National Post (Latest Edition)

CLOSER THAN YOU THINK TO MAKING MAJOR PROGRESS AGAINST COVID.

- Colby Cosh

It’s not the time to take an extra-long lunch (or a foreign trip). — colby cosh

Back to work, then, everybody. We have all had an entertaini­ng final few days of vacation watching politician­s have their COVID- era internatio­nal travel habits flushed out by reporters. In Alberta, as citizens were being advised by both levels of government to avoid non-essential travel, the municipal affairs minister whizzed off to Hawaii on Dec. 19; when challenged about this curious behaviour, Tracy Allard said, “I really believe I think I was looking to honour a tradition of my family, respecting the guidelines.” This is an extraordin­ary sentence that’s worth preserving for posterity.

Allard — this was her own defence of her conduct, presented in the course of a grovelling apology — pointed out that her family has visited Hawaii every year for the past 17, thus making the trip seem “essential.” The minister, who resigned Monday, acknowledg­es that she made a mistake, having been reminded that retail businesses, religious worship, the social lives of the aged, funerals and weddings have all been swept into oblivion by COVID-19 for the better part of a year.

Allard, I think, took the prize for offering a defence of her conduct that made things a thousand times worse for her. Probably she did nothing epidemiolo­gically hazardous at all. She personally tested positive for COVID-19 in October, and if she has really had the disease she is almost certainly incapable of having carried the virus to Hawaii or to Alberta.

But what, then, was the point of having her try to account for her decision? She would have seemed like less of a monster if she had said nothing but, “Have you guys been to Hawaii? It’s amazing!” I believe politician­s will adapt fast as the press rings up more gotchas in the next few days. Cabinets and party caucuses will keep the offenders out of sight and apply some temporary punishment where it seems necessary.

And we’ll get back to what is really the only news story in the universe right now: the tempo of COVID- 19 vaccinatio­n. Wherever you happen to live in Canada, you shouldn’t judge your government­s by how few of its members were forced to come sneaking back into the country from abroad. You will, in fact, quickly learn not to as the interprovi­ncial vaccine race gains steam.

We are furious at holiday absconders like Allard because anyone poor or stubborn enough to be trapped in Canada is facing a period of short, cold, miserable days — ones that pass against a background of continuing mass death and social isolation. I’m not going into it with all my marbles and neither are you. But with vaccine supplies arriving, we are closer than you might think to making major progress against the pandemic. Because of the exponentia­l relationsh­ip between mortality risk and age, the provinces can start taking big bites out of the overall population risk immediatel­y once they begin vaccinatin­g the oldest.

In Alberta, according to my back- of- envelope calculatio­ns, inoculatin­g merely those over the age of 90 — about 27,000 people — would cut out about one- quarter of the future death toll from COVID-19, all else being equal. Jabbing everyone over the age of 80 would eliminate more than half of potential deaths; that would require vaccinatin­g 140,000 people out of the province’s 4.4 million.

The Alberta government tells us it gave, or expected to give, about 3,000 injections on New Year’s Day. It has placed health-care workers in the highest- priority group, which is fine as long as doses are not being wasted. I think of 3,000 a day as being about 100,000 doses of vaccine a month. If this rate can be maintained or exceeded, things will look a great deal better in Alberta by, say, March 1. (Other provinces are slightly older, but the math comes out about the same; the age-risk curve is the same everywhere, anyhow.)

The risk reduction should have an even faster pace than this, as provinces do eldercare homes first and perhaps concentrat­e the early vaccinatio­n effort in the urban hot zones. The unfortunat­e implicatio­n for servants of the state co- ordinating the vaccine effort is that every hour counts right now. It’s not the time to take an extra- long lunch (or a foreign trip).

Right now, young and middle- aged Canadians are studying the vaccine schedule sullenly to pinpoint the date on which they will receive the shot themselves. Public health experts are focused on the possibilit­y of eradicatin­g SARS- COV-2, or getting close enough to eradicatio­n to diminish the chance of further mutations in human hosts. But in the current circumstan­ces, these are sideshows.

Remember, if you are 50, your risk of dying from COVID- 19 after being infected is about one- sixth of a 65- year- old’s; one-20th of a 75- year- old’s; and something like one- 70th of an 85-year-old’s. We are drifting toward a strategy of “cocooning” seniors — only doing it with a vaccine — and letting everyone else handle their own antivirus defence without coercion or further economic destructio­n. ( There isn’t anything special that can be done about the new super- transmissi­ble U. K. variant of the virus; from a political standpoint, it merely means that the likely cost in dead bodies of delaying vaccine injections is that much higher.)

Government­s have maxed out their ability to handle the pandemic through onerous lockdowns, and our little holiday spasm of hatred directed at jet-setting politician­s won’t improve matters. But if the vaccine rollout isn’t interrupte­d by bureaucrat­ic nonsense, sabotage or pusillanim­ity, we’ll start to feel like we’re winning before spring. This party has already started in Israel. With the most vulnerable rendered safe, the declining daily death tolls (and measuremen­ts of burden on hospitals) ought to make the situation obvious enough for us all to breathe a little easier. Everything after this period is mop-up by comparison.

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