Opinion | When it comes to our COVID-19 vaccination rollout, done is better than perfect

After 16 months of constant COVID-19 criticism, of blaming our governments at all levels, we interrupt that incessant stream of negative consciousness to bring you this positive public service announcement:

With all hands on deck, with countless sleeves rolled up, we are threading the needle better than most.

Canada’s vaccination rate is now world class, given what we had to work with. Starting from far back in the pack, and a lack of local capacity, we have injected more vaccines more rapidly than most populous places on earth — with Toronto and Ontario leading the way.

About 80 per cent of adult Torontonians have received at least one shot, and more than 60 per cent are now fully vaxxed. That’s nearly four million doses administered.

In Ontario, 80 per cent of adults have had the first shot, and 56 per are double vaxxed. Across Canada, about 43 per cent are fully vaccinated, with more than 50 million doses distributed so far — one of the highest per capita rates for large jurisdictions.

Yes, there have been delays, false starts and missed opportunities. And we still have a long way to go — which is why those premature allegations that Canada is “hoarding” or somehow stockpiling unused vaccines have an air of unreality in a democracy where people still need to be protected.

Canadians can be hard on themselves. Columnists tend to carp. People like to pile on politicians.

Yet for all the finger pointing and second guessing, the doubting and doomsaying, our progress has been nothing short of miraculous. It’s easy to lose perspective, to forget context, to miss the forest — and the trends — for the trees.

It is right to recognize what we did wrong. But it is also wrong to ignore what we did right.

Just as politicians must shoulder the blame for their missteps, they also deserve praise for learning from mistakes, for adapting and persevering. Mayor John Tory, Premier Doug Ford and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau are not natural allies — all three have run against each other, literally and figuratively speaking, in recent election campaigns — yet they rallied together to do their best in the worst of times.

Remember when the media mocked every level of government for falling short, when every epidemiologist in town styled himself a supply-chain expert? They found fault with every procurement and distribution plan — demanding that health-care workers go first, No, old folks first. No, First Nations first. No, pharmacists first. No, priority postal codes first. No, teachers next. No, young people can’t be left out!

With a limited supply of vaccines — a fixed pie — it’s a zero-sum game that lends itself to mind games. Someone has to go first (the elderly most at risk), which means someone else goes last (young people who are most resilient).

No sooner had one group been prioritized, others cried foul in a competition of job classifications and social class — as if everyone could be designated a priority without disadvantaging others. I wrote columns criticizing the confusion, but I never doubted the determination of everyone up and down the line.

I did, however, question the quintessentially Canadian obsession with equity over efficiency in an emergency, and fussing over perceived “queue jumping” when what mattered most was getting vaccines in arms ASAP. I wondered about the “military mindset” for procurement when what we really needed was democracy-minded “GOTV” (Get Out the Vote — or in this case, vaccine) tactics inspired by the expertise of campaign managers and Elections Canada.

It’s good to see Toronto now embracing that approach — better belatedly than never — with the mayor and Coun. Joe Cressy, who chairs the board of health, talking up election-style neighbourhood outreach instead of top-down distribution. And it’s a relief that people are no longer being judgmental about those who zealously hunted for jabs — as if there were some disgusting “Hunger Games” venality and survivalism at play, when people merely wanted to protect themselves (and others), without cutting into line, when there were openings at end of day.

Thanks to that individual determination, fewer end of day doses were discarded, and fewer unused time slots wasted. It is in the nature of desperation distribution plans that there will be no-shows and surplus capacity that are best soaked up, not thrown out.

That social media surfers jumped at the opportunity to seek surplus shots on a moment’s notice is to their credit, rather than something to sermonize about. Yes, there were mixed signals along the way — AstraZeneca first and then last — but as the science has evolved, the bureaucracy has adapted and the politics has caught up.

In the spring of 2020, we were told a vaccine might be years away; by the spring of 2021, we were warned that the full vaccinations might still be many months away. Now, in midsummer, we have made up for lost time — in procurement, distribution and vaccination — and it’s time we said so.

For all the frustrations and shortfalls, Canada has caught up — by hook and by crook and by needle. It is not schadenfreude to note that countries such as Australia, once held up as COVID-19 marvels, are now mired in confusion as their slow-moving vaccination drives fall further behind — a vindication of Ottawa’s determination to diversify its portfolio of suppliers to avoid shortfalls and failed vaccines (No, diversifying isn’t stockpiling).



But just as our moralizing can be demoralizing, complacency can be our enemy in the home stretch. What happens when enthusiasm wanes, when the low-hanging fruit is harvested and the low-hanging shirt sleeves are no longer being rolled up?

Never mind those phantom queue-jumpers who never materialized or got in the way. Our nemesis now is the undeniable reality of vaccine hesitancy, obstinacy and antipathy.

More on that in my next column.

Martin Regg Cohn is a Toronto-based columnist focusing on Ontario politics and international affairs for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @reggcohn

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