The debate over how to exit the COVID-19 pandemic is entering new and unsettling territory. Canada’s efforts to end the truckers’ protest saw it use, for the first time, a national terrorism law that froze access to crypto-accounts, besides standard banking systems, for donations. This type of political event is now part of an increasingly complicated landscape. There is no firm ground to stand on regarding the coming months, which runs counter to some assessments.

The World Health Organization is raising serious questions about when the pandemic might be over and the Canada truckers example may be part of a new wave of resistance. Riots and confrontations between states and individuals over vaccine or mask mandates are well known. What is not known is the speed at which pandemic-related grievances will be addressed and how.

The appearance of a new variant that appears to combine features of the delta and omicron variants is being investigated in the UK. This may be small, but it is now part of the science for tracking purposes. The BA.2 subvariant of omicron is now dominant in South Africa — it is just as contagious and is so far behaving like its disease brethren. We will see how far these two mutations get, but probably not far based on increasing vaccination rates. However, this episode shows us that we will need to coexist with this pathogen and its attributes for some time to come. There is much disagreement about when this is all going to be over and this is having an effect on policymakers’ judgment. There is a lot of confusion erupting again, so the lines of division are going to get sharper.

Resistance to public health mandates during the pandemic is a front in the so-called culture wars. The resentment of government policies that are based on science has garnered a sizable group of supporters. The emergence of “anti-science” views today is reminiscent of debates about faith versus reason, which go back to the Greek philosophers and are a constant in the rivers of history. It is as though governments never learn to be preemptive in terms of communicating the clear and present danger of a situation without creating an antithesis argument among certain segments of society.

Some notable voices are beginning to discuss the dividing lines more clearly. They are arguing that humans are a highly social, interconnected, interdependent and passionate species. Humans prefer living in high population densities and like to be able to travel globally. Our social groups are diverse and often confused by mixed public health messages.

Combined with a divisive political environment that has, for generations, been more reactive than proactive when faced with major crises, it is clear there are divides that are only becoming sharper. Some are arguing that humans are easily distracted, have short attention spans and tend to find themselves learning the same lessons over and over again. That description is not far from the truth. The downside of this high-tech era is that it is flooded with clutter. Common sense has seemingly gone missing and might well be lost forever. The tissue of society is torn.

To be sure, confusing and inconsistent public health messages about pandemics are nothing new. The circular nature of pandemics and their aftermath is well documented. It does not matter whether it is the Russian flu of 1890, the Spanish flu of 1918, COVID-19 or the next pandemic, contradictory messages are going to appear. With COVID-19, the internet and social media have exacerbated the lines of division in society in dramatic ways.

Internet news sites and social media have highlighted a range of confusing, often contradictory, messages about the pandemic that continue to this day. Masks or no masks, supplies of protective clothing and vaccine mandates have all become part of the global landscape and are unlikely to leave any time soon.

Research shows that the public is witnessing, because of the internet, pathogen evolution in real time. This has not happened before in human history. It means that the public has seen the scientific community grappling with the pandemic as it happened. Politicians and scientists have been scrutinized like never before while searching for the best methods to test and treat the virus and develop vaccines. In the meantime, the pandemic has raged on and the death toll has mounted.

The response to urgent public demand for the latest information has often been to release results before deliberative peer review, but this risks conclusions being misunderstood or even retracted as more thorough studies are conducted. This aspect is causing the divides we see today. A lesson moving forward is to balance demands for instant information with accuracy and reliability. Trust is the most important aspect. Canada’s ongoing confrontation stands out and this division can spread easily.

  • Dr. Theodore Karasik is a senior adviser to Gulf State Analytics in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @tkarasik
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