On being … the difference

By Ingrid Sapona 

I know people are tired of hearing about and thinking about Covid. But the fact is, Covid-19 is still killing with ferocity – it’s not slowing down. It took 114 days for the U.S. to go from 500,000 Covid-relateddeaths to 600,000 (Feb. 2, 2021 to June 16, 2021), then 107 days for the total to hit 700,000 (June 16, 2021 to Oct. 1, 2021) and just 74 days to reach 800,000 dead in the U.S. 

In mid-November I finally got down to Western New York. I hadn’t been in the U.S. since March 6, 2020. I was quite struck by the comparative lack of pandemic precautions taken by individuals and businesses there. On my return here, I jokingly told some Canadian friends that Covid is over in Western New York – or at least that’s the impression I was left with. For example, when I was there, masks were basically optional – waiters and waitresses didn’t even have to wear them. (Because of an increase in cases, I believe masks are now required in some places in Western New York.) 

I was also surprised at having to pull or push on doors in stores and restaurants. Early on in the pandemic touchless options were widely installed on doors and in washrooms here. Hitting a button with your elbow to open a door is pretty standard now. Most public places here have hand sanitizer dispensers located near the door and staff often ask you to sanitize before you head in. In Western New York, the only sanitizer I had access to was what I carried in my purse. The idea of “Covid protocols” – wearing masks, social distancing, good ventilation, hand washing, and the need to get vaccinated – can be found on posters and signs all over here. Not so in WNY. 

The past month or so I’ve also noticed that many American mainstream news outlets have taken to reporting that the majority of Americans are vaccinated. Even when there’s something particularly new and noteworthy to report related to the pandemic – like the emergence of the Omicron variant – U.S. news reports seem to always include the “fact” that the majority of Americans are vaccinated. They seldom specify, however, that by “majority” they mean 60% of Americans. 

Not continually pointing out that 40% of the U.S. population is unvaccinated – despite the fact that vaccines have been widely available in the U.S. for a year already – just seems irresponsible. During the height of the Vietnam War, it was scenes of body bags – not stories about the soldiers who came back alive – that focused the public’s attention and that finally led to change. Similarly, on hearing of the sinking of the Titanic, I’ll bet no newspapers wrote about the number of icebergs the ship missed that night! 

Here in Ontario, data related to Covid-19 is very much the focus of the mainstream media. The number of Ontarians who have tested positive is reported daily, usually by the noon newscast. The precise percentage (to one decimal point) of the population that is vaccinated is on page 2 of the Toronto Star every day. In fact, they report the percentage by age, as well by the percentage that are double dosed versus single dosed. 

For example, today’s paper reported that of Ontarians of all ages, 77.1% are fully vaccinated and 81.8% have had at least one dose. Of Ontarians five and older, 80.9% are fully vaccinated. While those numbers provide some reassurance, officials and media also often remind us that in Ontario we still have about 830,000 unvaccinated (that includes those under five for whom the vaccines are not yet approved). 

And now, Omicron is on everyone’s mind – and lips – here. Yesterday morning I held the elevator for a gentleman. As he neared, he mentioned how because of “this Omicron thing” he’s a bit reluctant to be in the elevator with anyone else. (Because we have to wear masks indoors in public places – including condo hallways – we were both masked.) I mentioned I got my booster the other day and, visibly relieved, he got on. 

Like everyone else, I wish the pandemic was over. But it’s not and so I think it’s important to keep talking about things like vaccination statistics and status. Indeed, I was reminded of the power of engaging people in the discussion just the other day. A friend was speaking with her 93-year-old neighbor who was excited that two of her grandchildren will be coming up from the States on December 20th. The 93-year-old mentioned that her grandkids would be staying in the basement for the first five days of their visit just in case, because she’s not vaccinated yet. Surprised to learn that her elderly neighbor isn’t vaccinated, my friend gently suggested she get vaccinated right away, because “having 9 days of vaccine is better than nothing.” Well, somehow my friend’s comment did the trick – the woman went and got the jab the next day! I wonder how many others just need a personal nudge… 

I know the pandemic won’t go away just by talking about it. But ignoring it, or putting a positive spin on it, won’t make it go away any faster either. Instead, I think a more effective strategy is to realize that while we have to take personal responsibility for our own behaviour, we can also make a difference by openly and actively encouraging others to do the same. 

© 2021 Ingrid Sapona


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