I got the COVID vaccine yesterday. Given all the hopeful freight that this solitary word—“vaccine”—has carried in our cultural discourse over the past thirteen months, it was a rather understated affair. I phoned a local pharmacy on Monday night inquiring as to when I might receive my precious dose. “Tomorrow morning?” was the unexpected reply. So, on a bright Tuesday morning, off I trudged toward my equally bright, post-pandemic future.
I filled out my form, acknowledging that I was ok with taking the discount AstraZeneca vaccine with all its attendant risks, waited half an hour in a faux-leather chair while an assortment of fairly grouchy humanity shuffled by to get their prescriptions filled, got my jab, wandered around the pharmacy for fifteen minutes to make sure nothing terrible happened, and made my way toward the exit to head back to work.
The heavens didn’t part. A dove didn’t descend. Waves of relieved euphoria did not wash over me. A cashier lazily rang through a bunch of leftover Cadbury chocolate eggs. A very angry customer berated a hapless pharmacist for getting a prescription wrong. A heavily tattooed and haggard-looking woman confusingly (and loudly) proclaimed to people in line that there were no more vaccines. A drugstore cowboy fiddled with his mask. My glorious COVID-free future felt very much like the decidedly uninspiring present.
I hope it is obvious that my tongue has been fairly firmly in cheek for the preceding three paragraphs. But my vaccination experience did get me thinking, again, about risk. How do we assess it? How much are we prepared to live with? Who bears the brunt of it? Is it ever really avoidable? I know, of course, that my AstraZeneca vaccine does not magically mean that I will never get this virus or that I won’t be able to transmit it to someone else. It lowers my odds, and I’m glad for this, but my first steps out of the Shoppers Drug Mart yesterday morning were quite obviously not into a risk-free future.
Around one year ago, on April 27, 2020, I wrote these words:
We know, of course, that life is not safe, and it never has been. COVID-19 is simply laying bare in acute form what is always true for each one of us. To eat and to drink and to go and to stay and pursue and to try and to fail and to run and to sit and to reach and to retreat… all of our human living and doing has risk attached to it. Bad things are always happening all around us. Sickness and disease stalk us all the time. We manage to ignore these realities most of the time, but that doesn’t make them any less real…
[A]t some point, we are going to have to emerge from our barricades and get back to doing the things that are necessary, the things we love, the things the world needs, the things that bring joy and connection and meaning. There are no risk-free options going forward. There never were.
One of the things that concerns me about how our collective psyches have been affected by the last year or so is that we often seem to labour under the illusion that it is our government’s (or any other authority’s) responsibility to ensure us a risk-free future. The only acceptable level of risk for many, it seems, is zero. This is concerning because this has never been among our options. Can we acknowledge this honestly? Will we be able to make our way back into shared spaces together without fear and suspicion? Or will our default be to constantly be scanning the horizon for the potential health risks of eating and talking and playing together, even in a post-vaccine world? Will we be able to put the safety genie back in the bottle? Will we want to?
The Canadian philosopher Mark Kingwell recently penned a little book called On Risk. In it, he discusses the term “phantom risk” and a prediction by the economist Tyler Cowens:
“[S]ociety will move from seriously underrating pandemic risk to badly overrating it,” he predicted. Such phantom risk “will remain a binding constraint even after most of the real dangers are past.
I don’t think that most of the real dangers are past us here on April 21, 2021. Hospitals and ICUs are still way too full. There are still too many heartbreaking stories. We still clearly have some road left to walk on this pandemic journey. And I think it’s probably impossible to marinate in fear and anxiety for over a year and not come out of the experience at least a little bit prone to overrate risk. But the question of how we will move back into a life together that acknowledges risk and determines to live with it together will be one we nonetheless have to face. I hope we will have the resolve to face it well.