Opinion | Omicron spreads, confusion reigns

The Scottish poet Robert Burns got it right in 1875 when he wrote (in “To a Mouse”): “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley.”

They sure do. Best laid schemes or plans do go awry in the face of a pandemic. And when the plans are not co-ordinated, when there are no established guidelines, when different leaders issue conflicting directives, and when politics takes priority over health, confusion descends into chaos, as the world is seeing this holiday season.

Omicron is the fastest-spreading variant of COVID-19 the world has seen, moving four times as fast as any previous variant. Although it is not as deadly as Delta, people with a full three-dose vaccination are contracting Omicron. In Ontario, new cases have been doubling every five or six days, and the province could be looking at 10,000 new cases a day by new year’s. (Quebec crossed the 9,000/day threshold last week.)

Although there is some evidence from South Africa that Omicron’s infection rate could fall as suddenly as it soared, there was no sign of a decline in North America as of the Christmas weekend.

Omicron is the fifth wave of a deadly global pandemic. There is no reason to assume it is the final wave. And I know of no epidemiologist brave enough to predict there will not be another COVID-like pandemic while most of us are still alive to suffer through.

Obviously, it would take co-ordinated international action to slow, let alone stop, the next wave or the next pandemic. It is equally obvious that such co-ordination is in not the cards. Canadians could see the frustration on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s face last week when reporters questioned him about U.S. President Joe Biden’s holiday advice to Americans: get yourselves vaccinated, then out you go to celebrate with family and friends, just as you did before COVID came along.

Trudeau was too diplomatic to directly criticize Biden’s foolish — and dangerous — advice. But he made his own government’s approach clear. Vaccination is critically important, but it is only one essential requirement. There’s at-home testing, elimination of all non-essential travel and strict crowd controls of public and private gatherings.

The government wanted Canadians spend the holidays at home with members of their immediate families — good advice that becomes hard to sell when the leader of the country next door is telling its citizens to go forth and party, a misdirection echoed by Alberta Premier Jason Kenney.

Canada needs, does not have, and has no reasonable prospect of achieving a united national front against COVID or subsequent pandemics. Ottawa can control the border, set the rules for admission to the country, and ship millions of free test kits and booster shots to the provinces. It has done these things.

Then the provinces do their own thing.

Some distribute the kits, some leave them in storage, and some, like Ontario, stand by while they gravitate to the online black market. Each province decides which groups, by age, occupation or vulnerability, will get the booster shots. Some, like Ontario, having learned nothing from experience, has been unable to organize an effective system to permit residents to book appointments and receive their jabs.

The confusion — let’s call it chaos — has ruined the holidays for many families and frustrated others who do not know what to expect when the inevitable next rounds of restrictions are imposed. Their lives are gang aft a-gley.

Cambridge resident Geoffrey Stevens is a former Ottawa columnist and managing editor of the Globe and Mail. His latest book, co-authored with Flora MacDonald, is “Flora! A Woman in a Man’s World.” He welcomes comments at [email protected].