Getting ‘back to normal’ won’t be the same as before

By Jim Brown

Lately I find myself thinking what it means to “get back to normal” during the coronavirus pandemic.

Those thoughts are increasingly prevalent now that the Pfizer vaccine is rolling out across the country and the world.

Our enchanted little province of barely 160,000 souls got its first shipment on Dec. 16, enough doses for nearly a thousand arms. More will be coming in the following weeks as production ramps up everywhere. And within months the Pfizer vaccine will be followed by another one that doesn’t require the same deep freeze technology to be effective (the Moderna vaccine). And there are others in the wings in late-stage clinical trials.

All told close to 60 vaccines around the world are approaching the finish line. Not all of them will succeed, probably not even the majority of the candidates, but we can safely say there will likely be at half a dozen available.

The end of a horrifying pandemic that could claim more than 600,000 lives by the time it fades in the US, and as many as 30,000 in Canada, is within sight – maybe even by mid to late summer.

Will we be ‘back to normal’ then?

My answer is yes and no.

Yes, because it will feel like ‘normal’. No, because it won’t be the ‘normal’ we all experienced prior to the pandemic. It will be, to quote a much over-used cliche, “a new normal.”

For much of the pandemic I struggled to follow Health Canada’s guidelines, including washing hands frequently, slipping on a face mask when venturing indoors, staying away from crowds of people and physically distancing when that wasn’t possible. Then all of a sudden it wasn’t a struggle.

The guidelines became part of my routine, a new normal.

Now, when a vaccine is just around the horizon, I find myself imagining how strange it would feel not to wear a mask when walking into an indoor space. It wouldn’t seem ‘normal’ to go back to my pre-pandemic mask-less lifestyle.

I will get the vaccine when my number comes up, but I know it won’t be a panacea. It may prevent me from getting sick with COVID-19, but medical authorities don’t yet know if vaccinated people can spread the virus to others who haven’t been vaccinated and they likely won’t know for a while yet. And we don’t know how long the protection will last. Will it be weeks, or months or longer? Don’t forget, the average vaccine can take years, even a decade or longer to develop, so there is plenty of time to determine if long term immunity is in the cards.

The Pfizer vaccine, from early trials to approval and then to delivery, took barely 10 months. That’s an incredible accomplishment, more astonishing even than the race to land a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s, not even 10 years after President John F. Kennedy announced America’s lunar exploration program.

So, what does “feeling normal” mean? In my case it would mean walking into a crowded space knowing I likely won’t contract COVID-19 and become ill. That is a huge load off anyone’s shoulders.

But there are many other Canadians who won’t get the same chance at immunity. They may have life-threatening allergies to vaccines. Or their immune systems may be weakened from cancer or other serious medical conditions.

I still have to look out for them.

For millions of Canadians that will be their normal for the foreseeable future. One thing I’ve discovered over the past nine months is that wearing a mask and following other basic hygiene measures and physical distancing isn’t that hard.

And just think of the benefits of continuing those practises. The flu season has been a no-show this fall and early winter, with the incidence of the seasonal flu way down. Remember, influenza claims many lives a year – usually older, frailer Canadians with underlying conditions.

Many experts believe pandemic guidelines have played a role in the flu’s mysterious vanishing act around the world.

There are a number of diseases that are also spread from person to person that can be greatly reduced by mask wearing and other public health measures we never thought of doing before the pandemic.

Isn’t that a good reason for everyone to keep their guard up?