We start today’s column with a simple vignette of life in Ontario, circa early June 2021. Cases are falling fast. The hospitals are decompressing. Vaccines are arriving by the millions. And summer has hit with its full heat and brilliant sunshine.
Your intrepid columnist is golfing, or, more specifically, waiting to golf. His father is with him, and so is his son — it’s a multi-generational game. As they stand there in the sun, waiting for the group ahead of them to clear the first fairway, the columnist’s eyes drift off the course over to the patio by the clubhouse. It’s a pretty typical affair. There’s a pro shop with golf supplies, of course, and then a pleasantly good full-service pub. (The quality of these places can really vary, but this is a good one — consistently good food and a robust selection of drinks.) In more normal times, the patio would be full of those just coming off the course, those about to head out, or the friends and relatives of the golfers who’ve chosen not to spend their precious time whacking a tiny ball down finely cut lawns.
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But on this day, the patio is empty. In fact, it’s roped off. Golf is permitted. Outdoor dining is not.
That’s it! That’s the vignette! (Also, I got a birdie for the first time ever, which is totally beside the point, but I wanted to brag about it.) But getting back to the point here: June 2021 is going to be a fascinating month. It’s going to mark, we all hope, the gradual return to normal we’ve all been waiting for, and sooner than we expected, with Ontario set to move to Step 1 on Friday, three days ahead of schedule.
This is great! But it’s going to be strange.
A few months ago, I interviewed Steve Joordens, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto Scarborough. The topic was how hard it’s going to be for all of us to return to a more normal life once this has passed: Will we struggle to return to once-familiar settings and behaviours after this is over? Overall, Joordens doesn’t think so — he’sbetting on the opposite.
He called it the “great snapback” and described it thusly: “Our basic core ... is that we are highly social beings. We’re the most social animals on the planet by far. And we get so much of our comfort from being around other people, being connected to other people. And, in addition to that, we’ve had decades of habits of behaving certain ways around other people. I think, for most of us, when we feel safe, we will go back to that — like a warm blanket. Literally, once we find ourselves in that pub, and you know, being sort of surrounded by noise and people watching sports, that won’t be anxiety; it will be more of a homecoming. We will be like, yes, this is what I needed. This is what I wanted.”
This was the subtext of my little vignette above. We are now being presented with small samples of a return to normalcy. We can golf! That feels very normal. We can have small outdoor gatherings; a few friends came over for pizza in my backyard recently. That felt normal, too. But the patios aren’t open quite yet, even though it would almost certainly be safe to open them, perhaps with some restrictions. (And let’s get the kitchen staff vaccinated!) The schools are closed. Whole aisles in big-box retail stores are roped off because the items contained therein aren’t essential. Life in Ontario, June 2021, isn’t yet at the “back” part of the great snapback — but maybe we’re at the snapping part. With Step 1 having been moved forward to Friday, and with Step 2 perhaps arriving 21 days later, things could start moving fast.
The remaining wildcard is the Delta variant, which we should keep a wary eye on. As has so often been the case, the United Kingdom is our guide here (or our experiment, frankly). The Delta variant is taking over in the U.K., which has already begun to open up. Cases are rising. Hospitalizations, at this time, are not — at least not in a major way. The vaccines the British have used, including Pfizer and AstraZeneca, seem to be working, though they’re working better with both doses compared to one. There’s still some uncertainty over just how well these vaccines work — we’ll need time to crunch all the numbers — but the early indicators are hugely encouraging. That’s great. But I wish “early indicators” wasn’t so critical a part of that sentence.
But let’s choose to be optimists. Let’s hope that Ontario continues to rapidly and efficiently vaccinate the population. Let’s hope Canada continues to get access to lots and lots of vaccine (we had good news on that front last week). And let’s also hope that the early encouraging U.K. data firms up and we continue to see strong evidence of high efficacy for the vaccines used in the U.K. (and here).
Cases will rise as we reopen, but if they rise in a vaccinated population, and if the vaccines work, we’ll be okay.
It’s not over yet. We need to keep jabbing willing arms. The arrival of summer will inevitably result in families travelling and mixing (this is happening already, whatever the government may have to say about it). Let’s keep an eye on the variants. But let’s also allow ourselves to begin imagining a much more normal summer than might have seemed imaginable even a month ago. This is not about underestimating the virus or recklessly rushing into anything. It’s about having faith in the vaccines we’re using, which seem to be absolute miracles. We might still have a very normal summer and potentially finally turn the corner on this dark era, and soon.
That’s all amazing to think about. It will be terrific if it happens. But as it happens, it’ll be, well, weird. Like golfing next to a closed patio. Like shopping in a store with only some items for sale. Like working from home while your kids sit in their rooms doing virtual school. Like watching hockey and baseball games in the U.S. that are packed with cheering fans while Canadian rinks stand basically empty and the Blue Jays play in Buffalo.
Transitions are strange and disorienting. That’s just a fact of life. We’re going through a big one now. The next few weeks will have lots of absurd moments. But don’t let them get you down. This time, at least, we’re transitioning to the place we want to be — we are advancing, not retreating. That, too, will take getting used to. But I very much look forward to doing so!