Opinion: We’re weary of the wait for COVID vaccine

It’s official: vaccines are the new toilet paper.

Justin Trudeau appears to have thrown the country into a Black Friday-style shopping frenzy with his remarks this week about where Canada fits in the global queue for vaccines.

Unlike the great toilet-paper quest of COVID’s first wave, however, this scramble for provisions is totally explicable.

Canadians can’t flood the malls or cross-border outlet stores as they normally do on Black Friday, so they are looking for something more hard-to-get than bargains this year: an end to the pandemic. They want that shot in the arm, and they want it now.

But Trudeau’s suggestion that Canadians would have to wait in line behind other nations for the vaccines has radically upped the impatience all around, and has clearly rattled the fragile team spirit among the first ministers.

“Let’s not lose it at the end,” New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs said at his press conference on Thursday.

Too late, perhaps. Some of Higgs’ counterparts in other provinces were saying they were caught unaware by Trudeau’s candour of earlier in the week and were looking for a lot more clarity from the PM on Thursday night’s call among first ministers.

In the abstract, not much has changed this week in the Canadian wait for vaccines. Citizens of this country have been told for weeks – ever since the first successful vaccine candidates started surfacing – that some kind of immunization program would begin early in 2021.

That timeline got even more precise on Thursday when federal public health officials said we could expect that approximately three million Canadians would receive vaccinations within the first three months of the new year.

What happened this week was a collision of bad news, though: rapidly rising case counts across Canada, announcements of strict limits on Christmas gatherings and reports surfacing in Ontario and Alberta of politicians and public-health officials being at odds over COVID-prevention measures.

Then Trudeau waded into the fray with the admission that Canada would have to accept the fact that citizens of other countries would be getting vaccinations before people here, because we lacked the capacity to manufacture homegrown vaccines.

So Americans, British and German citizens, among others, would stand at the head of the line.

Question period in the House of Commons hasn’t been the same since, with Trudeau’s critics standing up in succession to pronounce this country a loser in the vaccine sweepstakes.

When Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole and his health critic raised the spectre of Mexico – Mexico! – getting vaccinations before Canadians, that country’s ambassador to Canada posted a tweet slamming “selfishness.”

But it’s the image of Americans getting better COVID care than Canadians that is particularly galling.

It’s way off script for this pandemic, when Canada has been regularly congratulating itself for managing this crisis far better than the spectacle south of the border.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford drew a vivid picture on Thursday of the potential resentment.

“We can’t have our U.S. neighbours down in the states and everywhere else getting vaccines and Canada’s waiting two or three months,” Ford said, “as their economy starts taking off when they have the vaccine and we’re sitting back twiddling our thumbs, wondering when we’re going to get it.”

The federal government announced on Thursday it would now be holding weekly briefings on the progress of getting vaccines to Canada.

One assumes that this is at least in part some damage control – or anticipatory damage control – to head off the vaccine angst that has reared its head in Canada this week.

That angst will not be magically dispelled either when vaccines start arriving on Canadian soil. As politicians and public health officials have been gingerly trying to explain, Canadians are going to get sorted into priority groups.

If we thought that Canadians were grumpy about seeing Americans and others getting ahead in line, wait until we see how they feel when they have to start standing behind their own fellow citizens in the queue.

This will be a monumental exercise in managing public expectations and demands.

It’s also where the toilet-paper scramble of the early pandemic actually can be compared to the coming lineup for vaccines.

Nobody really knew why toilet-paper sales in Canada went up by nearly 300 per cent in the early weeks of the COVID crisis, but one good guess was that people simply feared a shortage and didn’t want to be left out.

Limited, prioritized supplies of COVID vaccines hold the potential to create exactly that kind of mass psychology – with much higher stakes for citizens’ health and the economy.

For the most part, Canadians have been a calm, compliant nation in the midst of the huge disruption of the pandemic.

This week has demonstrated the power of vaccines, or lack of them, to test that patience.

Susan Delacourt is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.