Is the COVID-19 pandemic over in Alberta? This Thursday, most health restrictions will be lifted. The numbers of new cases, patients in hospital, and active infections in the province have plunged from the highs of early May. Most importantly, vaccinations continue at a brisk pace. At the current rate, it seems likely that 75% of Albertans over the age of 12 will be fully vaccinated by the end of July.
Because of these developments, many are feeling hopeful that the worst of the pandemic is behind us. I feel more confident since receiving my second COVID-19 vaccine shot earlier this month, and I am happy that Alberta is not like some U.S. states where vaccination rates struggle to break 40% despite an abundance of shots.
At the same time, I wonder about the nearly 30% of Albertans 12 years of age and older who have not yet had a first shot. I hope public health messages and the encouragement of friends, family members, and community groups can lift Alberta’s vaccination rate closer to 100%. But even if the rate stalls at 75%, some think this might be good enough to end the pandemic. I hope so.
Mill Woods United Church has decided to continue with health restrictions into July and August – mask-wearing, physical distancing, and so on. If it becomes evident that the pandemic has indeed ended in Alberta, we could adjust this. And in the difficult event of a fourth wave of COVID-19, we would maintain these measures.
But given the idea that pandemic might be largely behind us here — even as the disease continues to rage in South America and much of Africa and Asia — what should we make of our experience over the past 16 months?
The Alberta government says we can now enjoy our “Best Summer Ever;” and I resonate with the slogan. A summer in which grandparents can hug their grandchildren, people can get on planes to explore other parts of the country, and in which our focus is more on recreation than on safety sounds delightful to me.
But I also resonate with an article from last week’s New York Times by Emily Esfahani Smith (“We Want to Travel and Party. Hold That Thought”). In it she writes: “Many people, myself included, are eager to put the past year behind them and rush into the joys of normal life that are now available — vacations, bars, parties and so on. But if we want to emerge from this crisis whole instead of broken, we need to process what we’ve lost. Rather than bulldoze past our grief straight into the delights of summer, we should take the time to work through it.”
Part of that work, she suggests, is telling our stories, while acknowledging that those who lost loved ones or livelihoods will have more trauma to process than others who had no one among their family and friends who were severely affected.
My trauma is probably on the mild side, although everyone in the family was scared when Kim’s daughter Katrina was diagnosed with COVID-19 on May 9 in her eighth month of pregnancy. Although Katrina stopped coughing one week later and was declared COVID-free on May 17, she had an emergency birth two days later. The good news is grandson Ethan seems perfect, and Katrina and Vinny are persevering through sleeplessness and the other challenges of caring for an infant.
A lot of my trauma is connected to disappointment at the leadership offered during the pandemic. Alberta has experienced the greatest spread of the disease of any province in Canada – 5000 cases per 100,000 people as opposed to 300 per 100,000 in New Brunswick – and the fourth highest level of death – 52 people per 100,000 as opposed to 6 per 100,000 in New Brunswick. Does this mean that leadership in New Brunswick is 10 or 15 times better than in Alberta? That conclusion might seem too simplistic. But then again . . .
Many people criticize leaders in countries led by populist and racist buffoons like Brazil, the United States, and the United Kingdom all of which have suffered mortality rates four times higher than Alberta. It is also common to laud the leadership of countries like New Zealand, Vietnam, and South Korea, which have suffered only a tiny fraction of the deaths, lockdown measures, and social and economic disruptions experienced in Alberta.
Leadership is found not only in government. It also rests with opposition parties and community groups. I am happy if a jurisdiction has a government that is humble, nimble, and able to learn best practices from others. But ones lacking these qualities can sometimes be pushed towards them by people outside of government.
Canada’s leaders seem reluctant to admit flaws in their COVID response. On Thursday, the retiring Chief Medical Officer of Ontario, Dr. David Williams, defended the record of the Ontario government in an interview on CBC’s “The National.” He did so even though twice as many people – 9,000 – have died in Ontario than in China, which has 100 times the population of Ontario. Perhaps he realizes that admitting failure during a pandemic means admitting culpability in a mass casualty event . . .
Today’s Gospel reading in which four desperate friends make a hole in a roof so they can lower a paralyzed person to Jesus reminds me of the frantic scramble for vaccines here in Canada when they were first rolled out in the winter.
Mark presents the healing of an invalid by Jesus as a supernatural miracle. Today, most of us use the word “miracle” to describe natural phenomena like the development of vaccines now being used to prevent COVID-19.
In early 2020, news media reported that vaccines usually take years to develop and there was no guarantee an effective vaccine could be created. Happily, and seemingly miraculously, the first vaccines were being administered last December less than a year after the virus that causes COVID-19 was identified.
By now, more than 2 billion doses have been administered worldwide. Unfortunately, to inoculate everyone will require 12 billion doses. Given this shortage, the scramble to get a shot has been intense, although I am pleased that Canada is now blessed with an ample supply.
The healing Jesus offers is about faith. It is about trusting that all is well and all will be well despite trauma and illness. This kind of trust lies at a deeper level than the surface one where we usually live. At the surface, we try to heal a disease with proper care and effective medicines. At the level of faith, we trust that even if care and medicine cannot heal us, we will still be held in the Love that is both our Source and Destiny.
Accepting the healing offered by Grace through faith does not prevent traumatic events from happening nor end our struggle to build a more equitable and just world. Instead, it gives us the ability to work for justice with greater equanimity and freedom.
As the pandemic comes to its hoped-for conclusion, I remain thankful for frontline workers, researchers, vaccine developers, and leaders who have exhibited humility and the ability to learn and to communicate clearly.
But even people like me who believe Alberta could have enjoyed its “Best Summer Ever” one year ago if only it had adopted best practices from East Asia might also realize that a “Best Summer Ever” can occur anytime we accept the Grace to trust our dependence on community and Love.
Not all jurisdictions have a leadership that can bring a pandemic under control in two months, let alone tackle issues that are radically more challenging like climate change. But no matter the jurisdiction in which we live, we can also realize that with Grace, today can become that “One Fine Day” for which we have been hoping. This is true regardless of disease, the competence of governments, or other challenges.
I am glad that I did not live through the pandemic in a failed state like Brazil where 2,000 people a day are still dying even as I wish Canada had been more like New Zealand where only five people have died since health restrictions were lifted last June. But whether in Brazil, New Zealand, or Canada, any moment of any summer, winter, spring, or fall is filled with endless gifts and is ripe with eternal possibilities.
With each breath in, we can remember that we are supported. And with each breath out we can rejoice to experience another amazing moment in this troubled but wondrous world. With faith, we can always enjoy the best summer ever!
May it be so. Amen.