Allison Hanes: Flashback to the dawn of the pandemic in spite of myself

It’s not that I particularly want to remember that roller-coaster week after March Break of 2020, but I can’t help it.

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A “memory” resurfaced on my Facebook feed that triggered unwelcome flashbacks.

It’s a picture of my kids and my parents four years ago, spontaneously snapped at the end of a spring break visit. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a cute shot of them snuggled up together on the couch, a souvenir of a precious week spent together and a reminder of how fast time flies.

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But as I look at those smiling faces, at the chubbier cheeks of my much younger children, I also see our collective wide-eyed innocence as we stood on the cusp of a great upheaval we still couldn’t fully fathom.

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As we hugged goodbye, the coronavirus as we quaintly called it still seemed far away. As we drove home, we had no idea how long it would be until we could safely see our loved ones again. As the kids went back to school and daycare, the false sense of security that we in Montreal, Quebec and Canada would remain untouched by this spreading contagion rapidly dissolved.

Day by day during that roller-coaster second week of March 2020, the ground shifted under our feet. By midweek, the World Health Organization declared a global COVID-19 pandemic. By Friday — the 13th ominously — schools and daycares were shuttered, office workers were sent home, restaurants, bars, malls and all but essential businesses were closed.

The long, arduous lockdown had begun.

I recall that tumultuous week with painstaking clarity. The long months — and years — of tightening and loosening public health restrictions that followed, however, are like a movie on fast-forward. Quarantines, rainbows, social distancing, contact tracing, testing centres, capacity limits, arrows directing customers in grocery stores, daily press conferences, rising case counts, toilet paper hoarding, remote learning, working from home, masks, family bubbles, daily walks, pandemic pets, sourdough starter, outdoor socializing, cancelled holidays, curfews, vaccines, vaccine passports, vaccine mandates, Omicron, DIY nose swabs …

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It’s such a blur that I sometimes wonder: did that really happen?

I don’t want to relive that surreal period any more than you do. But in spite of myself, I feel compelled to reflect on a few lessons from covering historic events while simultaneously experiencing them. Because as much as hindsight should be 20/20 four years later, we’re understandably so eager to move on that important insights are being abandoned to the rearview mirror.

I’d like to think we learned not to take our public services — and the people who provide them — for granted. But the strain on the health system and the stress on the doctors, nurses, orderlies, personal-care workers, pharmacists, paramedics and janitors who were on the front lines of a terrifying emergency took a toll that continues to reverberate.

Ditto for teachers, support staff, daycare workers. The education system was also called on to pivot repeatedly, and the fallout from those trying conditions in our classrooms is not over.

Things seem to get worse, not better, despite government efforts to fix health and education. And I believe it all comes down to the fact we still don’t have enough respect for the knowledge of our professionals.

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We must not forget the truck drivers, supermarket cashiers, public transit employees, community groups and a host of other unsung heroes, either. This unheralded labour — delivering goods, stocking shelves, driving empty buses — proved the worth of these folks and then some. But now that things are back to normal, their contributions are once more underappreciated.

Society’s most vulnerable must be our priority in times of trouble. Yet children, the elderly and the unhoused suffered disproportionately.

I think back to the distress of my youngest, then four, when her daycare was closed and the playgrounds were off limits. She struggled to understand why her sister had online classes and her parents were glued to their screens at the dining room table while she had nothing to do. But many children experienced far greater heartbreak and deprivation.

Seniors imprisoned, infected, neglected and killed in long-term care homes were, of course, the great shame of Quebec’s pandemic response.

Since COVID-19 arrived, the housing crisis has only worsened. Are we taking it as seriously as we should?

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Freedom is precious. I am convinced governments, public health experts and scientists did the best they could with the information they had, which evolved over time. The extreme measures to keep people safe were justified and necessary as we entered uncharted waters. They did what needed to be done.

But after the initial lockdowns and as subsequent waves of COVID-19 struck, overreach eventually crept in to policymaking as governments grew accustomed to unfettered power. Curfews, provincial border checkpoints and Quebec’s proposed tax on the unvaccinated seem dystopian in retrospect. Unfortunately, they helped slowly undermine the strong sense of social solidarity and trust in science that prevailed in early 2020.

Although personally alarmed by anti-vax protests, put off by the polarizing covidiocy of conspiracy theorists and disturbed by the siege of Ottawa by the Freedom Convoy, the virulent backlash nevertheless exposed the limits of government control — even when authorities’ intentions are good.

Of course, the most important takeaway is far more personal. As that family photo attests: hug your loved ones while you can.

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