It’s time to plan for a return to normal

OPINION: This isn’t finished yet. There is still real danger of a third wave. But government had better start planning for — and communicating about — a full reopening
By Matt Gurney - Published on Mar 15, 2021
People line up in Toronto on March 11 to get their Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccinations. (Rachel Verbin/CP)



An occupational hazard in this line of work is that the news gods decide to toy with you and nullify hours, days, or even weeks of toil by ripping the rug out from under you at the last possible moment. It can take different forms. Maybe a story that you’ve poured your heart and soul into ends up being published the day something huge and exciting happens and so is condemned to instant and permanent obscurity. (I once spent weeks preparing a series of articles for the National Post and was very proud of them; the first of five was published the day the original Tiger Woods sex-scandal story broke. The series of articles I’d prepared no doubt impressed the several dozen people who ever read them.) It can be more immediate than that, too, and it’s no less cruel when it is — a story may simply be made obsolete by fast-moving news events before it can be published.

It happens. You move on. After the first few of these, you learn to laugh about it. Such is life on deadline. It happened to me last week. And I couldn’t be happier.

On Friday, at my personal blog, Code 47, I was writing about my sincere hope that my older relatives would soon be vaccinated. “I'm optimistic — I'd almost forgotten what that felt like! — that my in-laws will be safely vaccinated by next month and my parents, God willing, by the summer,” I wrote there. “They might have to wait a while to get that second shot, but with the first shots conferring a high degree of protection, things should start to look and feel more normal soon.” About an hour after I wrote that, my dad called to tell me that he, my mother, and my aunt had all secured appointments for shots of the AstraZeneca vaccine at a local pharmacy. I adamantly refused to say a word about it, lest I jinx them, but on Sunday afternoon, the pharmacist pushed the plunger, and all three of them now have their first dose of COVID-19 vaccine, well ahead of my hoped-for deadline of summer.

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This isn’t just another column about how much of a relief it is to see your older loved ones vaccinated. (But it is a relief.) It’s not even a column about Ontario’s strange roll-out of vaccines. My parents and aunt are all in that early-60s age group that was prioritized for AstraZeneca shots specifically because the shots are not yet cleared for use in Ontario for those over 65. The need to get those fast-expiring shots into arms created a bizarre outcome: my 60-something father was vaccinated against a disease that becomes deadlier with age before his 90-something mother was. A somewhat less bizarre (but still objectively weird) situation: my parents and aunt, in their early 60s, got their shots before my in-laws, who are in their early 70s.

I’m not complaining, per se. As I said, it’s a huge relief. But it is, as stated, weird.

That might be a column worth writing — maybe I’ll write it someday. But, for now, I’m writing about what this means, for us as a family and, soon, for Ontarians collectively. We need to start bracing for a return to normal, while also avoiding the danger of letting our guard down too early. Humans often struggle to keep one idea in their head at a time; two is harder, and it doesn’t help when the two ideas are in direct contradiction. This is, though, the situation: we aren’t ready to return to normal yet, but the process of returning to normal is already underway. It’s going to be a big challenge timing this one right.

Something interesting came up in data out of Israel that speaks to this point. The vaccines are proving exceptionally effective there in real-life applications. It’s hugely encouraging. But the data has shown an uptick in infections in the days immediately following vaccination — before those infection numbers fall off the edge of a cliff a few weeks later — as the immunization takes hold. The explanation for this likely isn’t medical, but psychological. Buoyed by a sense of relief and safety, Israelis are probably relaxing their guard and becoming infected with COVID-19 before their vaccines have had a chance to take effect, a process that seems to take three to four weeks.

That’s human nature in a nutshell, I suppose. We can’t quite help ourselves sometimes. But this is also a genuine public-policy concern. Our government communications have been lousy from the outset, and our public-health guidance has often lagged well behind that of other, more responsive countries. (Speaking of things that should probably be columns one day: I sometimes wonder whether COVID-19 is finally going to force Canadian governments to acknowledge that the internet is a thing and that the days of Canadians getting their news only from the Canadian media are dead — if your comms plan doesn’t count on CNN on cable and BBC on your smartphone, your comms plan is terrible. But I digress.) As Canadians increasingly get vaccinated, and see citizens of other countries being vaccinated, we’re going to want to return to normal. We should have a plan for that.

I wrote about this here at a week ago today, noting that we need a specific plan for the partially vaccinated, especially if we are going to extend the delay between doses. That’s still true! But we’re going to need more than that, because as our vaccination campaign speeds up, we’re soon going to have entire groups of the population that are effectively able to resume normal life. Indeed, if we can establish with total certainty that the vaccines are also good at preventing transmission, not just infection, talk of a “vaccine passport” or something similar is going to become only more urgent.

It is too soon to reopen Ontario fully. There is still a real danger of a third wave. But a gradual reopening, leading to a full one once it’s safe, is closer than many might realize, especially on the scale of government planning. This is going to happen. It’s going to happen soon. And after a long year of stumbling from one crisis to another, always reacting on the fly, it would be nice to at least get to work planning for the fun, cheerful part.

We screwed up a lot of the crisis. Can we at least properly organize the eventual victory parade?

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