December 15, 2021 — Ominously Pleasant Uncertainty

Back in September 2020, I wrote about wondering whether we were ‘getting good at waiting’ or, instead, simply numbly seeping — consciously or otherwise — into the next stage of the pandemic. Whether that stage would prove to be yet another in the series of well-publicized case count waves and associated restrictions, or more internal crises associated with widespread and COVID-related declines in mental health, remained to be seen.

Over 14 months later, the media is filled yet again with reports documenting a renewed surge in cases, to levels not seen since May, over half a year ago. (Provincially, the seven-day average of daily cases has, as of December 15, zoomed upward to over 1,500, and daily case counts of over 100 are suddenly again routine in Ottawa.) Amid alarming reports of the looming likelihood of a soon-to-be-even-more-rapid spread of the “hellaciously transmissible” — as memorably termed by Bruce Arthur of The Toronto Star — omicron variant, not much has changed: the interminable waiting for an end to this groundhog day pandemic is still one of (the many) hardest parts.

“After more than 700 days of uncertainty,” quipped Globe and Mail health writer Andre Picard this week, in a column which lamented governments’ inability to avoid repeating, over and over, the same sorts of public health and policy mistakes (check the bulging file of examples of provinces which unadvisedly lifted restrictions prematurely, and the multiple examples of illogical and ineffective federally-imposed travel restrictions), “you would think we would be a lot better at dealing with uncertainty.”

But of course there are, as Picard acknowledges, two levels of “we” — the collective, and the individual. As citizens, we’ve been forced to navigate nearly two years of ever-evolving restrictions, rules and regulations — “made worse,” notes Picard, “because our government apparatuses are not built to be nimble.”

Admittedly, it’s absolutely the responsibility of governments to respond to and deal with events, but it’s been many decades since Canadian public institutions had been confronted with a challenge as significant and rapidly evolving as a global pandemic, and bureaucracies don’t exactly, to put it mildly, turn on a dime. This point is well-illustrated by the suite of issues related to proof-of-vaccination certificates, which now are required, in Ontario and all other provinces and territories, to be provided in order to be allowed entry into spaces such as restaurants, galleries, gyms or sporting events. With health being a provincial responsibility, these vaccination receipts exist in various formats across the country, some of which — such as those originally released by the Ontario government — proved, almost immediately, to be quite easy to forge. This unfortunate revelation led to the recently mandated usage of an enhanced provincial vaccination certificate with a scannable QR code.

While the federal government made available, in mid-October, a standardized Canadian proof of vaccination to facilitate travel, the provincial responsibility for issuing the default vaccination documents doesn’t quite fit like a glove with the federal requirement that all Government of Canada employees be fully vaccinated as of late October. (Those not complying faced being placed on administrative leave without pay by mid-November.) No simple producing of the provincially-issued form would suffice; to address rather nebulous privacy concerns — as the app used to scan the QR codes in my province “does not allow the Ontario government or businesses to track or save personal and identifiable information” — completion of a separate federally-created “attestation” became mandatory.

In ‘problematic’ cases, such as those of the thousands of employees who, because they are on short-term contracts, lack full access to the wonders of the federal intranet, with its cornucopia of templates and forms including, naturally, the default attestation, a “Validation of the Vaccination Form” is also required to be completed by the responsible manager. It is, in essence, an attestation of the attestation…. I could continue in this vein, journeying down the Government of Canada human resources rabbit hole, but suffice it to say: 92 weeks into the work from home era, old and new processes continue, out of necessity, to be melded, yet the alchemical apparatuses tasked with concocting this bureaucratic elixir are, indeed, “not built to be nimble”. Can unreservedly confirm.

But eye-rolling HR stipulations aside, the work demands themselves — at least from my experience as an analyst focused on northern-related issues, policies and programs — are ever-more relentless, and this reality, coupled with the uncertainty that we are all attempting to manage on a personal level is causing, as Picard bluntly put it, “a lot of anxiety.”

Anxiety / How do you always get the best of me? / I’m out here living in a fantasy / I can’t enjoy a goddamn thing… I’m wide awake and I’m in pain. While it might not be a word which lends itself to song lyrics which roll easily off the tongue (or result in a spring in one’s step), Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit dared to include “Anxiety” as a 7-minute long song on their excellent 2017 album The Nashville Sound. Seems like the band led by the veteran singer-songwriter and former Drive-By Truckers guitarist — who, this year, made good on his promise to record a charity album featuring covers of songs by Georgia artists if Joe Biden won the state in the 2020 presidential election — may have been a little ahead of its time.

Everyone’s situation is different, naturally. To superficially unpack my own case, the anxiety is currently related to the fact that, for the file I lead, our work team is responsible for a meeting being hosted, in two days, by the Minister of Northern Affairs and attended by Indigenous leaders and territorial premiers. Less than three workdays before the meeting, we were not only unexpectedly informed that several invitees would attend in person, rather than virtually, but also requested, by the Assistant Deputy Minister’s office, to put the required logistics in place — in other words, to find a meeting room, complete with IT support. (Along with hospitality, if it’s not too much trouble.)

Unluckily, our team also happens to be significantly understaffed during a period when an entire season’s worth of meetings and tasks is being squeezed into the period between when the federal Cabinet was named, in late October, and the Christmas break. We attempted to address this problem by posting the vacant positions — but I can’t find the time to actually review the written exams submitted by applicants.

Meanwhile, case counts are spiking, though virtually everyone is well and truly sick of hearing phrases like “out of an abundance of caution,” and “now is not the time to…”. With the holidays right around the corner, the possibility of restrictions being reinstated surely is, as National Observer reporter Max Fawcett put it, “about as appetizing as a slice of stale fruitcake.” It also looks ever more possible that in-person school will not return after the break yet again this year. Add in the usual Christmas obligations and the ongoing challenges of single parenthood — but as I griped about those in my previous post, I will dispense with describing those truly tedious details. “Let’s try not to dwell on the negatives,” suggested a CKCU radio host this morning, “because they’re [already] so apparent.”

In that ‘be positive’ spirit: I received my COVID booster shot today! Given the worrying current pandemic situation, and the fact that the overwhelming demand for these shots currently far exceeds the available time slots for appointments, this enhanced protection is absolutely reassuring and a milestone that I feel truly grateful for. (Sobering reality check: during a radio interview today, it was noted that only 3% of the population of Malawi is currently two-dose vaccinated.)

I received a postcard this week from a friend on the prairies. “Saskatchewan fall so far has remained uncharacteristically warm and ominously pleasant,” she reported. Ominously pleasant — I love the phrase. Maybe this constitutes looking at the glass half full, end-of-2021 style? It’s a low bar, but don’t believe anyone who claims to know, definitively, that it can be surmounted.



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