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Brian Bird: It feels a lot like the early days of the pandemic again. But should it?

Commentary

Something strange happened this summer. Almost overnight, it felt like we were transported back to the early days of the pandemic — to that month of March we will never forget.

I’m not talking about cases or hospitalizations. The numbers, comparing now and then, speak for themselves. I’m talking about our outlook for the future, and our sense of where we stand now in relation to COVID-19. Many of us seem as anxious today as we were at the start, if not more so.

The initial weeks of the new school year at the university where I teach have been revealing in this regard. On several occasions, colleagues of mine have voiced a significant degree of anxiety over being back on campus and in the classroom again.

I have every reason to believe these colleagues are vaccinated. Almost all the students we teach are vaccinated. We know the vaccines are superb at preventing severe illness and hospitalization. With these facts in hand, I was not particularly anxious about returning to campus. So why are my colleagues worried?

Fear of COVID-19 appears to have resurged during the Delta chapter. Contrary to what one might expect, this fear does not neatly align with vaccination status. I suspect we all know vaccinated persons who remain very afraid of the virus.

The Delta variant poses unique challenges, but we have pulled too many fire alarms in too many places. We need to take a breath and regain our bearings, or else — in a certain respect — this pandemic will last far longer than it should.

Over the past 18 months, many of us have embraced an unrealistic and even utopian expectation of safety from COVID-19. The rise of this mindset is one of the many ways in which this pandemic has thrown us off balance. It will take some time for us to regain our footing, but we need to be intentional about it. The mending of our perspective on safety, so that it reflects the realities of human existence and accepts what we feasibly can and cannot control, will not happen automatically.

The pursuit of near absolute safety from COVID-19 has steadily intensified over the course of the pandemic in part because questioning this pursuit, even mildly, is often considered politically incorrect. It seems fair to say that being publicly and scrupulously cautious of COVID-19 — opting to go above and beyond on this front — has become, to some extent and at some level, a marker of being enlightened and progressive.

It often seems like there are only two types of people in the world: the COVID-conscious on the one hand and the dangerous denialists on the other.

As a result, in pandemic parlance, it often seems like there are only two types of people in the world: the COVID-conscious on the one hand and the dangerous denialists on the other. Framing the discourse on COVID-19 in this way has likely impeded our ability to tackle this pandemic as thoughtfully as we otherwise could have. To our detriment, little space has been made for the moderate middle.

Overwhelming our hospitals remains a credible threat, and in certain parts of Canada a growing reality, due to the highly contagious Delta variant. We must continue to encourage unvaccinated persons, by far the likeliest segment of the population to be hospitalized, to get the vaccine.

The fumes on which healthcare workers are running, and their unwavering heroism from day one of this ordeal, are reasons enough to get the shot. The vaccines are safe, effective and a lifeboat in this storm. Unless you have a sincere and serious concern about the vaccines that is untainted by misinformation, the time to get vaccinated is now. Frankly, the time to get vaccinated was yesterday. And the time to protest in front of hospitals was never.

But what I have heard from my colleagues does not sound like worry for the healthcare system, though I am sure they worry about it. As far as I can tell, they are worried about their health and safety at our workplace. They are genuinely nervous, as if our campus is fraught with danger.

These moments remind me of when I was in a university classroom on the eve of the pandemic. But the situation, at least in Canada, is not the same today. Given where we are in this fight, possessing one of the highest national vaccination rates, an atmosphere of dread across the board is neither justified nor conducive to an exit strategy.

A return to relative normalcy will remain elusive if we remain deeply worried about the virus after we are vaccinated, let alone worried about it in settings where virtually everyone is vaccinated. Projecting these worries onto others, potentially rendering them needlessly fearful, is not helpful. In one way or another, all of us can — all of us should — try to improve in this department. All things considered, a booster shot of cautious optimism would be appropriate and beneficial.

We would also do well to accept that the eradication of COVID-19 is not our current objective. The virus is here to stay for now, but that does not mean — given the efficacy of the vaccines and what we have learned — that we must live in fear. We must guard against unchecked trepidation or else we must brace for, sociologically speaking, another kind of pandemic.

Unvaccinated persons and the misinformation keeping many of them unvaccinated are, without question, prolonging the pandemic. But regardless of our vaccination status, if we have come to expect or demand impossible guarantees of safety from COVID-19, we are prolonging it too.

Sean Speer: Now it’s time to replace anger and frustration with aspiration and purpose

Commentary

And like that it’s over. Thirty-six days of the federal election campaign have come and gone. Canadians have heard from the various parties for more than five weeks and finally had their say. The anti-climatic finish seems fitting for a mostly anti-climatic campaign.

It feels like mere days ago that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was standing at a podium at Rideau Hall talking about how we found ourselves at a “really important moment in Canada’s history.” Events subsequently conspired to broadly conform to his early election framing.

The ensuing days and weeks were indeed highly eventful including the rise of a fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, Afghanistan’s collapse into chaos, recriminations over abortion, guns, and health care, an economic contraction and an inflation spike, and Canada’s exclusion from a new Anglosphere partnership on defence and security.

Yet, notwithstanding these major developments, one would be hard pressed to argue that the election campaign was defined by high-minded debate and strategic thinking on these fundamental issues. If the country actually finds itself in a “pivotal, consequential moment” as the prime minister described, Canadians could be forgiven for failing to understand the gravity of our circumstances or the competing ideas on offer to address them. Instead we got laundry lists of policy promises undergirded by a multi-partisan consensus in favour of rising government spending and long-run deficits and debt.

The Liberal campaign, in particular, was cynical and crass. Gone was the aspiration and energy of the extraordinary 2015 election. In its place was a campaign that stumbled from one wedge issue to another in search of any semblance of purpose. Notwithstanding the ultimate outcome, it’s hard to think that Prime Minister Trudeau feels good about his campaign’s highly-divisive tenor and tone. So-called “sunny ways” were replaced by an abject expression of desperation and negativity.

Although his “petulance and gloom” was undoubtedly about achieving partisan advantage, it inadvertently matched the mood of the country and became the campaign’s overall theme. This wasn’t a campaign about ideas, issues, or arguments. The 2021 federal election campaign was an exercise in anger and frustration.

As pollster Darrell Bricker tweeted in mid-August:

“The best word to describe Canadian voter opinion right now is brittle. It is a combination of anxiety, uncertainty and frustration. It has the potential to shatter. After many months of stability things are beginning to stir.”

He may have been slightly off on the actual election results, but Bricker’s read on the public’s “anxiety, uncertainty, and frustration” captured something happening below the surface of Canadian society. He recognized that Canadian governments’ (both federal and provincial) ongoing COVID-19 responses were the subject of a lot of pent-up skepticism and criticism within the general public.

A perceived loss of agency — a sense that we’ve effectively lost control of our lives — was at the backdrop of this attenuated campaign.

This anger and frustration spilled into the campaign in the form of regular protests following the Liberal Party leader’s campaign stops, the surprising and sustained support for the People’s Party, and the wedge politics practiced by the Liberals.

Journalists and pundits spent most of the campaign debating what had Canadians seemingly so angry. Was it the pandemic lockdowns? Or vaccine passports? Or something else altogether?

Recent polling for The Hub points to the practical and psychological effects of living with pandemic-induced uncertainty. The poll, conducted on our behalf by Public Square Research and Maru/Blue, asked Canadians whether they thought the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic was over or still yet to come. Nearly half of respondents (47 percent) said that they don’t know what the future holds.

This perceived loss of agency — a sense that we’ve effectively lost control of our lives — was at the backdrop of this attenuated campaign. It seems clear in hindsight that policymakers have underestimated how deeply the pandemic’s alienation and uncertainty have affected people.

Emergency programs such as the Canada Emergency Relief Benefit could mostly solve for people’s material needs. But no amount of government spending could substitute for lost child care, postponed weddings, delayed office re-openings, uncertain employment prospects, or ongoing distance from loved ones. The practical and psychological effects of these losses are both ongoing and immeasurable.

It’s almost as if some Canadians didn’t fully realize how much this alienation and uncertainty was affecting them until they were given an opportunity to express themselves in an election campaign. Then their feelings of anger and frustration suddenly came pouring out in a paroxysm of passion, protests, and populist politics.

Although the top policy priority of the incoming government will be to steer the country through the pandemic, its overarching goal must be to restore people’s sense of control over their own lives. This will require a rejection of petulance and gloom and a renewed commitment to a positive-sum, future-oriented vision for the country.

With the campaign now over, The Hub will return to its main goal of being a catalyst for ideas and debates for such a vision for Canada. Over the coming days, we will publish mandate letters for the incoming cabinet ministers that set out a series of bold policy prescriptions that would cumulatively tilt Canadian politics towards a different and better future.

The best antidote to anger and frustration is aspiration and purpose. The campaign has demonstrated how urgently Canada’s body politic needs such a remedy. There’s no time to waste. It’s time to get to work.