COVID-19 crept up on us late in 2019 like fog on little cat feet but then it grew into a perfect storm. I was largely oblivious to its danger until almost mid-March. I have gone back through my calendar and compared personal events to a pandemic timeline to better understand how and when the coronavirus became the centre of our concern. I am aware that as a retiree with a pension and a good house, my experience is much different from that of a front line worker, or someone unemployed or homeless. With those qualifications in mind, here is how COVID-19 crept then leapt into my life in the past several months.
December 2019 [41 known cases/all in China]
On December 27, my wife Martha and I drive from Ottawa to Toronto to spend time with our daughter, her husband and our two young grandchildren. At an En Route stop along Highway 401 the parking lots and fast food restaurants are crowded with people travelling for the holiday.
In Toronto we make family plans. We will come back to help out with the children during the March break. They will all come to Ottawa in April for Easter and in June we will attend a family wedding in New York State. Our four-year-old grandson will return with us to Ottawa after the wedding for a one-week a summer camp, and then early in July we will take him back home.
On December 31, we leave Toronto and return to spend New Year’s Eve quietly at home. Once again, the En Route stops are crowded. Unknown to us, on the same day Chinese health officials inform the World Health Organization (WHO) about a cluster of 41 patients who are ill with a mysterious form of pneumonia in the city of Wuhan in Hubei province.
Once we are in Ottawa again our lives continue in their regular way. We go to the gym at Carleton University, to the public library, a second hand bookstore, nearby coffee shops and, most Wednesdays, to noon-hour classical music concerts at a church, all in our neighbourhood. We attend a weekly night class with about 20 others. We attend a congregational business meeting at our own church with perhaps 100 other people. One day we pay a hospital visit to an older friend who fell on the ice and was injured. On January 25, we host a dinner birthday party for a friend, with nine of us around the table. We are also planning for a trip that we have booked to Costa Rica in February.
Meanwhile the health professionals are hard at work. On January 1, WHO goes onto an emergency footing for dealing with the Wuhan outbreak. Later in the month WHO warns that limited human-to-human transmission of the coronavirus may have occurred. and that there is the risk of a wider outbreak. On January 11, China records its first death from the virus, and the first case outside of China is reported in Thailand. In Canada, Dr. Theresa Tam and her team at the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) activate an Emergency Operation Centre.
On January 25, Canada confirms its first case of COVID-19 related to travel in Wuhan. On January 30, WHO declares that the outbreak constitutes a public health emergency of international concern. That may ring loud alarm bells for health professionals, but less so it seems for our political leaders. We miss this news entirely.
On January 28, a senior WHO delegation led by the director-general Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus Tedros travels to Beijing to meet China’s medical teams and learn more about that country’s response. While in Beijing, Dr. Tedros meets with Chinese President Xi and congratulates him on China’s handling of the outbreak. This is to become an important flash point for some, notably those in the US administration. They later charge that the Chinese government attempted to hide the existence of the outbreak and that Tedros is giving them cover. They also claim that WHO did not give ample warning about the virus to the US and other countries. WHO responds by providing a detailed timeline of their communications which began in January. (In April, President Trump will withdraw US financial support for WHO, which is an agency of the United Nations).
[January 30: 9,823 total cases/213 deaths. Canada: one case/ no deaths]
Between February 4 and 20 we are in Costa Rica dividing our time between a beach location and the home of old friends who live near San Jose. We have a lot of catching up to do with them and I don’t recall our talking much about COVID-19. But elsewhere there are many developments.
By February 8, the death toll in China surpasses that of the 2002-2003 SARS epidemic. There are outbreaks in Iran and Italy. On February 20, Canada confirms its first case related to travel outside of mainland China. The person arrived in Canada from Iran.
[February 20: 76,677 total cases/2,247 deaths. Canada: Eight cases/no deaths]
By March 3, coronavirus cases begin to increase sharply in Spain, and Italy places all 60 million residents on lock down. On the evening of that same day we attend a speech in Ottawa by Alberta’s NDP leader Rachel Notley. There are about 800 people there and we stay briefly for the reception which follows.
On March 8, Canada reports its first death from COVID-19. The victim is resident in a long-term care home in North Vancouver, B.C. (Distressingly, we now know that more than 80 per cent of COVID-19 deaths in Canada are among older people in long term care homes, most of them privately operated).
On March 11, the WHO declares COVID-19 a global pandemic. Secretary-General Tedros says: “We have rung the alarm bell loud and clear.” This is a crucial moment. The word pandemic is much more likely to catch the attention of ordinary people and political leaders than the phrase “global health emergency,” which was used by the WHO on January 30.
[March 11: 126,215 total cases/4,627 deaths. Canada: 110 cases/ one death]
On March 14 we travel, as long planned, to Toronto to visit with our daughter and help with the children during the March break. On the evening prior, we call to ask whether we should make the trip. We decide to go. Our daughter and her husband are both at home with the children and seeing no one else. She has received notice that she must work from home. We stop only once at an En Route to use the washroom, taking care to thoroughly wash our hands. The crowds are much sparser than they were when we travelled the same road during the Christmas holidays.
We spend the week in Toronto, staying mostly indoors other than taking the children out for exercise. Our son-in-law, who is home as well, does the grocery shopping. But much changes during this week. On March 18, the governments of Canada and the US close the border to non-essential travel between the countries. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promises $82 billion in financial aid in a COVID-19 Economic Response Plan. (There will be tens of billions more to follow).
On March 20, we travel from Toronto back to Ottawa. When we pull off of Highway 401 for a bathroom break at an En Route stop, there are only a few cars in the parking lot. The fast food centre is almost deserted, with all of the tables removed and the chairs stacked in rows.
[March 21: 337,705 total cases/24,691 deaths. Canada: 1,328 cases/19 deaths]
We are, if not in lock down, then in a state of semi-isolation. Mostly we stay inside, other than going for a 60-90 minute walk each day. There are far more people out walking than usual and almost invariably they are careful to keep their distance. There are fewer cars on the street. Most neighbourhood businesses, restaurants, and the coffee shops that I like to frequent are closed, or open only for takeout. There are no more visits to the gym, face-to-face concerts, church services, hospital visits or dinner parties. My wife shops for groceries once a week and I have been to the pharmacy twice. We make phone calls and we use email to stay in contact with some friends and relatives. We use Whats App videos for family communication and, like a lot of other people we use ZOOM for larger online meetings.
We begin to hear much talk about getting back to normal, or a new normal. And as I am preparing these notes in early May various provinces are allowing the reopening of businesses and some schools. We hope that it is not too soon. At the end of this, and we are by no means at the end, I am left to wonder how much of our previous life will remain, how much it will have to change, and how we can ensure that those changes are for the better.
[May 6: 3,756,264 total cases/259,436 deaths. Canada: 62,046 cases/4,043 deaths]
Sources: The number of COVID-19 cases and deaths is drawn from a site called worldometer.