That the public health response era of the COVID-19 pandemic, now stretching into its third year, went out as it did, not with a bang but with a whimper, quietly skulking off into the past at midnight on a Monday, may feel anti-climactic, but it’s probably the only way it was ever going to happen.
At some point during the pandemic, which does not end with the lifting of public health orders and the doffing of face masks, but continues on, just quieter and less noticeable than before, it may have been tempting to imagine a day in the future when, thanks to our collective efforts to control the virus and develop a vaccine for it, we could declare victory, gloat triumphantly about how we “beat it” and tear off our masks in a defiant sign of a return to the way things were. Hell, in some people’s daydreams, they may have burned their masks at public demonstrations, as feminists were reported to have done with bras in the 1960s, to signal the end of oppression and the dawning of a new day. However, as crusaders for equal rights for women could tell you, sometimes things take a long way to fade away and you have to win “victories” against them again and again and again until they become almost so meaningless that you don’t feel like celebrating them anymore because you’re tired of having to fight the battle at all.
COVID-19 isn’t beaten. It is still infecting thousands of people a day in some parts of the world and we literally don’t know how many in Manitoba because the government pretty much just stopped keeping track. Modern science doesn’t have a great track record with eliminating diseases, apart from small pox and polio, for the most part, especially those that can infect animals as well as humans. With such diseases, even eradicating it among people is not guarantee that someone won’t contract it from an animal – one of the possible ways that COVID-19 began infecting humans – and kickstart the whole cycle once more. Even diseases like the plague are still around, though thankfully much less troublesome now than they were in medieval times, when they killed large swathes of the population in great pandemics. Scientists seem to be saying that COVID-19 will continue to be with us indefinitely, though hopefully it won’t have such drastic consequences as it had in the two years plus a few days that have passed since the first positive case was detected in Manitoba.
The coming weeks are not going to be a return to how things were. In a previous, brief period of the pandemic, when indoor mask use was temporarily eliminated, many people in Thompson continued to cover their mouths and noses when they went to the grocery store, wary about whether the threat was really over. As multiple waves and scores of deaths since then have shown, they were wise to do so, because the maskless period soon passed and even more stringent restrictions had to be brought in.
Where we are now is not so much a post-public health order era, as a transitional period from the age of restrictions to the age of recommendations. Some people will immediately stop wearing masks in any and all situations, others may want to keep theirs on for a time. Hopefully, people won’t, in the name of “freedom,” harass those who exercise their right to remain cautious. Remember, it isn’t necessarily that someone is scared of getting infected themselves, but that they’re wary of passing the virus to someone else in their life who may be less able to fight off an infection without serious harm to their health. And, as COVID has shown us, it isn’t always possible to predict who will be the ones who barely notice the virus and who will end up in hospital, though vaccination status does seem to play a fairly significant role.
During earlier times of loosening restrictions, people sometimes felt, as they began to gather again in ways that were not possible during the early days of the pandemic, and at later stages over the past two years, that normal didn’t feel normal anymore. Once you get used to a certain ways of doing things, it doesn’t take long before going back to an old way of doing things starts to feel foreign. For many, plunging headfirst into the pool of no social distancing and no other restrictions won’t be the preferred option. Instead, they will ease their way in, bit by bit, like a timid swimmer moving deeper and deeper into the cold water at the beach until they find themselves so far in that they might as well just go ahead and dunk their head under and get it over with.
The start of the pandemic will always be more memorable, as the moment when everything changed overnight, than the end, when people slowly stopped caring so much and eventually began accepting the disease as an avoidable but still present fact of life. Those of us who were alive when HIV came on the scene can attest to this fact. It wasn’t there, as far as most of us knew, and then it exploded. Harder to pinpoint is when it began to fade into the background and cease to be as prominent a concern as it had been in the mid- to late 1980s and early 1990s.