In To-morrow, dated August 1803, the Anglo-Irish writer Maria Edgeworth portrays a couple weighing the pros and cons of various preventive measures against smallpox. The wife, Lucy, wants to have her only son inoculated in the “common way,” by which she means variolation, a mild but (hopefully) preventive infection. Her husband, Basil, knows there’s something a little more cutting-edge out there: “I think we had better have him vaccined.”
Edgeworth, a literary celebrity in her day, was writing just five years after Edward Jenner first described vaccination, in An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae Vaccinae, and the technique’s efficacy was still under review by the Royal College of Physicians. In her novella, she paints Basil as a learned man who keeps up with the papers, a man who sees tremendous potential in medical advancement. But despite being informed of current events and despite his wife’s desperate urging —“Oh, my dearest love, do not put it off till to-morrow”— Basil takes a rather unhurried approach. “My friend, Mr. L–, has had all his children vaccined,” he tells Lucy, “and I just wait to see the effect.”
We are all Basil now.
In a head-spinning turn of events, so-called V‑Day arrived sooner than many of us expected and mass vaccination against COVID‑19 is now under way, with a ninety-year-old retired shop clerk from Coventry receiving the first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on December 8, at 6:31 in the morning. (Eighty-one-year-old William Shakespeare, of Warwickshire, received the second injection: “A mark marvellous well shot, for they both did hit it,” indeed.)
Pfizer should soon be joined by Moderna, AstraZeneca, and Johnson & Johnson in delivering millions of doses around the world, and it seems that most Canadians are willing to get in line and roll up their sleeves — after they’ve had a chance to see the effect, of course. In early December, an Ipsos/Radio-Canada poll found that while 63 percent of respondents plan to get the shot, more than half want to wait a little while. This is in keeping with what the peer-reviewed journal Nature Medicine found in an earlier survey of nineteen countries, published in October: “Current levels of willingness to accept a COVID‑19 vaccine are insufficient to meet the requirements for community immunity.”
Sadly, V‑Day never arrives for Basil and Lucy’s young son. Basil appreciates the urgency of the situation, but he has Rousseau’s Emilius and Sophia to finish and some errands to run. He thinks he can buy some time. He soon finds out, though, that “a few hours may sometimes make all the difference between health and sickness, happiness and misery.” His son contracts smallpox and dies.
So far in this pandemic, we have lost more than a million and a half people, and the daily case numbers climb yet higher and higher. We’ll continue to skeptically eye strangers who sneeze in public for months to come, just as we’ll continue to wear masks (yes, even the vaccinated among us). But the banner headline is hard to ignore: “A Fix to the Crisis Is Near.”
Transfixed as we are by the cure that is, still too many of us are blind to the cure that isn’t. “To put it simply,” the secretary-general of the United Nations, António Guterres, said in a major climate address at Columbia University on December 2, “the state of the planet is broken.” The symptoms of this other sickness are legion: We are losing our ice, our wetlands, our forests, our coral reefs, our fish stocks. Even with lockdown measures in place for much of 2020, carbon dioxide levels are climbing, methane is pouring out of the thawing permafrost, and nitrous oxide emissions have gone up 123 percent — once again threatening the ozone layer. The fires, the floods, the hurricanes, the tornadoes, the heat waves are more biblical with each passing season. And, as Guterres reminds us, “there is no vaccine for the planet.”
No tomorrow comes in To-morrow, because Basil ignores the increasingly grim reality that stares him in the face. So confident is he in human ingenuity to solve a crisis on a timeline of his own making, so caught up with his own affairs, that he ignores the well-being of the next generation. But once the mistakes really start to compound, there is no going back. “I felt the consciousness that they were all occasioned by my own folly,” he finally admits.
We should all celebrate the ingenuity that will, eventually, bring this viral nightmare to an end. But we cannot wait for some equally ingenious solution to the other, more serious crisis we face. We cannot wait to see the effect of another tenth of a degree, and then another. We can no longer put this off till tomorrow.