I felt faintly ridiculous, but I truly did stop everything and put my TV on to watch Anita Quidangen, a personal-support worker at a long-term-care home in Toronto, become the first Ontarian to be vaccinated against COVID-19. It felt good to see.
That sounds a bit cruel, I know. It's easy to feel good about someone else getting an injection. It wasn't my arm being jabbed, after all. But I'd have gladly traded places with Quidangen, and I'm not alone. I checked my Twitter feed and saw that half the journalists in this country were watching the brief procedure. The CBC's David Cochrane said it well when he tweeted, "I’ve never been this happy to see someone get stabbed with a sharp object." Indeed. May the stabbings continue.
The timing, of course, is important. We face a long, dark, and grim winter. We are weeks into the renewed lockdown in Toronto and Peel Region, and we aren't seeing any meaningful downward movement in the case curve. Hospitalizations have soared. Dozens of Ontarians are dying every day. And this will likely all get worse after the holidays, as terrible as that is to contemplate. Even for those of us who play it safe — for the first time ever, I won't see my extended family for Christmas this year — it's a sad time. I am blessed to not need to live in (much) fear of COVID-19 — I am young, healthy, and can mostly remain isolated. But that doesn’t mean I’m not sad.
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Seeing Quidangen probably felt good because, for the first time, we are doing something active. Until now, all we could do to combat this shared menace is … nothing. Those of us privileged enough to be able to avoid most out-of-home trips have offered up not blood, sweat, toil, and tears, but boredom and loneliness. Passivity has been our main response. This was, of course, the smart play. Staying home saved lives. But it hasn't felt very satisfying. As my friend Jen Gerson recently wrote, most of our concepts of shared struggle against an existential threat are inherited from the world wars, when people had to do something. Young men fought, older men built and farmed. Women got involved in farming, too, and industrial work, or organized massive homefront efforts to support the fighting forces overseas or care for those hurting at home. All of society was mobilized to meet threats to society itself.
This time, I've ... played way more NHL20 on my PlayStation and ordered takeout from local restaurants. I listened to more audiobooks and took some walks. Oh, and we got a dog.
I'm glad to do my part, believe me. But it's not a very satisfying contribution. (Mind you, my ancestors, guys who actually got shot at — and were sometimes hit! — would probably happily trade my "war effort" for their war wounds.)
To be clear, there is heroism in this pandemic, and there are people in danger. Our frontline health-care workers, our long-term-care staff, and the people working to keep essential services operating and critical supply chains intact are our heroes of this crisis. The problem is simply that this is a very, very small group, and there isn't much the rest of us can do beyond making ourselves deliberately idle and ordering in wings when we can. This isolation and avoidance of normal routine is painful and sad for us all, but it's economically ruinous for some. The small business owner's idleness costs him a lot more than mine costs me.
But the vaccine gives us hope. The literal hope of ending this pandemic, of course. If the vaccines prove safe, effective, and even somewhat persistent, we'll crush COVID-19 before the end of 2021. But it gives us hope of a different kind, too. It gives us hope of activity, even if we are only witnesses and not participants. We'll finally see the pushback.
The heroes of COVID-19 have been heroes in private. We don't see the doctors, the nurses, and the grocery stockers at work. We will see the vaccination campaign. We'll see the planes as they arrive — it's no coincidence that Premier Doug Ford was on the tarmac when the first plane carrying vaccines landed. We'll see the vaccination centres, once they're open. We'll see the military moving equipment and personnel around. We'll see the lines and the videos of injections and bandaids. And, one day, hopefully soon, we'll be able to line up ourselves, work our way through the process, and get a safe shot in the arm. We'll have done something.
The arrival of the vaccines marks a huge milestone in the pandemic, but also a small but important shift in our thinking. It's no longer something to be ridden out like a blizzard that never ends. We can do something now. We can fight it. We have agency and power. We have vaccines and a distribution network.
So we can have hope that we'll get our lives back. And it won't be because COVID-19 just blew over. It'll be because we beat it.
Anita Quidangen probably never thought she'd become a turning point in Ontario's history, but that's what she was. She was the first. She was there when, God willing, the tide turned.