Is it me, or does everyone have COVID-19 right now?
Anecdotally — because that’s the only kind of information we have access to now, apparently — it seems like every other social media post I encounter is from someone posting a variation of, “well, I got it” and a picture of a positive rapid test.
So far, I’ve been able to Frogger my way through two years of the global pandemic without actually getting it — yet! — and that’s likely in no small part because I have the immense privilege of still working from home, for the most part.
But I also feel like it’s a matter of when, not if.
Back in January, I wrote about the “but I did everything right” qualifier people were attaching to their COVID disclosures during the Omicron-led wave over the holidays. Despite their best efforts, people were still getting sick, and then were feeling intense shame about it — and no wonder. People were made to feel as if Getting The Thing was some sort of moral failing, when all anyone can do is the best they can for as long as they can with the information they have.
But we don’t have as much information as we used to since our province has decided, essentially, that the pandemic is over, ditching the daily updates, reducing PCR testing, and swapping mandates and restrictions for recommendations.
But what do recommendations really mean without information to buttress them? One of the tentpoles of public health during the pandemic has been informed decision making. How can we make informed decisions with little to no information? That starts to look less like informed decision making and more like hoping for the best.
Having a fuller picture of a situation may influence you to make different decisions, or adjust your behaviour accordingly. For example, if you know that cases are spiking, you might decide to move a gathering outdoors, or cancel it altogether. You may elect to mask up more frequently. Workplaces that are able to may decide to move to remote temporarily. You may decide to close your storefront because your staff is sick, as several local businesses have done already.
Riley Grae, a shop on Corydon, displays a sign of its closure due to the COVID-19 outbreak. (Jesse Boily / Winnipeg Free Press files)
Will this occasionally be disruptive and disappointing? Sure. But “living with the virus” is going to require some flexibility — some waxing and waning, if you will. More than that, though, it’s going to require caring about other people. Yes, I know: everyone’s risk tolerance is different, but all the examples above are individual actions that bear others in mind.
As my colleague Dan Lett, who recently had COVID-19, noted in his newsletter: “Mask and vaccine mandates were not stopping us from living a normal life. They were helping most Manitobans live the best life possible under the circumstances.” I’d like to emphasize the “most Manitobans” part; I’d hate to think that “getting back to normal” means leaving those most vulnerable behind because, “Hey man, that’s their choice.”
To that end, I want to highlight the “stay home when you’re sick” recommendation because I believe it’s our weakest link — especially in light of the “the symptoms are mild” talking point that keeps being repeated (although, again, mild for whom? Context matters here, too).
I’ve banged on about this many, many times and I will continue to do so: without a significant overhaul in work culture — and, in particular, how we view “absenteeism” — coupled with actual sick time, people are going to go to their newly repopulated offices with COVID-19. People will go to school with COVID-19. They will do this because they will think they have no other choice.
Beyond work, how many people are going to hockey games or concerts or events they’ve missed over the past two years because they really want to go and “feel mostly fine” or think “it’s probably just a cold"? That’s not staying home when you’re sick.
We need to stop thinking in a “pandemic” and “normal” binary. The old normal? That doesn’t exist anymore. It is unreasonable to think we can come out of a life-changing, global event unchanged. We need to be able to adapt and have the flexibility to adopt new social norms, such as masking when we feel sick or are in a crowded place, or staying home when we don’t feel well.
As the adage goes, when you know better, you do better. Surely, by now, we know better when it comes to practising the so-called fundamentals. But if we can’t do better without more information to guide us, or without rules in place — if the siren song of normal is too enticing to resist and no one is watching us, anyway — perhaps, then, we’re not quite ready to do away with metrics and mandates.
Jen Zoratti, Columnist