New year, new hope: vaccines offer optimism during bleak time in pandemic
By Melissa Couto Zuber
Turning the calendar on a new year can be a symbolic experience for some, inviting reflection on the last 12 months and an opportunity to reset for the year ahead. But when the year you’re leaving behind was mired in a global pandemic, that reflection process can be more unpleasant than usual.
We’re entering January on a bleak note — with COVID-19 transmission skyrocketing across the country — but the month of December also brought news of two vaccine approvals, spawning hope that the end of the pandemic might be in sight.
While some may be wary of being too optimistic, psychology experts say feeling hopeful for 2021 is a welcome change. Public officials have even been inserting messages of hope into news conferences this holiday season.
Deputy chief public health officer Dr. Howard Njoo said last week he was “filled with hope” for 2021 after seeing initial stages of Canada’s vaccine rollout, while Yukon Premier Sandy Silver capped a media session by saying: “no pressure 2021, but we’re all looking forward to a better year.”
Dr. Taslim Alani-Verjee, a clinical psychologist in Toronto, says it’s OK to “hold space for hope” as we close out 2020.
While the phrase “holding space” is generally linked to somber emotions — sadness, grief, disappointment — Alani-Verjee says it applies to positive feelings too, especially at a time when there’s “a bit of stigma” associated with happiness.
“Even talking about hope right now is really hard,” she said. “But learning to not judge our emotions is important. Regardless of what we’re feeling, we need space to make sense of those emotions, to process how we feel.”
Alani-Verjee adds, however, that we may need to temper our expectations for what the post-vaccine world will look like.
She expects it will take time, for example, before we greet someone with a hug or share a drink with a friend without second thought.
“Life doesn’t go backwards and those who want things to go back to that level will probably be disappointed,” she said.
The simultaneous good news of vaccine approvals and bad news of rising COVID cases has led to a convergence of conflicting emotions as we enter the new year, says Dr. Suze Berkhout, a psychology expert at the University of Toronto.
And it can be hard to harmonize those feelings.
“Thinking of being with family and friends again and having normal interactions … all of that can be helpful to hang onto as something that will happen again,” she said. “But we (have to) remain in the present moment with an accurate assessment of the challenges still here.”
Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious disease expert with McMaster University, says it will take time before we see the fruits of our vaccine rollout. He cautions against losing hope if the early months of 2021 turn out to be our worst yet in terms of case counts and death.
Transmission is expected to increase in the weeks following Christmas, Chagla says, even though gatherings were discouraged by public health officials.
“The downstream effects, that’s going to linger,” he said.
Reducing strain via vaccine
Still, Chagla expects to see the beginnings of a return to normalcy in the spring — provided the vaccine rollout is carried out as efficiently as expected. He says a good chunk of high-risk populations and those who care for them will likely be vaccinated by then, reducing the stress on our health-care system.
The summer will offer more hope, he added, especially as warm weather allows for safer socialization.
“If we get to that point where (the vaccine) actually works in the population, then by September we’re going to have relatively normal lives going forward,” Chagla said. “Things like travel and concerts may be off the table for a bit longer… But I think we’re gonna be looking better by the end of (2021).”
The government has said it aims to vaccinate the majority of Canadians by September, but that timeline isn’t set in stone.
The continued uncertainty will be stressful to deal with for some, says Denise Marigold, a psychology professor at the University of Waterloo, and planning for the immediate future will be difficult.
That doesn’t mean we should turn into pessimists, though.
Marigold says a lot of pandemic-inflicted misfortune can be explained by external factors. So when those factors change — like when a vaccine is administered widely enough to slow the COVID threat — people can start looking at the future more optimistically.
“We can very well expect we’ll have a lot more capacity to make improvements in our lives,” she said.
Dwelling on worst-case scenarios when thinking of 2021 isn’t helpful, Marigold adds, and she suggests we analyze fears logically.
“Thinking of negative outcomes allows ourselves to realize, ‘OK, that would be difficult or unpleasant, but I’m not stuck,”’ she said. “Changes will come. Improvements will come. There’s always times when we think we can’t manage another minute, and then we do. We just keep going.”