Earlier this month, the earth stood still and watched as 90-year-old Margaret Keenan received the first COVID-19 vaccine. In the days that followed, weary people around the world watched as the vaccine made landfall in their home countries.
In Canada, many wept as personal support worker Anita Quidangen received the vaccine in Toronto. That same morning, our neighbours to the south saw Queen’s nurse Sandra Lindsay become the first American to be vaccinated. The same week, even Gandalf — actor Ian McKellen — rolled up his sleeve and got his first of two jabs. With the exception of McKellen, their names are newly famous because of the global importance of the vaccine they received. Each of these vaccinations were moments of welcome relief and intense hope for billions of people around the world who have spent 2020 struggling through the greatest health and economic crisis in a century.
But I can’t help but worry about another name that might one-day be famous: the last person to die of COVID-19 before near-global immunity becomes a reality.
The hope brought by the vaccine is not unlike the hope stirred by the armistice agreed to on the morning of November 11, 1918. After four bloody years of trench warfare, a deal to end the carnage was reached shortly before six in the morning. Tragically, the cease-fire came with a symbolic timestamp for the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month. The result? 2,738 more unnecessary deaths occurred in the remaining hours spent on the battlefield that day.
We still know the names of the final casualties. At 9:30AM, George Ellison became the last British soldier to die while on a scouting mission in Belgium. At 10:45AM, French soldier Augustin Trébuchon was shot dead on his way to tell fellow troops they would be served soup after the ceasefire. At 10:58AM, Canadian Soldier George Price joined fellow soldiers in advancing on Ville-sur-Haine in Belgium, only to be taken down by a sniper’s bullet. And finally, just 60 seconds before the armistice was to take effect, a recently demoted American soldier with something to prove charged against orders toward German troops. They refused to fire upon him as they awaited the ceasefire. But as he opened fire on them, he was felled by the blast of a German machine gun. His name was Henry Gunther and he was the final known casualty of the war.
Like those soldiers on that morning, we now know there is an end in sight to the staggering toll COVID-19 has taken on all of humanity. But the choices we make between now and the still far-off moment when we achieve vaccination-driven herd-immunity could be the difference in saving thousands of lives.
To get these final moments right, we need to understand the hard work still ahead for all of us.
First, that the vaccination process requires two separate injections spread out over a period of weeks. Second, that immunity is built up in the weeks following a vaccination — not minutes, hours, or even days. That means we will need to continue wearing masks, physically distancing from each other, and washing our hands as we each wait our turn to get vaccinated. And even after we do, we will still need to keep these measures in place to protect those who have not yet been vaccinated, or those that can’t be and require widespread societal immunity to stand a fighting chance.
These are not the messages anyone wants to hear. We want to return to our families, our friends, and after months away, maybe even our workplaces. We want some semblance of a return to normal and feelings of comfort. We want our exhaustion to end. It’s okay to feel that way. But even as we do, we need to remain vigilant and think of the big picture.
Our armistice with COVID-19 is now on the horizon — but it is still early morning.
The truth is that for every Margaret Keenan, Anita Quidangen, and Sandra Lindsay who are helping to build up our hope, there will be a new Augustin Trébuchon, George Price, and Henry Gunther that will not join us on the other side of this struggle. We don’t yet know their names. But we do know there is still enough time left for it be someone we know, someone we love, or maybe even one of us.
Our goal now must be to ensure we do everything in our power to make sure we all make it to that dreamed of moment of peace where we no longer have to contend with this devastating virus in our day to day lives. We’re not there yet, but with continued effort, we can make it there together.