Leo Tolstoy began his novel Anna Karenina with the famous line “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
It seems that during COVID-19, no families — happy or otherwise — are alike. At least, that is the message I’m getting from some comments by Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, who said recently that she is fielding hundreds of questions from families around B.C. who have heard her Christmas advice — do not travel, and stay within your household bubble — but feel sure that their circumstances are different, and want to know if that means it’s okay for them to go against her advice.
“I’ve been inundated with hundreds of ‘what about my specific situation?’” Henry said. People want to have others over for Christmas, or travel to see someone outside their bubble, and want Henry’s approval of their plan (and the rationale behind it), presumably so they can justify their actions by saying if it’s okay with Dr. Bonnie, it should be fine with everyone else.
The fact that they feel they have to get a dispensation from Henry might be an indication that they know they really shouldn’t be doing what they’re planning (if you have to ask forgiveness for something before you embark on it, you might want to rethink your plans). But it’s understandable. It’s been nine months, COVID fatigue is a very real phenomenon, and it’s hard to see Christmas as one more thing that’s slipping through our fingers in 2020.
Plus the people who feel they need to ask permission are probably the same people who have been following the rules: wearing masks, not travelling, limiting their shopping trips, staying within their bubble, foregoing so many of the tiny pleasures that make life enjoyable. They have been assiduous in staying away from friends and family members who might be at high risk of getting COVID-19; they have cancelled or severely curtailed weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, graduation celebrations. They have done the right thing, over and over, and all they want now is a bit of joy at Christmas.
But what they’re seeing all around them is what people versed in decision theory call “the sucker’s payoff”. They’ve done what was asked of them for months, sacrificing much along the way, and now the holiday season looks set to be another casualty; yet the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths in the province rises day after day, because others aren’t doing the right thing. Worse, those people who are flouting the rules — going to parties, holding that birthday celebration, getting together with those outside their household for Christmas merriment — are reaping immediate, positive benefits. No wonder so many rule-abiding people think they’ve been suckers, and are desperately looking for a holiday loophole.
Elsewhere in this week’s paper there is a mention of a parable about a small bird that filled its beak with water to drop on a fire. When asked if it thought that such a tiny amount of water would put the fire out, the bird replied that it at least contributed, along with all the others who were helping. That, I think, is how we need to look at this Christmas. Instead of saying in despair “It doesn’t matter what I do, because it won’t change anything,” realize that we are all working together, and that our individual actions will, collectively, add up to a powerful whole.
On the day that I am writing this, the first COVID-19 vaccine has been administered in B.C. Is it the beginning of the end? Perhaps not, but it is almost certainly the end of the beginning. We have come too far, and endured too much, to give up now. Instead of looking for a loophole, stitch things up even tighter, so that Christmas 2021 can be everything — and more — that Christmas 2020 might not be.