This week, Guelph hit an important milestone: 75 per cent of people 12 years and over have received both doses of a COVID-19 vaccine. It’s an amazing achievement when you remember those weeks in February when the discussion was around a lack of available vaccine, and whether we would ever get the majority of people vaccinated.
In the midst of our two-dose summer, and the rapid uptake of vaccine shots locally, I’ve been thinking a lot about the weekly gatherings of the vaccine hesitant and COVID skeptics in front of city hall in the spring. Those gatherings never caught on here like they did even just next door in Kitchener-Waterloo, and I’ve been scratching my head trying to figure out why that is.
If you’re a regular reader of this column, then you know I outright abhor the perspective that Guelph has a special status among Canadian cities. We’re not a magical island in the middle of a sea of mundane reality, we’re just a regular place where regular people live.
So what is, for lack of a better term, the secret sauce in Guelph on this issue? Why are our people down right vaccine eager?
My initial thought is that Guelph’s biggest employer is the University of Guelph, an educational institute widely recognized as one of Canada’s top research universities, and home to many of the experts we’ve relied on to guide the COVID-19 response. People like population disease modelling prof Dr. Amy Greer and vaccine hesitancy expert Dr. Maya Goldenberg.
One could argue that having a university central to the municipal identity has also created a culture of continuous learning, which is borne out by the large number of Guelphites that regularly borrow materials and engage with the public library.
What is the library but an intermediary between those seeking knowledge, and those with knowledge? And what is a word for people with knowledge? Experts. They’re the people so frequently derided and disregarded by all the COVID skeptics, so maybe Guelphites just love and trust their experts.
I’ve also been thinking about Guelph’s culture of volunteerism, a population that’s very active in giving back, taking part, and building communities where there were previously none. What has the vaccine rollout been but a worldwide call to action? A community building, or perhaps re-building, effort that asks us all to do our part.
Perhaps it’s the cultural of community-minded entrepreneurism here in Guelph. Getting back to normal means getting back to business as normal, but what I mean here is more the entrepreneurial spirit. Getting vaccinated was an action people could take to actually fight the pandemic, helping family members and neighbours find vaccine appointments was another project that kept people busy.
These explanations make sense, but they’re also kind of limited because these ideas could be applied to other towns and cities in Ontario and across Canada.
I think about Waterloo, home to two different world-renowned universities, but also home to several weeks of large anti-mask protests literally up the road from those institutions.
These gatherings were so popular that they attracted top tier COVID skeptic luminaries like Maxime Bernier, which is notable because the last time Bernier came to Guelph, his appearance had to be held in secret, and that was before COVID.
Bernier’s arrival in Waterloo in early June also presaged an outbreak of the Delta variant in Waterloo Region that was so bad it delayed their economic re-opening several weeks. I’m not saying that it was Bernier’s fault, but I mention it because there are a lot of tentacles between the tri-cities and Guelph, yet we’ve (so far) been able to avoid a Delta-driven COVID resurgence here.
Almost like we’re on an island…
In a previous Market Squared, I discussed my own personal experiences talking to people that go to local anti-mask/anti-lockdown meet-ups, and how I found some wildly different motivations. Only some people believed in the conspiracies, many had questions about the science, and some were just angry about the circumstances and needed to express it.
There was no unity in purpose, so there was never any movement that could pick up steam. Some agitators from Toronto tried their best to organize the few people in front of city hall into a cohesive anti-COVID restriction unit, but they were never able to build a branch conspiracy outlet here. Too many Guelphites just wanted answers to their questions, they didn’t want to overthrow the system.
In these columns I normally try to explain things and propose potential answers to the issues, but I admit that I’ve been lacking in this particular area. I bristle at the suggestion that we in Guelph are just generally smarter and shrewder than other communities where large numbers of people fall for conspiracies. Geography does not determine gullibility.
Having said that, we’re facing a disinformation problem in the greater media ecosphere, and if there are lessons we can learn from Guelph’s experience, I suggest that we start taking the time to learn them. Fast.