One of the definitions for twilight in the Merriam-Webster dictionary is “an indeterminate state that is not clearly defined.”
This nicely sums up the thinking of Canadians on COVID-19 vaccines. While the federal government’s announcement about Canada receiving 249,000 doses of the now-approved Pfizer vaccine by the end of December has been greeted as a positive development, where opinions go from here remains murky.
It depends on whether this week marks the last dark before the dawn or whether we are destined for even longer, darker days ahead. The polling suggests there’s potential for both outcomes.
For the public, its views of how governments are managing the vaccine issue will not be driven by the number of doses available or by promises about the number of doses to come. Opinions will be driven by what they learn about the number of Canadians receiving the protection of a vaccine and by when.
This is ultimately about how these numbers translate to individuals, their families and their close social circles. They will make judgments based on what they experience as opposed to what they are told by those in authority.
Telling the truth with numbers has been the most effective approach to managing public expectations during the pandemic. That’s why it is perplexing that the federal government chose to gild the lily this week with its first announcement about the Pfizer vaccine.
The Pfizer vaccine takes two doses to be effective. That means the number of Canadians who will be vaccinated by the end of December — if all goes well — is about 125,000. That the prime minister chose to trumpet 249,000 doses at his press conference came across at best as confusing and at worse as fluffing up this accomplishment.
Now isn’t the time for spin. The government doesn’t need it. Canadians are already on the government’s side.
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Public satisfaction with how the Trudeau government is handling vaccine procurement was at an impressive 66 per cent even before the Pfizer announcement. Canadians also understand — at least for now — they won’t be first in line when it comes to vaccinations; something the prime minister has consistently reminded us of.
In Ipsos’s most recent survey for Global News, 86 per cent already agree it is reasonable that countries with their own domestic vaccine production capacity take care of their citizens first.
Since Christmas will not be saved this year with vaccinations, the next critical month on the COVID-19 calendar will be March 2021. This is the anniversary of the first shutdowns. That’s when we will move from describing our experiences with the pandemic as lost weeks and months to a lost year from our lives.
If vaccinations are still hard to come by in March, we can expect to see the government’s approval numbers — which are driven as much by hope as they are by actual approval — start to weaken. That’s because a strong majority (79 per cent) believes the government needs to be doing more to secure vaccines sooner.
“Soon” or “sooner” will be defined by what we see from comparable countries to Canada, such as the U.S. and U.K. If they have vaccinated significant percentages of their populations and life there is returning to normal while we are still stuck in shutdowns, this will not go down well. That’s when the darkness could become even more intense than it is today.
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Also adding to the potential problems are the forces of supply and demand. While there is an obsession with those who might refuse to be vaccinated, including anti-vaxxers, this misses that there is already overwhelming demand among Canadians for immediate access to vaccines.
One in five of us say we would line up tomorrow were the vaccine made available to us. That’s 7.6 million Canadians who say they want a vaccine right now, no questions asked. Compare that to the current availability of 125,000 inoculations by the end of December. Or even the three million that’s committed for March.
Furthermore, 32 per cent more of us (another 12 million) say that if the vaccines are proven to be safe, they will also rush to the clinic for a jab. This suggests existing demand is already way, way above any imminent supply.
What Canadians have shown during the pandemic is that we are prepared to be reasonable. If we are asked to stay home, we stay home. If we are asked to wear masks, we wear masks.
But reasonability is fragile. We are suffering.
Half of us say we are concerned about our mental health — and even more so than during the first wave.
Nearly half of us say social distancing is making us lonely.
Nineteen per cent of us say we are struggling with addiction.
All these challenges are more prevalent among youth, women and BIPOC Canadians. Missing the holiday season will make them worse.
Vaccines have the potential to break through this darkness. But uncertainty about supply, potential for huge, unmet demand, and the pressure for clarity about the future means governments will have to enter this next phase very carefully.
It’s time to send the communications teams back home and bring the logisticians and planners to the podium. Canadians want an honest, no BS roadmap for how vaccines will really roll out in 2021.
Darrell Bricker is CEO, Ipsos Public Affairs. He is also the author of “NEXT: Where to Live, What to Buy, and Who Will Lead Canada’s Future.” Harper Collins, 2020.