It was just over six months ago that the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 to be a pandemic and six months ago today was the last day that I worked in my office (which is the milestone in my brain of when the world changed the most for me).
Living during a pandemic like this is really surreal. Sometimes it feels like life is pretty much normal – like you are driving down the highway and nothing seems amiss. Or maybe it’s walking down the street – aside from the fact that there are a lot more people wearing masks than there used to be1 it could just be any old day. Well, and then you notice there are stickers or Xs made out tape outside stores to tell you where to stand if there needs to be a line up to get into said store. But I’ve kind of gotten used to those now, so I don’t really notice them so much.
And then other times life seems so completely upended. I haven’t seen my office in six months and I honestly don’t expect to see it for at least a year (my office is in a hospital, so I feel like we’ll be the last people to go back to our offices – no one wants nonclinical people in clinical spaces). I’ve started wearing lipstick for Zoom meetings – if I’m going to have to look at my stupid face all day long on the screen, it may as well look somewhat OK. Every weekday at 3 pm, unless I have a meeting, I tune into the provincial health officer’s briefing (typically held twice a week now, though it was daily at the beginning) or check the government’s written release (on days when there isn’t a briefing) to find out the latest case numbers.
And the case numbers are not good. After a little while of very low numbers (like in the range of 10-20/day), they started to creep upwards and now we are seeing daily cases being more than 100, with a record high number set on Friday (the last day we have numbers for, as we get our weekend numbers reported on Monday). I realize that compared to some places in the world, these numbers seem tiny, but for us they are a lot.
And if this is what we are at now, what is it going to be like when the fall weather comes and it’s not so pleasant to hang out out outside anymore? It’s become apparent that this virus spreads much more easily inside than outside, so I’ve been trying to enjoy being outside as much as I can while the weather is good. It’s been nice to go for physically distanced walks with friends and I’m trying to do as much of that as I can now to fill myself up, as once the fall is hear, it will probably go back to more socializing over Zoom. That is much less fun.
And these last few days with all the smoke coming up from the wildfires in Washington, Oregon, and California, Vancouver is having some of the worst air quality in the world, so going outside right now is ill advised.
Here’s the view from my living room window right now:
And here’s what that view normally looks like:
But I digress. Back to my random pandemic thoughts.
Public health professionals have a really challenging job. When they are successful, they prevent disease from happening and it’s so hard for demonstrate disease that didn’t happen. People say “well, this was overblown! Why did we even need to take all those precautions since the disaster of hospitals being overrun didn’t even happen?” instead of realizing that the disaster didn’t happen because we took the precautions. And then when people stop following the advice because they think the situation isn’t that bad, people blame the public health professionals for not stopping people from misbehaving. As if it’s public health’s fault that people aren’t following their recommendations!
And then there’s the fact that they have to balance so many different issues simultaneously. I remember reading a tweet way back at the beginning of the pandemic where someone said something to the effect of “if everyone in the world just stood still right where they are for two weeks, the virus would die out”. Which, of course, is not a feasible thing to do, but it kind of makes the point that we can’t view the virus and the disease it causes in isolation from the rest of the world. Preventing the spread of COVID-19 is important, but some of the measures we take to do so have other consequences that are important too – like the mental health implications of isolation, the domestic violence risk of being locked down with one’s abuser, the overdose risk of using drugs alone, just to name a few.
Another thing that makes public health’s job of communicating risks and guidelines to the public is that people, in general, don’t understand the scientific process. The scientific process involves learning about things we didn’t know before. It means all knowledge is provisional and we update and learn as we go. We couldn’t possibly know everything about a brand new virus, so early in the pandemic we shutdown everything to try to prevent the spread as we didn’t know as much about how it spreads, who is most at risk, what all the implications of the disease are. So when recommendations change, it’s not because scientists and public health professionals were lying or were incompetent or are flip floppers – it’s actually a sign that we are following the scientific process, learning and applying that new knowledge. Also, the context changes and that has to be taken into account too. For example, early in the pandemic, there was a shortage of medical personal protection equipment (PPE) like medical masks, and you couldn’t just buy non-medical face masks in every store and from Etsy shops, etc. because they weren’t needed before, so no one was making them. So we needed to be preserve medical masks for the healthcare professional who were going to be treating COVID-19 patients and telling everyone to wear a mask even though we didn’t know as much about how the disease is transmitted back then could have led to hoarding the medical masks that we did have. So that had to be taken into account. Now we know more and we also have widespread availability of non-medical masks, so recommendations change to adapt to what we’ve learned and how the situation has changed.
We still don’t know everything, but we know a lot more than we did. And since we know we will have to live with this virus for some time, we needed to re-open things so that people can have jobs, kids can learn and develop, we can reduce the mental health implications of isolation (at least a bit). And we know more about how we can do that safely. We also know more about what things are helpful when treating the disease than we did six months ago. We still need to take precautions of course, but we have been information to weigh the risks and benefits, and to mitigate some of the risk.
Since the pandemic started, I’ve really tried to be better about supporting small businesses. Knowing that many businesses have and will continue to go out of business due to the way things have to operate during the pandemic, I’ve thought a lot about the businesses that I give my money to. We don’t eat at restaurants all that often, but when we do, I’m thinking about which local restaurants I want to see survive. I’ve never been a big fan of chain restaurants anyway, so it’s not a huge switch for me, but what I have switched is trying to be a better tipper than I have in the past. People in the service industry have been hard, and I’m in a pretty privileged position.
A place where I have made more of a change is in looking to minimize my shopping from Amazon. There are great local bookshops that I’d much rather support. And most other things one might buy at Amazon can be found at local shops if you try.
OK, that’s probably enough rambling for today!
- Living in Vancouver, where there is a large population of Asian people, even before the pandemic, you’d occasionally see people wearing a mask, as mask wearing to prevent spreading germs was already being practiced by some members of the Asian community. Something we probably all should have been doing, when you think about it. [↩]