National Post (National Edition)
We have stared fear in the eye ... we have shown that mankind can still do big things.
It 's a near universally agreed-upon truth that 2020 was garbage. A terrible, terrible year. And it has been! The past 12 months have been objectively bad in many, many ways. But they've been unevenly bad, in the sense that while many have suffered, for some of us, it's been tolerable. Some of us even had good years, despite it all.
Is it too soon to say that? Is it cruel? That's certainly not my intention. But 2020, while difficult and frightening, hasn't been nearly as bad as I feared it would be during those early weeks of the first wave. And as anyone with much knowledge of history knows, 2020 — our Worst. Year. Ever! — isn't really even all that bad by historical standards. You can get a lot of dirty (virtual) looks for saying so, but it's true. In the grand scheme, 2020 is probably only a correction in a generations-long upswing in human standards of living, at least in the Western world. And there's every reason to hope the correction, while sharp, will prove short.
“Hope.” It's almost an alien word after 2020. But, yes. There's cause for hope. Not just because vaccines are on the way, and thus far seem to be effective and safe. But because we've been given an incredible opportunity. As bad as COVID-19 has been for some, and despite the horrific loss of life, this was, by pandemic standards, fairly tame. A colleague of mine described it perfectly a few months ago, before the second wave hit: this is a training-exercise pandemic. It gives us a chance to get a future one right, and to fix some of the things we did badly before we're confronted by a nastier bug than COVID-19.
I know this must sound crass to those who lost loved ones or a business. But it's true all the same — this is a classic example of a truth that hurts. COVID-19 has been a nightmare, but it could have been much worse, and because of this experience, we were able to make a lot of dumb mistakes early on without paying nearly as high a price as could have been the case. This is a learning opportunity, for all of us, and for all levels of government. And this time, unlike with SARS, our experience with which seemed to lull us into a false sense of security, we can learn these lessons, and not forget them.
There will be commissions and inquiries aplenty to come, so there's no point trying to guess what their conclusions will be. We'll know in due time, and we can already grasp the big picture: for the federal government, they waited too long to act on curtailing travel, had allowed our stockpile of PPE to atrophy, moved too slowly to secure more PPE and generally failed to communicate clearly and effectively with Canadians. For the provinces, our health-care system had been operating far too close to the edge for far too long, leaving it vulnerable to a disaster, and failures in the long-term-care homes in particular were devastating.
But all of us learned from this.
We had to. This has been a shared stress-test for our entire civilization. We've certainly found areas of failure that we can now fix.
And I'm hopeful we will. Not absurdly or naively optimistic, of course — we are very good at ignoring problems that will cost more to fix than we'd like to spend. But an experience like this is simply too large and all-consuming to impart no lessons. We will learn from this, even if we have to be dragged to our wisdom kicking and screaming. We may not do better next time, but we'll have no excuse not to.
So yes, that's perhaps a strange kind of hope, but it's hope all the same. All of us want to forget the worst parts of 2020 — the fear, the confusion, the anger and stress in our personal and professional lives. We are social creatures and living isolated takes a toll. There will be parts of this year that we'll all want to forget about, and the good news is, we probably will. Time won't heal all the wounds, but it'll take the sting and bitterness out of some of the worst memories of 2020. It won't happen right away, but it'll happen. It always does.
But the lessons will linger. The next time we hear reports of some weird new virus anywhere in the world, we'll know to start asking about airports. We'll get out the sanitizer bottles and dig the old masks out of the sock drawer or whatever spot we banish them to in a year or so. We will hopefully never be caught flat-footed for PPE, while our hospitals are routinely packed beyond capacity, ever again. An entire generation of Canadian political leadership will remember, and so will Canadians.
We'll be smarter after this. Maybe not smart enough in a dangerous world, but every little bit helps. Again, it's a strange kind of hope. But it's sincere. And it might one day save us.
A SHARED STRESS-TEST FOR OUR ENTIRE CIVILIZATION.