Spells, Rituals, and Viruses

September 1, 2021

In the early days of the COVID, I joined a private chat group to share our findings about the pandemic. How's everyone protecting themselves? What's the latest finding? What do we know about the disease? I was so concerned about it that I distinctly recall having a dream that my apartment was broken into and my primary concern was that I needed to wipe the door handles.

I was on guard because this virus was clearly nasty, and especially early on, there was no way to know the full extent of what it could do. It stood to reason, therefore, that we take maximum precautions until we knew what we were dealing with and, hopefully, until we knew how to stop unnecessary deaths.

Today, we've been at this task for 20 months. We now know what it is we're dealing with and we have a pretty good idea of what its future will look like. Yet, the hysteria around this virus, at least among much of the Canadian population, is at an all time high. If the stakes weren't so high, this mass hysteria would be comical. Many months after we ascertained that the means of spread is via aerosols as opposed to surfaces, ritualistic over-sanitizations are taking place everywhere you look. Seldom can you leave the house without seeing some diligent worker at a store, a restaurant, or a coffee shop furiously wiping down everything that customers touch.

Of course, this does nothing to prevent the spread of the disease. We're now well-into the "pleasing the gods" phase of pandemic response. A few weeks ago, I was traveling through interior BC. One rural gas station I stopped at had large signs about their COVID measures. Keep your distance, only enter through this door, wear a mask, etc. Near the entrance and directly in view of the clerk, there was a bottle of hand-sanitizer and a big, bold sign reading "ALL CUSTOMERS MUST SANITIZE THEIR HANDS". Everyone who entered, you humble correspondent included, went through the motion of using the bottle and rubbing its content over both hands. The joke was that this bottle had run out of sanitizer ages ago. But we all knew this silly ritual was our responsibility to keep our fellow citizens placated.

British Columbia's resurrected mask mandate is similarly comical. The careful observer will note that this mask mandate was not accompanied by capacity limits on indoor spaces as the last one was. I can go to a restaurant and sit elbow-to-elbow with strangers (and I have), but if I get up from my table, I have to put a mask on. We're all supposed to pretend that this prevents spread. Also comical are the plastic separators that businesses use to show their diligence in preventing the spread. Many of these are absurdly small, yet their mere presence is comforting to our brave populace. The sanitizing is our ritual and the masks and the separators are our talismans.

The fear of COVID was most welcome last year. Today, it's time to face the reality of what it means and how we can live with it. The time for fear has passed. We need leadership to help us grapple with reality as it is, and we're not getting it. I see the fear in the faces of people daily. The first day that the new mask mandate was imposed (limited only to public indoor spaces, not residential buildings), I was about to enter the elevator of my building unmasked. A lady who was already inside dove for the "door close" button when she saw I was not wearing a mask, and made sure to scream an anxiety-filled lecture about mandatory masks as the elevator door was closing. Less than 24 hours earlier, this woman was presumably OK with sharing an elevator with unmasked neighbours. This fear was perfectly rational last year. Today, we're in a society with an 85% vaccination rate. The risk profile is simply not what it was.

I see the hysteria also online. A few weeks ago, a Twitter hashtag was trending, calling for BC's head of public health to be fired. My first thought was that British Columbians had enough of restrictions. I was surprised to see that the hashtag was trending not because people wanted restrictions lifted but because they wanted more restrictions imposed. The reason for this is clear. Daily, we're inundated with news articles telling us there were hundreds of new cases. A year ago this was cause for alarm. Today? Only 2% of these cases are making it into hospitals. We wanted to flatten the curve, and thanks to a largely vaccinated population, we have.

Shortly before my grandmother died, she had a stroke. While she was in the hospital, my family was understandably distraught, and we were trying to get answers. One exchange between my mother and a doctor was unforgettable. My mother, in a state of panic, was peppering him with questions that he was patiently answering. At one point, she said: "this is really hard because we don't know what's going on."

The doctor looked her dead in the eyes and replied: "I think you do know what's going on. She's dying." Then he let the silence hang in the air.

Of course we knew that! But the human mind has a capacity to bend itself out of shape to avoid unwelcome truths. That doctor's directness hit hard, but it broke a spell that we had been under up to that point. The anxiety around not knowing what might happen or what lied ahead dissipated. Even though the answer was not pleasant, it equipped us to prepare.

So allow me, my fellow citizen, to tell you what lies ahead for us, in the hopes of breaking any spells you may be under after 20 months of fear and uncertainty: we're all going to get COVID. Going forward, every year we'll lose some people to this virus, just as we do to cancer, to heart disease, and, yes, to the flu. And we'll be OK.

There is no other option. The vaccines we have, miraculous as they are, will not protect us permanently or completely. The virus will continue to circulate even with very high vaccination rates. And that means it will continue to evolve, which in turn means we will be dealing with COVID for years, not months ahead.

If you accept this, as many experts have, there are a few takeaways.

First, stop looking at the daily case counts. In my opinion, the government should stop tracking or reporting this. It's perhaps the primary number that means nothing and is used to stoke fear. With a mostly-vaccinated population, most cases will come to nothing, as BC's numbers amply demonstrate.

Second, any policy we adopt to deal with COVID must be sustainable for the long term, because that's the time scale over which we'll be dealing with it.

I have been bent out of shape at the announcement that British Columbia will adopt a vaccine passport system. Maybe there was a scenario in which I would support this. Perhaps if the virus was deadlier and herd immunity was in reach, its trade off with infringement on people's liberties could be justified. As it stands, it is a policy of coercion that removes bodily autonomy. And for what? The BC government has stated the passport system will remain in place until Jan 2022, subject to extension. What do they expect will happen then? What do they expect will happen when a new variant arises, either from here or from the vast majority of the world that is unvaccinated? Are we to permanently relegate a class of citizens to second class over a choice they're making over their own bodies? The reasons here are irrelevant. The question is what harm is being evaded by this assault on liberties in a society where 85% of the population has already taken up vaccines and there is no hope of evading the virus even at full coverage.

Third, we must have a serious conversation about the need to live with the risk from this virus, and yes, that means accepting the risk of death. I, for one, reject the idea of not living life in the fear that it might lead to death. We've seen the disastrous effects of attempting zero-COVID policies in countries that have tried it. Do you want to spend 200 days in lockdown, in the name of safety, as some people in Australia have had to endure? Do you want to wake up every day not knowing what is or is not allowed today because people continue losing their marbles over something that will be a permanent fixture of life? Do you ever want to travel internationally again?

If you think this is a fatalistic or callous position, consider that we make these acceptable risk calculations all the time. Every time you drive in a car at more than 15 km/hr, you're accepting the risk of death and permanent disability to yourself and others because the result is worth it. Every year in Canada, two to three thousand people lose their lives in motor vehicle accidents, and 150,000-200,000 people suffer injuries of various levels of severity. There has been no mass hysteria over these fatalities. Similarly, the only question facing us regarding COVID is what the acceptable number is, and the biggest misinformation is from those politicians who tell us we can put it behind us.

These days, I rarely visit the private chat group I joined in March 2020. I've moved on, and it has evolved a culture of safety maximalism. On a recent skim of posts, however, I saw someone share that a relative passed away from COVID, even though she was fully vaccinated. Her unvaccinated grandchildren contracted it and infected her, and due to complications from pre-existing conditions, she could not be helped. I'm both sorry for their loss and note that stories like this are not a result of COVID. The vast majority of the people who need hospitalization or die suffer from co-morbidities that have already compromised their health. These people need special care and have weaker immune systems, regardless of what virus is circulating. For every one of these anecdotes about COVID, there are millions just like them that we don't hear because the cause of death was something far more mundane than a disease that arrived on the scene two years ago.

It's time to stare reality in the face and move forward.