‘A bit surreal’: It’s been two years since Canada’s first COVID-19 case

After two long years of the COVID-19 pandemic, an infectious disease expert is warning that Canada and other parts of the world may continue to experience waves of cases until the issue of vaccine inequity is addressed.

Dr. Abdu Sharkawy told CTV’s Your Morning on Tuesday it is important for Canadians to not get ahead of themselves in the fight against COVID-19.

“We still have to recognize that it is a pandemic. That means that, until we satisfy the issue of vaccine inequity, which is really problematic across much of the world… it’s not going to be endemic,” Sharkawy said.

“There’s going to be more waves that we unfortunately have in store if we continue to ignore that.”

Sharkawy said bringing the pandemic to an end requires a global effort to ensure everyone has access to vaccines. Once that is achieved, he says the pandemic will change.

“[If] we can marshal the will and sincerity to help other parts of the world… then it will become endemic and at that point, we can look to this becoming something that is potentially seasonal, potentially not that much different from the annual flu vaccine,” he explained.

However, Sharkawy says “we are a ways away from that” despite high vaccine uptake in Canada, and Canadians still have “our work cut out for us” amid the rapid spread of the Omicron variant.

Reflecting on two years since the first COVID-19 case was confirmed in Canada, Sharkawy said he feels “some degree of resignation.”

“It’s a bit surreal that I’m here almost two years later on a COVID ward,” he said. “That’s very disappointing in the sense that I think we knew what tools we had available in terms of vaccines, in terms of improving ventilation, in terms of better masks and testing, and unfortunately, we’re still here.”

It was the evening of Jan. 23, 2020, when the team at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre decided to admit a 56-year-old patient who came into the hospital ER with what seemed to be mild pneumonia.

While the patient wasn’t that sick and might otherwise have been sent home, his chest X-rays were unusual and he had just returned from China, where the novel coronavirus was rapidly spreading.

Less than two days after admission to Sunnybrook, the man would become “Patient Zero” — the first COVID-19 case in Canada.

Since then, Canada has logged nearly three million infections and more than 32,000 deaths, according to data tracked by CTVNews.ca.

Despite this, Sharkawy says he is hopeful for the year ahead, given “how incredibly effective vaccines” have shown at keeping Canadians out of hospitals, as well as the ongoing development of monoclonal antibodies and other therapy treatments in the fight against COVID-19.

According to data tracked by CTVNews.ca, more than 82 per cent of Canada’s eligible population was fully vaccinated as of Tuesday.

LESSONS LEARNED

Since Canada’s first case of COVID-19, Sharkawy says the country has learned a lot not only about the virus itself, but also its impact on vulnerable communities, such as those in long-term care, homeless populations, and racialized groups.

“This pandemic has really been an eye-opener in terms of all of the frailty that exists in those populations and it’s time to finally invest in them and take care of them the right way,” he said.

Sharkawy said the pandemic has shown that health care and community networks in Canada need to be “restructured” to better help these groups moving forward.

“When we get ahead of the game, and we try to target at-risk populations and we do things like… [vaccine] programs that meet people in need and do it with limited barriers in place, we can see tremendous success,” he said.

Sharkawy noted lessons have also been learned in how a proactive response to implementing public health measures can help save lives.

“Waiting for problems to arise, like multiple outbreaks or hospitalizations and ICU admissions and deaths is not the way to go, and unfortunately, we’ve been guilty of that a lot,” he said.

Moving forward, Sharkawy says governments need to invest more in the health-care system and its staff to ensure hospitals don’t become overwhelmed in the case of another, future pandemic.

He added that further messaging needs to refrain from judgment in continuing to increase vaccine uptake for those who may be hesitant.

“I think the lesson here is that we need to help each other, we need to cast aside partisanship and hyperpolarized discourse as that doesn’t help,” Sharkawy said.

“When we break down barriers and not look at people as labels, not saying people are fear mongers versus anti-vaxxers, but instead just meet them as people… there’s a lot to be gained.”

With files from The Canadian Press

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