couple of weeks to cap off another year of living dangerously with COVID. But this is no time to give up. It’s a holiday for Canadians to take stock (again). What we do now will determine how we come out the other end. We’ve been through too much to turn back the clock now.

We’ve been locked down, smacked down and batted around. We’ve sheltered ourselves from our families and friends. We’ve been pushed and pulled in different directions – told to practise physical distancing but stay connected. Some of us have lost our jobs. Some of us have lost partners. Some of us have lost family members to the virus. Some of us have relied on substances to help us deal with the twists and turns. The rest of us are just trying to cope. 

This summer most of us rolled up our sleeves to do our part to nip the virus in the bud in the largest vaccine rollout in Canadian history – a success. 

Inoculation raised our spirits for a while. But as summer turned to fall and news of the arrival of Omicron heralded Toronto’s first snowfall, our resilience started to wear thin. It feels like we’re no further ahead than we were when this whole thing started. We are, only it may not always seem that way. 

We’re learning to cope as we go, despite the fact that some of our political leaders are doing more to prolong the agony than is necessary. 

The vast majority of Canadians have responded in spades – better than any country in the world.  

And as much as it’s put a pox on the immediate future, Omicron presents a second chance to finally get things right that we’ve gotten wrong when it comes to how we manage the coronavirus from here on out. Call it a shot at redemption – or the great COVID correction. 

Gazing into the COVID crystal ball

As we gaze into the COVID crystal ball toward 2022, it’s hard to separate the joy we’re supposed to be feeling for the holiday season from the fear engendered by the crisis spreading around us.

More than 10,000 people in Ontario, 30,000 in Canada and 5.2 million worldwide have died of COVID-19. 

Like the ghost of Christmas past, uncertainty for the future looms large once again. The mental health fallout is already being felt in a big way with waiting lists for therapists already months long. Angus Reid reports that three in five Canadians are concerned about getting sick and three-quarters of us (73 per cent) say we are worried that friends or family will be infected by Omicron. According to modelling by the Lancet, the pandemic has already led to a dramatic increase in the number of cases of major depressive disorder. 

At the end of 2020, some six months into the pandemic, 40 per cent of Canadians reported experiencing mental health issues. That number has jumped to more than 60 per cent. The totals are even worse among young people. Symptoms of anxiety and depression are doubling among youth. For some, “cave syndrome” is setting in.

The federal government has acknowledged the fallout will be with us for some time by adding a minister of mental health and addictions to the existing health care portfolio.

Then there’s the economic unpredictability. The numbers suggest that the jobs have returned – Canada’s unemployment rate was at 6 per cent in November, which is slightly higher than the record-low 5.7 per cent unemployment rate before the pandemic struck. But actual unemployment is around 8 per cent if we count those not actively looking for work. Whole industries, from hospitality to banking, are undergoing massive shifts due to labour shortages and remote work.

And the scenes of empty shelves at grocery stores like the early days of the pandemic as supply chain issues contribute to inflation are beginning to repeat themselves. More Canadians are checking out, quitting their jobs and leaving the city. For others, whether we will ever return to our office environment is looking more doubtful.

The “war” we’re fighting is with ourselves

Ontario’s chief medical officer of health Kieran Moore talked last week about Omicron putting Ontario on a “wartime footing.” Let’s not kid ourselves. This pandemic is nothing like the sacrifices that had to be made by Canadians during the world wars. There are no bread lines. There are no food shortages. There are no curfews. Unless you were born in the late 1930s, you have no idea what war is like. Wearing a mask, staying indoors and limiting your contacts should be a cakewalk by comparison.

That’s not to say that the pandemic hasn’t been hard on us. But the war being fought is as much with ourselves as it is with the virus. Unlike real war, however, surrender is not an option because that can get you killed. Also, there will be no ceasefire to sign with the coronavirus. It has a mind of its own. Some of our political leaders are still confused about that. 

When the feds issued an advisory last week, for example, recommending Canadians refrain from non-essential travel over the holidays, there was predictable blowback from the usual political corners (namely the Conservative party opposition benches). We’ve heard it a million times. Canadians have done everything that has been asked of them, so why are we back here? Implicit in that message is that Canadians shouldn’t be asked to do more. But there is no choice. That should be lesson number one of the coronavirus. 

As a society, we’ve become so used to conveniences. For those of us that can afford it, the pandemic has taken those conveniences to another level where everything and anything we want can now be Uber-ed or Amazon-ed to your front door. 

But for parents without access to child care who’ve had to juggle remote work and virtual schooling and essential workers on the frontlines who’ve been taking care of the sick or showing up for work to make sure we have food to eat, the social and racial inequities exposed by the coronavirus have never been clearer.

Then there are there rest of us among the privileged masses. We thought this thing was over. We snickered when other jurisdictions closed down over a handful of cases. We took liberties with the rules. We suspended reality for those precious few months of the summer. 

But the virus had other ideas. And now it’s not just the unvaccinated that we see showing up in hospitals with the emergence of Omicron. It’s the vaccinated, too. 

On Sunday, for example, three-quarters of the 4,000-plus cases reported in Ontario were among those who have been double vaccinated. Part of that has to do with the fact that Omicron can slip vaccine defences. And part of that has to do with people not following masking and physical distancing rules. Now we’re chasing our tails – at least in Ontario – trying to get boosters in arms and rapid tests in LCBOs, as if we need another reason to drink.

Governments have played a part in giving us a licence to shirk personal responsibility when it comes to the virus. The mixed messaging on protocols has helped create the current fix we’re in. 

In Ontario, capacity limits at stadiums with seating for 20,000-plus people were lifted without enforcement of mandatory mask rules. Elementary schools were opened despite the fact that kids had yet to be vaccinated. We’ll never know how much of this current wave could have been avoided. But the rush to get back to normal (without first thinking that there is no getting back to normal – at least as we knew it) hasn’t helped matters. Neither has forgetting that there’s one planet we all live on and the pandemic is a global problem.  

And so while those of us in the First World went on with our merry lives, not enough vaccines were being distributed in poorer countries, leaving millions exposed and causing the virus to mutate into more transmissible variants. So here we are caught in a fever of fear.

The pandemic was supposed to be a siren call

There seemed to be so much promise in the early days of the pandemic about “building back better.” Lockdowns provided the opportunity to slow down and re-evaluate what’s important to us and our place in the proverbial rat race. 

The important role government can play in our lives was clear for all to see. Other countries with more ties to the free market have not fared as well as we have (see the United States). The pandemic caused us to rethink the integrity of our social safety net igniting debates about universal basic income, a four-day workweek, the need for a national child-care program and taking long-term care away from for-profit corporations. It also forced us to reimagine the planet’s future and the need to take more seriously the other crisis of our time – climate change – before it’s too late. 

The pandemic dared us to dream big. It was supposed to be a siren call. We seem to have lost sight of that.

No one asked for it, but it happened and there are those of us who seem better equipped financially to handle it and those of us who are less so. We’re all in this together but we’re not. Some of us have bigger boats to navigate the storm. 

There will be more variants. After Omicron comes Pi. It’s something we’re going to have to learn to live with perhaps for several more years, according to some experts. 

We can’t know what the future holds, but we can hazard a few guesses drawing on the history of pandemics and trends we’re witnessing right now. 

The Spanish flu of 1918, the last great pandemic, killed between 25 to 50 million people (and maybe as many as 100 million people) worldwide. It took two and a half years to run its course. A world war – and the fact there was no vaccine – complicated matters back then. There were three waves. The last one was the longest. That pandemic produced economic declines comparable to the recession of 2008–2009. The prospects of COVID-19 having a similar effect are remote by most accounts. But future restrictions on business and travel necessitated by the virus are likely to cause similar economic consequences. 

The challenge is how we handle what comes next. The virus is fast-moving but we can also have a hand in shaping what its impacts look like. Research suggests it may be more widespread but less severe than first thought. Fingers crossed.

The pandemic has been a great teacher. It’s ravaged us but it has given us the opportunity to reflect and put life into perspective. It’s opened our eyes to what’s important and what’s not. 

We all have a part to play in the future. Focusing on things we can control instead of the things we can’t is a good place to start. That means getting your booster; wearing a mask; limiting your contacts; taking care of the people closest to you and having consideration for those we encounter in our daily lives. Many of us already are.

All things must pass and this will too. The question is how we get to the other side. That will be the true test. Think of it as a work in progress. And let the last 20 months be a message to us all.




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