By Dr. Abdu Sharkawy | Mohamad Fakih
Jan. 4, 2021
As a new year dawns, we should take the time to consider how we are all going to live our lives between now and that promising day when the majority of our population has been vaccinated.
One of the few joys of 2020, the “year of COVID,” has been new relationships forged not only despite the pandemic and all the barriers that lack of regular human contact imposes on us, but because of it.
The two of us have been brought together by the uniquely difficult circumstances of a global pandemic, and our different viewpoints as restaurateur and infectious diseases specialist have facilitated the sharing of some fascinating perspectives over the last months. We have learned from each other and we have agreed on a lot.
The medical and economic crises caused by the virus have hit all of us hard in many different ways. The beginning of vaccine deployment ushers in some light at the end of what has been an incredibly long and lonely tunnel, and we are only halfway through it. We can now see the faint glimmer of when this might actually be over. It is becoming clearer that it will not be until at least this upcoming fall, in Canada and elsewhere, before we cross the threshold of vaccination penetration necessary for a degree of immunity that will see us to a more normal way of life once again.
Right now, we must control a second wave of infections that is delivering surging caseloads in too many parts of Canada. Such control will require discipline and attention from all of us to the restrictions that can drive transmission down, particularly over the holiday season. Sadly, too much of our pandemic discourse has been plagued by false dichotomies that threaten the cohesion and solidarity in principles that are critical to reducing transmission.
Economic versus human survival, individual freedom versus social accountability, and mental health versus physical isolation are all examples of zero-sum arguments that do not reflect realities borne out in regions in other parts of the world that have successfully controlled this pandemic. Life has returned to near normal in places like Australia, New Zealand and Taiwan long before vaccines were available or even approved, largely because the will of the collective has prevailed over that of the individual.
A successful resolution of this pandemic must not be guided by perception through a culturally constrained lens of doubt, but from an open-minded one based on evidence, hope and reality. The reality is that COVID-19 does not affect us all equally. More people who are elderly, infirm and frail have died. More racialized, marginalized communities have suffered. More who have less have lost even more.
But lost in the numbers, too, are those who are not obvious high-risk targets. The single mom who can no longer run up the stairs to her child without becoming short of breath, the young athlete whose career has ended after chronic heart inflammation, the guitarist who cannot strum his strings after a disabling stroke. All are examples of lives forever changed. Their stories are not shared often enough but bear evidence that none of us is immune to the threat of this virus, especially before relief can be delivered from a vial and a needle.
We need to rethink how we will live our lives amid COVID for the next nine months or more, with the objective of doing better than we managed for the first half of the pandemic through 2020.
First, we must continue to be guided by the science, data and evidence gathered through the first 10 months of the pandemic. Governments need to ensure that full transparency is prioritized and maintained so all sectors of society can understand and support the measures they impose in order to best serve public health and safety.
Second, governments need to continue to work together to support people and businesses when their COVID management measures result in loss of income. This will require continued expenditures scaled and tailored to need, with an understanding that some people have accumulated debt more heavily than others depending upon their exposure to the pandemic and lockdown measures.
Third, doctors, scientists, governments and both small and large businesses need to plan together so measures are put in place that primarily manage the virus and avoid further surges, but also recognize that people need to be able to live their lives in a way that helps us regain some semblance of humanity and in turn help to minimize the mental health issues we have seen too much.
The reasons why we understood that our children needed to be back in school in September are also relevant to the current needs of the rest of society and what we require in order to get through to the other side of the virus. Let’s be smarter about how we construct a better framework for living with the pandemic. Health, with an added emphasis on mental health, needs to be our first priority.
Once the second wave surge has been diminished, for example, perhaps we can envision a bubble system that allows us to interact, even in a Canadian winter, with more people than only our household. Can technology help? How about an app that made it clear who you are restricted to dine with at a restaurant that helped to manage some degree of safe socialization in restricted congregate settings? Add this to an agreed amount of space needed per person and improved ventilation and perhaps we would be on the right track.
Humans are smart. Now that we know our approximate timeline to a return to normal, let’s apply that intelligence to providing more than just the distant hope of a vaccinated population later this year. Before that shot in the arm, we need a dose of reality. Let’s commit to helping people not only survive, but enjoy their lives more fully every day in the meantime, until that moment when we emerge from the tunnel, and the light we have long awaited is real.