COVID-19 will remain a threat — and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise

OPINION: Yes, many things will return to normal. But that doesn’t mean we won’t have to be vigilant
By Matt Gurney - Published on Oct 25, 2021
The price of a return to normalcy could be experts keeping an eye on COVID-19 the way they do the flu. (Lars Hagberg/CP)

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There have been a lot of weird moments during this pandemic, but I think some of the weirdest have involved people skeptical of public-health interventions, lockdowns, and mandates shrieking that some policymakers and members of the public “never want this to end.”

I don’t want to engage directly with conspiracy theories and theorists, because those people are generally unreachable by anyone but experts. So for those who genuinely believe this is all some conspiracy to install a new world order or bring about a civil war, well, all I can say is I hope you have a great week and remember to take an umbrella (it’s raining out there today). But for the people who don’t think COVID-19 is a hoax or a false flag but do think that there are people who don’t want to let this go, who will live in this crisis forever and never let their guard down: I think you’re mostly wrong, but you probably do have something of a point.

There is going to be a bureaucratic lag at the end of the pandemic, as I noted here just a few weeks ago. It is likely that we will maintain some of the emergency measures longer than necessary, when viewed in hindsight. I don’t think this is a bad thing, exactly. It’s better to err slightly on the side of caution than to open up too early, as our friends in Alberta and Saskatchewan can ruefully confirm. I also do think there is some merit to the suggestion that many people will struggle psychologically to let their guard down after more than a year and a half of living with more danger than we in the peaceful, prosperous West are used to. So, yeah, I’ll go that far: individual emotional stress and bureaucratic policies will both likely lag somewhat behind improving public-health metrics.

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But this has to be counterbalanced against the desirability of maintaining some level of continued and persistent vigilance — because the psychological and institutional pressures don’t lean only in one direction. There will also be pressure to rush into an unsustainable early reopening. The job ahead is a very, very difficult one: maintaining a suitable degree of vigilance in the long term even when the present risk seems to be low. Human beings are not particularly good at that. We are wired to let our guard down, relax, and get flaky. 

Given all the above, I was generally pleased with the reopening plan announced by the government on Friday. It’s not perfect. I could quibble with parts of it. But to me it really did reflect an effort to strike the right balance when it comes to proceeding with a gradual reopening in time to make sure every step can be safely executed in careful sequence. The government has nominally identified March of next year as the endpoint of the pandemic. That’s ridiculous, of course; none of us has the slightest idea what the next 24 hours will bring, let alone the next five months, and the public has typically been ahead of the government on its understanding of and reaction to the pandemic. 

But it’s still a comfortably gradual timeline. It stretches the reopening out over a long enough time frame that we will have time to see problems developing and respond to them. As I noted above, there will always be those who want to hurry the reopening, and for us in Ontario in late 2021 and early 2022, that will very much include the government, which will want to be in a good position to run for re-election next June. Businesses will want to return to full capacity, and the public at large will simply grow ever more tired of this. 

All of this. So, so tired.

But COVID-19 is tricky. It’s sneaky. It has already humbled governments around the world, including some very close to home. The danger of new variants — including some that may begin evading the protection offered us by vaccines — will persist. Vaccines themselves may gradually lose their efficacy. The United Kingdom, for instance, which has typically been some months ahead of us in the pandemic, is experiencing what appears to be a major boom in cases and at least some rise in serious illnesses. It’s not an emergency, yet, but something is happening there, and whatever it is could easily happen here in four or five months, or exactly when the Ontario government thinks this thing will be ending.

A full return to the old normal is in no way an ironclad guarantee. The most likely best-case scenario is that COVID-19 will be largely brought to heel by widespread vaccination but that we’ll have to maintain eternal watch over it, in the same way that scientists monitor each year’s variant of influenza in fear of another 1918.

Aha, those who think some of us actually want this to continue may think! Eternal vigilance! It’ll never end. You’re right — that part won’t. But the stuff the rest of us have been doing probably can, and I’d bet will. If the price of a return to normalcy is medical experts keeping a wary eye on COVID-19 the way they do the flu, that’s a bargain. Widespread return to normal coupled with sustained scientific surveillance of COVID-19 and influenza to watch for any troubling signs is a deal I will gladly take. 

But I think that, starting now, our public-health and political leaders need to be transparent with the public about what that future will look like. We will get our old lives back, but COVID-19 is here, it’s not going anywhere, and it will remain a threat, just as the flu has remained a threat for the past 103 years. Pretending otherwise won’t help anyone — and would likely end up hurting us all if and when COVID-19, or the next bug, sneaks up on us.

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