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In 2021, nothing was different, but everything changed. The COVID-19 pandemic dragged on. The Omicron variant caused a surge in cases, accompanied by now-familiar restrictions and guidance to limit travel, protect seniors and work from home. The same could have been said this week last year, substituting Delta for Omicron. This time, though, there is not the same hope that vaccination will end the pandemic and begin a new normal, whatever new normal might be.

Lots happened in the past year. Vaccines were approved in late 2020, and mass vaccination gave Canada one of the highest vaccination rates in the world. Proof-of-vaccination certificates were developed and deployed to balance risks to public health against regaining at least some more-normal activities, like going to restaurants, socializing and even travelling internationally — all while physically distanced, of course. New treatments for COVID were and continue to be developed. Both our understanding of the pandemic and the policy tools to combat it have been refined and adapted over time.

Unfortunately, the pandemic also changed through the year — the Delta variant supplanted the less-infectious original strain of COVID-19, and now Omicron is more infectious than Delta. Waning immunity from vaccines, more infectious variants and low global vaccination rates mean the risk remains of yet more new variants emerging and boosting demand for supply-limited vaccines.

In many ways, 2021 went out much as it began, with rising case numbers, reimposed restrictions to minimize transmission, and the spectre of uncertainty in the form of a highly transmissible new variant. There was also a federal election, but the new government is so similar to the previous one it hardly warrants comment.

If last year can be summed up in a word, it would be “fatigue.” Because of staff shortages, health-care workers worked more overtime, straining their mental health. Front-line customer-service staff bore the brunt of people’s dissatisfaction with public health mandates and restrictions while themselves risking exposure to COVID. School and daycare closures disrupted children’s education and social development while piling costs and stress onto parents. Many people living alone struggled with isolation and a loss of connection. The chronic stress and uncertainty of the pandemic have affected everyone. Many studies have shown that mental health deteriorated in the general population through 2020 and remained low in 2021The majority of children, Indigenous people, LGBTQ2+ people, the unemployed, and those with pre-existing mental health issues have also experienced worsened mental health.

More recently, high inflation caused the cost of living to grow both faster than incomes and faster than it has in 18 years. Meanwhile, government subsidies that were set to end were adapted and extended to help families and businesses weather the next wave. Spending to fight the pandemic and minimize its economic damage, but also to finance new programs, has resulted in eye-watering federal deficits: $327.7 billion in 2021. (The pre-pandemic 2019 budget had predicted “just” $19.7 billion.) With large deficits projected to continue, hard choices will have to be made between priorities either highlighted by the pandemic (seniors care, the health effects of inequality, digital infrastructure for rapid testing and tracing and virtual health care and education) or left over from campaign platforms (universal pharmacare, affordable housing and carbon reduction/energy transition, for example).

With resources limited and energy waning, standing up to yet another wave of COVID-19 seems an impossible challenge. But new treatments, booster shots and the possibility that new variants will be less deadly all give hope. So do our constantly evolving knowledge and the scaling-up of testing, tracing and variant monitoring, which allow for earlier identification and containment. The rapid adoption of virtual care helped maintain access to health care through disruptions and will likely have long-term benefits for Canadians in both easier access to care and increased availability of electronic medical records. In the same way, school and work had to adapt to a virtual environment, paving the way for more flexible employment and education structures. It is easy to forget just how much progress has been made on these fronts during the emergency.

It has been a long, hard journey. As cases mount again, it’s hard to be optimistic. But the only thing to do is keep trudging. There is hope that the journey will get a little easier, even if the end of the road remains out of sight. I’m tired, you’re tired, we’re all tired, but we can get through this together — we certainly don’t want to stay where we are.

Rosalie Wyonch is a Senior Policy Analyst at the C.D. Howe Institute.

Published in the Financial Post