In the run-up to the holiday season, one can almost detect the collective groan going up across the country as the evidence of the Omicron variant settles into Canadian communities. Millions of hopes look to be delayed once more as businesses, schools, associations, hospitals and hospices are pulled back into pandemic disciplines they believed were slowly being relaxed.
One of the most complicated aspects of the pandemic has been its havoc with our collective and individual expectations. Every time we come up for air, we are forced back under by a new reality of pandemic living. In my city of London, Ontario, several schools have now closed. A probable forty cases of the Omicron strain have been identified, making the city a hotspot for the new variant in Ontario. Feeling we had perhaps got a handle on Delta, we are now thrust back into the constrained world of Covid.
Our desires for a better future perhaps blinded us to what we should have seen coming all along. Public health officials worldwide have warned us repeatedly that with the inability to get societies fully vaccinated, the virus would morph and mutate and that the power of these new strains would prove more challenging than the original variant. We heard those warnings but somehow hoped they wouldn’t come true.
These new variants are teaching us realities about how we handled the original Covid-19 threat. Like Canada, America, Europe, and Britain, the wealthy nations stockpiled vaccines, often to significant excess, to protect themselves and their citizens. “Us First” was the motto, and it appeared to pay off for a time.
Now we realize that we failed to take in the bigger picture. It’s what the Secretary-General of the United Nations termed “pandemic nationalism.” We believed that we could shut out the broader world to protect ourselves. We were wrong, though politicians and governments are hesitant to admit it. By leaving the poorer nations largely unvaccinated, we have created a global Petri dish of new threats from which new variants will inevitably land on our shores or in our border crossings and airports.
It is now clear to our politicians that they had been short-sighted in their hopes to escape the worst of it. Seeing global leaders from wealthy nations now promising to send more vaccines to developing countries is a good thing. While they attempt to frame these efforts in a humanitarian context, the reality is that the survival of their own rich countries requires the understanding that if the virus can’t be fought everywhere, it can’t be contained anywhere.
Unless we adapt these lessons quickly, the global economy will crash since open trade requires easy access, migrant labour, and populations willing to spend to succeed.
More vital than our collective lifestyles is life itself. People are perishing in both rich and developing nations because of our inability to form a united international front against the conscious threat of the age. We have permitted our pandemic response to become fractured instead of united.
Drawing an alarming parallel to the recent past, South African human-rights lawyer and head of the Health Justice Initiative Fatima Hassan speaks of “vaccine apartheid” to define what has been happening with vaccines. Strong words, but we need to recall that the apartheid era in South Africa was deemed evil because it kept an entire population out of the reach of the benefits of the modern era. Hassan is saying that this has been the practice of the global vaccine regime. She’s not wrong.
Why, then, are our leaders, who recently gathered in Europe and Scotland to discuss the issue, so reticent to speak up? True, they misjudged the original pandemic threat. Still, we all did and have learned to cut some slack for political luminaries attempting to grasp something that came at them like an unexpected tsunami. But that was then – two years ago – and this is now.
Wealthy nations, like Canada, that had been placing their international development funds on diets in recent years as they focused on domestic challenges, now must reverse course and make vaccine procurement and access essential to their policies. Instead of responding only when emergencies arise, they must assist in developing professional health systems in poorer countries – not just for their sake but for our own safety and security.
There must be a global response, or our nations, including the wealthiest, will be crippled in their ability to protect their people. As Germany’s Angela Merkel put it recently:
“The COVID-19 pandemic once again reminds us: Global crises require global solutions. We must act together to end the pandemic. And we must not forget those who are affected by extreme poverty and hunger.”
Omicron is a global threat that likely emerged from a poorer region. We can react by merely shutting our borders and hoping for the best, or we can attack this current threat to all humanity by coming together and defeating it at its source. Leaders are now coming to terms with that reality, and so should all Canadians.