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How will COVID-19 shape 2021?

Expect a year of vaccination challenges, rising case numbers
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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau estimates that all Canadians will be vaccinated by September, however, this date is subject to change. HAKAN NURAL/UNSPLASH
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau estimates that all Canadians will be vaccinated by September, however, this date is subject to change. HAKAN NURAL/UNSPLASH

Across the globe, 2020 was shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic. With vaccine rollouts underway, when can we expect the pandemic to end? And once it’s over, what will it have cost us?

2020: year one of the pandemic

Reports of the disease that would later be called COVID-19 first emerged from the city of Wuhan, China in late December 2019. According to data from John Hopkins University, by the end of the first week of 2021, the pandemic has claimed about 1.9 million lives and has infected around 89 million people. In Canada, there have been over 16,000 deaths and more than 640,000 known cases of infection.

In October, the International Monetary Fund estimated that the total global economic cost of the pandemic would be over $35.5 trillion. The latest federal government report estimated that net expenditure fighting COVID-19 would total $322.3 billion by the end of March 2021.

Who are the hardest hit in Canada?

The pandemic has revealed deep structural divisions between those who can shelter at home and have access to health care, and those who don’t. An enormous percentage of Canadian deaths have come from residents and staff of long-term care homes — as many as 71 per cent according to tallied data from researchers at Ryerson University. 

Experts have criticized the availability of health care and data collection for Indigenous communities in Canada. In November 2020, Toronto city officials revealed that racialized people accounted for 79 per cent of all infections. Black people in particular made up almost a quarter of all known cases despite representing only 8.8 per cent of the city’s population.

How many vaccines are available?

Herculean efforts from researchers around the world ensured that vaccines were available within the year — four times faster than the previous fastest-developed vaccine for mumps.

The Canadian government has approved two vaccines so far and has secured more doses per person than any other country. These doses were secured in deals with pharmaceutical companies. When all the contracts are summed up, the government has ordered almost nine doses for everyone who can safely take vaccines. This has sparked concern that vaccines will be in short supply elsewhere in the world, particularly in low- and middle-income countries. 

When can I get a vaccine?

The federal government is distributing vaccines to provinces and territories, which will then distribute them locally. This approach has resulted in differing vaccination timelines across the country and has been criticized by experts for causing delays. 

Ontario has developed a three-phase rollout scheme. The province is currently in Phase 1, which means vaccines are available only for some health care workers, long-term care home residents and staff, and Indigenous communities. They will be broadly available for all health care workers when Phase 2 begins and available for the general population during Phase 3. There are currently no concrete dates for when the next phases will begin.

Meanwhile, British Columbia has already declared that it expects to begin vaccinating all health care workers, as well as vulnerable populations — such as people experiencing homelessness — from February to March.

Why are people talking about a new COVID-19 variant? 

Recently, three new variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 have been discovered in three countries: the United Kingdom, South Africa, and Nigeria. The UK variant — shorthanded as the B.1.1.7 variant — has gained the most press attention, particularly due to modelling estimates that suggest it is between 40–70 per cent more transmissible than the dominant variant of the virus. 

Although this increased transmissibility is concerning, presently there is no evidence that the B.1.1.7 variant causes more serious symptoms or will require a different vaccine than the dominant variant. Mutations in the genetic material of a virus are to be expected, and there have already been over 4,000 known variants of SARS-CoV-2 that have not required vaccines to be adjusted. If vaccines do require tweaking, they can be modified fairly easily.

Will the pandemic end this year?

It’s difficult to say.

While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is confident that the majority of Canadians will get vaccinated by the end of September 2021, uncertainty in logistics and important data, or a delay in Health Canada approving vaccines, could shift that goal post. 

Vaccines are being distributed slowly, and it isn’t clear yet whether a vaccinated person can still spread COVID-19. The pandemic is constantly evolving, and the best estimates from experts are always being re-evaluated in light of new information. However, we can still map out some likely future scenarios.

For people in Canada, the end of the pandemic will happen once enough of the population has been vaccinated to achieve herd immunity. Initially, experts believed that this could happen once vaccination levels reached 70 per cent. But as we learn more about the virus — and as transmissibility seems likely to increase with variants such as B.1.1.7 — this threshold might have to be raised.

Even then, some provinces may achieve herd immunity before others due to the localized distribution processes. The federal government expects to have enough vaccines to immunize everyone by the end of September, but it will be down to the provinces to distribute all those vaccines effectively and swiftly.

Finally, a Canadian ‘end’ to the pandemic does not mean an end to the global crisis. Wealthy nations in the Global North have secured agreements for more than half of all the vaccines expected to be available this year. This leaves the rest of the world to divvy out the remainder or convince local manufacturers to give them priority access, something the government of India has already done.

The Economist Intelligence Unit predicts that large parts of Africa and Asia and smaller parts of Europe, North America, and Oceania will not have widespread access to vaccines until 2022 or spring 2023. Until then, there will continue to be distribution challenges and rising case numbers.

2021 will be the start of a long road to recovery for the country and the world at large. Every vaccine injection saves potential lives. But when that road will end — and what effects of the pandemic will remain — are still unknown.