Chairman's Desk

The promise of a vaccine highlights unique challenges for our time

This article was originally published in the Toronto Star on November 22, 2020.

Alexander Pope has long promised us that “hope springs eternal,” but in Canada we know we are entering a less pleasant and more dreary phase of the pandemic which has upended the lives of so many.

Much of the summer — and for a time, the fall — brought good news of case counts stabilizing, businesses reopening and ways to safely spend time with family and friends.

Regrettably, those times were not to last. And so now, we ride a carousel of bad news turning faster and faster as we spin into winter.

The rules around dining out have ebbed from encouraging to disconcerting. Parents and guardians with children in school have been bewildered by the rules intended to ensure a safe learning environment. Talks of cancelled holidays and celebrations stretching into the new year are particularly upsetting to many.

But at the core of our beings, we know that these changes are necessary. That, until we get a vaccine, we are not close to having this virus beat.

And so, this week’s news was greeted with outsized hope: potentially viable COVID-19 vaccines produced by Moderna and Pfizer, respectively. The news bolstered markets. It even changed the channel on some of the more worrying developments in Donald Trump’s “Minsk on the Potomac,” as the New Yorker’s Susan Glasser dubbed his pantomime of an authoritarian power grab.

But for all the good news from the field of science, the field of political science threw a flag on the play.

That’s because, from the perspective of public opinion, the promise of a successful COVID vaccine seems a double-edged sword.

For some time, we have allowed distrust in institutions, and especially the government, to grow unchecked. One of the results is that conspiracy theorism has become the order of the day. And making matters worse is the separation triggered by shutdowns, which has further reinforced the sense that our individual realities are miles apart.

This shift, along with the rise of both the anti-vax movement and misinformation generally, poses a singular threat to the potential success of a COVID vaccine. We know the efficacy of a vaccine relies on significant uptake among our communities. Problem is, there remains a large swath of Canadians who balk at the idea of a government-distributed vaccine.

Maybe the way around this problem is for the government to get out of the way and let the private sector step up.

Ticketmaster is just one example of a company that is preparing for the eventuality of a vaccine, announcing last week their plans to verify customers’ vaccination status before permitting attendance. When they are allowed to reopen, many restaurants will no doubt devise a similar system of compliance.

Skepticism will abound if the government mandates vaccines, but nothing will stir people to a jab sooner than the promise of access to their favourite haunts and activities. What’s more, if a vaccine is free (or cheap) and accessible to every single Canadian, firms will be well within their rights to implement these policies.

At the same time, a vaccine’s distribution will rely on a level of global coordination that has not been executed — or even pursued — in some time. Joe Biden’s inauguration will not immediately grease the gears of international institutions and alliances that haven’t been tested practically since Donald Trump took office. Nor will Inauguration Day entirely reverse the retreat of America from its position as a co-ordinator of global health responses.

And this is where government has a clear role: to ensure that Canadians have the vaccines we need, distributed to where we need them.

At the end of the day, Canadians will need to take the vaccine.

While this winter will be long and difficult, the sacrifices we make now until vaccines are ready will make it easier for us to return to a form of “normal.”

A normal includes the simple things like a return to dinners out with friends, movies with family and other rituals that bring us together and out into our community.

For that, I will happily get a vaccine. Eagerly, in fact.

I hope you will too.