For all of the challenges it has thrown in our path, COVID-19 has provided some remarkable accomplishments. A relatively sanguine House of Commons. Productive dialogue between the fed and the provinces. Brian Mulroney emerging from seclusion and sounding more progressive than many single-issue progressives. Public health leaders unafraid to put health before politics and politicians willing to follow that lead. A Canadian populace that somehow kept it together, following a logical, scientific and orderly path through the pandemic’s threat.
It’s a good thing these all materialized at roughly the same time, since we’re going to require every strength we have to forge a new future.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that our destiny with COVID-19 will be a lengthy relationship, ebbing and flowing between closures and openings, jobs lost and jobs gained, old allies disappearing and new ones emerging, the restless flowing back and forth between poverty and wealth. Early hopes that COVID-19 would be dispatched fairly quickly after its arrival have given way to a collective understanding that our near future might be inseparable from this virus that has so shaken our generation.
We look to Europe and feel relatively equal and measured. We see New Zealand, with its remarkable 39-year old prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, and encounter a certain sense of envy. But when we cast our eye south of the border, we experience that gnawing understanding in our stomach that our struggle with a global pandemic will be a long and exhausting one.
This past Sunday, there were almost 200,000 new cases globally. Yes, the danger has subsided in certain countries, but they can’t make up for the increase in cases popping up in places like Brazil, India, South Africa, Mexico, and, yes, America – developments that prompted the BBC to observe last week that the world is now entering its most dangerous phase of the pandemic. Or, as the Guardian noted yesterday, we are yet mired in the first wave of the virus, with the impending second wave yet to descend on us.
Canada will have to find new and innovative ways to navigate through a changed world in years to come. Poor and rich countries might become farther apart than any time in recent memory – definitely since the end of World War Two. Death rates in developing nations will inevitably dwarf anything in the prosperous West. The resentments that will emerge from that development could prove extreme enough to challenge the talents of even the gifted Bob Rae, Canada’s new ambassador to the United Nations.
The longer the pandemic tarries, the more worrying the prospects get. What’s to become of the world’s 26 million refugees, for instance, half of whom are children and one-third who are from the world’s poorest countries? Will there be any hope for a truly effective global climate change collaboration in a world so divided by pandemic response? What of trade, and jobs, and tourism, and travel, and the global economy and the litany of challenges about ready to land on our doorstep?
All of this would be more manageable if COVID-19 would do us a favour and just die out, but that isn’t going to happen. The good folks at John Hopkins University continue to remind us that viruses and diseases rarely disappear altogether. Tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, and polio have never departed the scene, despite the many cures that have supposedly been developed. And let’s not get started on the common cold and its ability to defy any medicine or diet we throw in its path.
The truth is that we have faced over 20 different viruses in almost as many years, with little sign that things will abate. Epidemics don’t end in most cases, but linger in diminished fashion, waiting for the moment humanity lowers its guard in order to surge again. That is why “watchfulness” and “prevention” have become the clarion mandates for health systems around the world.
Before we get to the second wave, we must emerge from the first – wiser, humbled, collaborative, and more deeply appreciative of the precarity of humanity in ways we have never experienced in our lifetimes. We can’t go back to the way things were. And, if we were honest, we might not wish to go back to a time when the planet had trouble breathing, the poor had troubling surviving, and the corporate global elite had trouble sharing. We were in the collective act of largely ignoring our greatest challenges prior to COVID-19’s arrival and we surely can’t take that chance again.
Throughout all of this, we will adapt. We will seek to build a more equitable world. We’ll be more careful what we waste and be more conscious of what we build. We will have the chance to enact trust again and to all row in the same direction. But then will come the political opportunists in all parties, the corporate giants bent on securing the wealth, media outlets that follow anything with the name “Trump” or “scandal” on it. Whether we get to moving forward will depend on how citizens and their institutions come together to fend off the dividers and get behind the collaborators.
This pandemic hasn’t ruined us, but it has exposed the opening sores and holes in our humanity. We will survive this but it is unlikely we’ll ever be free of it. It will be the neverending story – the world’s ongoing struggle between its fragility and its ingenuity. Whatever transpires, we can never be as lax and unguarded as we were prior to COVID-19s troubling presence