Everything moved fast on the week of March 9. The rules and the news; people’s thoughts and decisions; their pulse. Markets bolted like spooked horses.
It was the first week of the pandemic. The word itself – “pandemic” – entered common parlance on the Wednesday.
Canada recorded its first COVID-19 death on the Monday. Our name for the contagion evolved to reflect a growing intimacy: In the historian J.D.M. Stewart’s diary, it was a stilted two-word “corona virus” on March 4, before morphing into the now-familiar COVID-19 by the 13th.
For millions of people across the country, this was the week everything changed. The disease had seemed far away for months. “And then,” said Alison Palmer, a teacher in Edmonton, “all of a sudden, everything was so different.”
A year ago, we sleepwalked through seven spots on the calendar, leaving behind a bit of normalcy with every step. It was a week of lasts – Andrea D’Onofrio’s last Zumba class and Marissa Colalillo’s last live concert. (“I’m thinking, are the Bay City Rollers going to be the last live concert I ever see???????!?!” she wrote. “Seriously??????”)
It was also a week of disorienting firsts: Jasmine Irwin’s first mask-shopping trip and Ashlie Redden’s “first moment where I was like, ‘uh-oh.’”
The week grew stranger in vast 24-hour increments. Monday felt like a different epoch from Tuesday. And beyond Sunday loomed “the unknowns,” said Chris Graves, owner of the King’s Head pub in Winnipeg.
In the meantime, life staggered on in a kind of hopeful trance. Allison Gonsalves, a professor of education in Montreal, continued eating at restaurants and sending her kid to daycare. “What was weird was how normal we were all acting.”
Psychotherapists noticed rising anxiety in their clients, but fear wasn’t the only response. Some felt the giddy excitement that comes before a storm. Others laughed it off. “I drank a lot,” the magician Michael Kent said.
The full emotional freight of the moment didn’t hit until later, when there was time to reflect. The week of March 9 was characterized, instead, by a feeling of sheer acceleration. “That week started so normally,” wrote the Toronto librarian Tracy Urquhart, “then each day things sped up.”
- The Winnipeg Jets close their locker room to the media.
- Deena Hinshaw recommends elbow bumps.
- The price of West Texas Intermediate oil falls by 25 per cent a barrel.
- Italy enters quarantine.
In the beginning, it was someone else’s problem.
There were so few cases here: Alberta announced three new positive tests that day, Ontario four and Quebec only one.
At that moment, it was considered a point of pride not to overreact. The first sentence of the CBC story on Canada’s first COVID-19 death – a man in his 80s living in a long-term care home in North Vancouver – emphasized the importance of staying calm: “Experts say it’s important not to give in to undue fear around the outbreak but instead to put the tragedy into context.”
In Brampton, Ont., a future epicentre of the pandemic, Colleen Cole faced resistance when she suggested her regular meeting for businesswomen switch to video calls. “Some felt I was being dramatic,” she recalled. Was she afraid of dying? someone asked. It wasn’t so easy, then, to reply, “Of course.”
The signs of a tightening noose were still easy to misread then. Jasmine Irwin, a public policy professional in Toronto, said the virus still felt “abstract” to her – “something that would be resolved in some fashion.”
Her partner, who was more nervous, asked her to pick up some canned goods and other supplies that evening, and Ms. Irwin went along with the shopping trip, indulgently. She felt embarrassed asking for masks at the drugstore, but really balked when she saw what they cost: $100 for a pack of 10.
That sudden price inflation might have served as a warning that surgical masks were about to become a precious commodity. Instead, it seemed like a rip-off. “I was like, ‘I shan’t be paying that.”
It was as though we needed a tear in the fabric of normal life to let the new reality come pouring in. On Monday we got one: Italy entered a nationwide lockdown, the first European country to take that step.
For Flavio Volpe, seeing the news on CNN while he was in New York on business served as a wake-up call. Confirmed COVID-19 cases in the country had exploded from single-digits to more than 9,000 in a little over a month. Prisoners rioted at having their visits curtailed. Rumours spread of overwhelmed hospitals turning patients away.
An illness that had seemed limited to the obscure Chinese city of Wuhan, far-off places such as Iran and unlucky cruise ships was now pummelling a rich Western country. It might have been a symptom of our privilege or myopia, but the Italian quarantine finally made many Canadians pay attention. “I could picture Italy,” said Mr. Volpe, the president of the powerful Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association, whose family is Italian.
The disease seemed to collapse geography. The coronavirus was our country now, more than any single spot on the map. It was the terrain we occupied, and it was shifting uneasily beneath our feet. We still thought we could escape, but we didn’t know quite where to.
“It felt like an Indiana Jones movie,” Mr. Volpe said. “You’re running toward the closing door, and are you going to be able to roll out in time?”
- Ontario prepares drive-through testing centres.
- A cabinet minister in Saskatchewan says the province will be ready.
- B.C. ports face uncertain cruise ship season.
On Tuesday, the signs of trouble became more legible. It was a day of omens. Brooklyn Mattila got a voice mail from her hairdresser in Calgary. “The wording was very strange to me,” she said. “It was, ‘We’re not closed yet …” Cases in Alberta doubled that day, from seven to 14.
The tremors registered across the continent. Even trivial things could buckle your knees. Ashlie Redden, a native Nova Scotian, was working for a party and event planning company in Los Angeles. That week, the city was getting quieter and quieter. Her office was located on Ventura Boulevard, normally a busy street clogged with traffic – where there was suddenly acres of parking. “I was like, ‘Oh my God: There are spots everywhere.’”
The health care system began to prepare to be the front line. Greg Lyle, a polling executive, noticed a subtle but unsettling shift in the doctor caring for his mother at a Vancouver hospital, as she fought a case of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The man had had a relatively thick, well-trimmed beard the week before, but when he returned to the ward after taking Monday and Tuesday off, Mr. Lyle noticed he had shaved it off. “He says, ‘We need to get ready for the COVID cases and I need a good fit for my mask’ … That really, really brought it home for me … It was so vivid.”
The physical world still contained as many warnings as the news did. That day we learned the United States had surpassed 1,000 cases, Jamaica had recorded its first, and China, which began reporting a mysterious pneumonia outbreak in December, was close to getting its case count under control. But it was sometimes just as informative to simply look around. By March 10, Patricia Presti had been on board the cruise ship Norwegian Pearl for two days. There was no free WiFi connection on that floating city, as it charted a course from Miami toward Cozumel, Mexico, to see the Mayan ruins, so some passengers were surprised on Tuesday when the ship went into “full sanitation mode.” Suddenly, to cover the distance between her cabin and her favourite restaurant, Ms. Presti had to wash her hands at three separate handwashing stations. The captain began delivering daily messages over the public address system: “If you have any symptoms, we do have a doctor on board, so please make your way down to the clinic.”
What was safe, what was allowed, what to fear – these largely settled questions stirred newly to life. Hands, in particular, took on a novel quality of menace. Jessica Johnson, editor of The Walrus magazine, attended a book launch on Tuesday night, where someone shook her hand, non-consensually. “I thought we had moved beyond that,” she thought.
Everyone knew we had shifted to a new normal, but no one knew exactly what that would mean for us. Etiquette and social norms existed in an awkward limbo, as people waited for guidance. “There was this feeling that we were all waiting for someone else to make the call,” Ms. Johnson said.
- Tom Hanks tests positive.
- NBA suspends season.
- WHO declares a pandemic.
- Organizers of the Elmira Maple Syrup Festival announce, “with great sadness,” that the annual event is being cancelled.
On Wednesday, the call came. A cascade of news stories announced in no uncertain terms: this is serious. But whose alarm you listened to varied in surprising ways.
On paper, at least, the World Health Organization’s pandemic declaration was the most significant development of the day. But relatively few people registered the announcement as a major turning point. Judy Flanagan, a retired advertising executive living in Toronto, heard the news and brushed it off. “I remember lining up for the last one – was it H1N1?” she said. “But that all went away so quickly. Same with SARS. So I guess that’s what we thought would happen.”
It was another acronymed organization with global reach that made March 11 feel like a day when time stood still: the National Basketball Association. The league cancelled a game between the Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder mere seconds before tip-off that night, with both teams on the court and thousands of fans in attendance, after Jazz star Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19. The NBA then promptly suspended its season – the first major North American league to do so.
Even sports agnostics took notice. Theresa Albert, the Stratford innkeeper, doesn’t follow the NBA, but the topsy-turvy business logic of the decision disturbed her. “They must know something that I don’t know,” she thought. “If they’re giving up millions, if not billions, this is real.” The epiphany filled Ms. Albert with dread. “I sank,” she said. “Sank like a rock.”
A sense of the surreal pervaded that day, seeping into every aspect of life. The concentration of world-altering news lent even mundane events a spooky significance. When Jasmine Irwin returned to her phone on Wednesday night after two or three hours offline – a stretch that would soon be all-but-unthinkable – she experienced what she called her “personal reckoning.”
“The NBA had announced they were closing, Tom Hanks and his partner announced that they had tested positive, and Sarah Palin was unmasked on The Masked Singer,” she said, dryly. “And all of these things combined to create an alternate-reality feeling.” (Tom Hanks, Rita Wilson, Rudy Gobert and Sarah Palin declined to comment for this article.)
A year later, it has become common to wonder at how naive many of us were, back then. But even people in a position to know better experienced Wednesday, March 11, as the end of innocence.
Jim Woodgett was director of the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute at Toronto’s Mount Sinai hospital – a place that should have been a fount of foresight about the gathering storm. Mount Sinai was an epicentre of the 2003 SARS outbreak in Canada.
But on Wednesday, its labs were still operating on a normal basis. One of Dr. Woodgett’s colleagues had plans to fly to the Caribbean with their kids the following week. There were signs that something bad was coming to Canada, but it was an incremental “drip, drip, drip” that could be dismissed, Dr. Woodgett said. “I admit it – I was in denial. You’re in February and it’s, ‘We’ve seen this before: it’ll get better.’”
By Wednesday, denial was no longer possible. He began drafting plans for a partial shutdown of the lab: working from home where possible, reduced capacity in the building, teams working in shifts. His colleague cancelled the Caribbean vacation. For all the tools of understanding at Dr. Woodgett’s disposal, the gravity of the moment hit him around the same time as everyone else.
“The switch from hoping to acceptance was very, very short,” he said. “The plane had crashed at the top of the mountain.”
- Sophie Grégoire Trudeau tests positive.
- NHL suspends season.
- Doug Ford tells Ontarians to have fun on March break.
- Quebec declares a state of emergency.
- The Olympic flame is lit in Greece.
So it was official: The pandemic was here. The plane had crashed into the mountain.
Or was that the right image? People grasped for different metaphors to make sense of events. This was now a disaster, but what kind of disaster?
Kim Wheeler, a Winnipeg Jets season ticket holder, took the NHL news hard. She went out and spent $500 on groceries, then installed herself in front of the TV, like during the last world-altering event she could remember. “I related it to, ‘This is like 9/11.’”
Toilet paper became scarce, and that reminded Jennifer Matthewson of the last time she saw a toilet paper shortage on TV. “My mind went to Katrina,” she said.
Google searches for “Spanish Flu” reached their peak in Canada over the next few days.
Still, the comparisons only helped so much. The overwhelming experience of that moment was uncertainty. Anyone could picture the CNN footage of a terrorist attack or a flood, but what did a plague look like? “I have no idea what’s coming down the line,” Ms. Matthewson thought. “Whether it’s a zombie apocalypse or a war or whatever.”
The people in power didn’t know what was coming either. On March 12, the following sentence appeared in the National Post: “As the Liberal government announced $1 billion to battle coronavirus, Health Minister Patty Hajdu said COVID-19 could ultimately infect between 30 and 70 per cent of Canadians.” If those numbers look cockeyed, it’s because reality ended up inverting them: we spent far more and got much less sick. To date, about 2 per cent of Canadians have tested positive for the virus, while Ottawa has spent more than $240-billion in COVID-19 relief, mostly to soften the pain of lockdowns. Even with the best intelligence, the leaders of the federal government could not imagine how dramatically we would alter our lives to slow the spread of the disease.
The zombie-movie atmospherics weren’t limited to official statements and TV news. On the ground, feelings of mutual mistrust and ambient terror were palpable.
Mike Gordon, an engineer from Winnipeg, was returning home from a work trip in Quebec and had a layover in Pearson airport that evening. “Normally, Pearson for me is a great time,” he said. “Lots of nice restaurants, things to do … Not this time.” This time, there was fear in people’s eyes, darting above endless blue surgical masks that seemed to have multiplied overnight. Mr. Gordon found an isolated corner of the terminal and stood there until his flight.
The air was even more charged on the plane. His seatmate wiped down every surface with Lysol wipes, including Mr. Gordon’s headrest TV screen. “That was the longest flight I ever took,” he said. “I prayed every minute of that flight to get off of it.”
In a quieter way, the Ottawa librarian Kaya Fraser registered the epochal weight of that day as well – a dark turn that seemed to have happened in the world. She felt “a sense of a beginning” on Thursday; a new era opening up. She didn’t think it would last a year, but she knew it was worth recording.
At the end of her first day of working from home, she opened her black leather, 5-by-8-inch Moleskine journal and wrote the date at the top of the page as usual: March 12, 2020.
Then, on the other side of the page, she entered a new inscription: “Day 1.”
- Federal government advises against overseas travel.
- WestJet announces massive layoffs.
- Trudeau addresses country.
- Industry seeks pause on lobster season.
The headlines seemed to spin ominously into focus, one by one, like in an old black-and-white movie: “Large Gatherings Banned”; “Virus Scare For PM”; ”Today, The Coronavirus Touches All Our Lives.” Friday the 13th had begun.
It would be a day of last rodeos. A bar band from Chatham-Kent, Ont., packed up their gear after the night’s show was cancelled, drank their last pint of beer in a pub and went home.
Crystal Kwon had what she calls her “Last Supper” with a group of girlfriends in Vancouver.
Paul Moxness and his wife ate at their favourite restaurant in Kelowna, B.C.: Skinny Duke’s Glorious Emporium, a 70s-themed dinner spot where they knew the staff and owners. “We wished each other well and hugged – like you could back then – and said, ‘Cross our fingers, see you when this is over,’” Mr. Moxness recalled.
Cara Fox went to an Irish pub in downtown Montreal to enjoy what she knew would be her last night out. “It was a really weird vibe that night,” she said. “People were, like, dancing in the street.”
In St. John’s, Karen Moores went shopping for “a few last items”: a spare charger for her phone, some books to kill the time in lockdown. “I will admit though that I thought, living in St. John’s, we’d have more time.”
Friday was the end of something, and people could feel it. Tempers were raw. The rules of conduct had been overturned in the space of a few days. Judy Flanagan went to her long-time family doctor for a routine Pap smear on Friday and they got to chatting. “She finally said, ‘What else is new?’ And I said, ‘Oh, I’ve been in New York to see my niece.’ Suddenly, boom, all her equipment that she was using dropped.” The doctor left the room and came back with two masks. “‘You should have known better,’” she said. “‘You shouldn’t have come.’”
Jessica Johnson, the magazine editor, felt an odd sense of urgency as she packed up her office on Friday afternoon. “It’s like a burning house,” she said. “What are you going to take?”
- Vancouver transit riders avoiding system.
- Winnipeg to shut pools, libraries.
- Mirvish suspends shows, including Hamilton.
The jig was up. Intellectually, we knew the safest thing was to stay home. But translating that knowledge into action took more time. There were plans to keep, reservations to honour. The signal – stop – from the brain travelled sluggishly through the nervous system, and our bodies rebelled at the message.
In Toronto, it was Sam Driscoll-Way’s 30th birthday. In a sense, everything was different, wrecked by the virus. Her mom had flown back to Vancouver early when her cabbie had told her a rumour that the airports would be shutting down soon.
In other ways, the birthday girl plowed ahead, as the normal world evaporated around her. She went to the spa with a friend; it was unnervingly empty.
“We got massages and had the steam room all to ourselves. We got our nails done and watched Justin Trudeau talking about the virus on the news. We walked home past lineups starting to form at the liquor store and grocery store.”
It was a time of face-saving cleaning rituals. Surfaces were still the enemy, Lysol wipes our shield.
On Saturday, Jasmine Irwin had two people over to play the railway-themed board game, Ticket To Ride. Her guests walked over instead of taking public transit or an Uber. Ms. Irwin individually Lysoled each piece of the board game. Everyone had separate snack bowls. Even so, she said, “It felt very illicit.”
Australia would become globally famous for its stringent COVID-19 lockdowns, which largely succeeded in smothering the virus. But on Saturday the 14th, Jordan Pike, a Queen’s University student on a semester abroad in Melbourne, had “the most normal pre-COVID day.” She went out for dinner, she took the subway. Precautions were only nominal. That night, in line at a club, the bouncers took her temperature then waved her through.
For those who could afford it, these half-hearted measures were best avoided by being in the woods.
Sean Galbraith left for a week-long ski trip with some friends before things got serious and by Saturday the 14th faced the uneasy prospect of returning to Toronto from rural B.C. He wondered: “What are we flying home to?”
- Alberta closes schools.
- Quebec closes bars.
- Starbucks closes stores.
- Rabbi urges calm.
On the seventh day, we rested.
After a week of frantic divination, panic buying, tense jokes, and elbow bumps – the whole surreal process of coming to grips with the arrival of a historic plague – there was one thing left to do: nothing. Sean Galbraith was flying home to a life of staying home.
The epiphany that fighting the pandemic would be a largely passive exercise for most people could feel like a relief at first. Here at least was clarity and simplicity after days of anxious muddle. All week “it felt like something was closing in,” Jessica Johnson said. “And then it did. And then we were all free.”
The worst of the horrors were still ahead: the human tinderbox of long-term care; the essential workers unable to isolate; the burnout of medical staff; the disproportionate racial impact of the pandemic. But on the far side of the world, the Yukon resident Oliver Barker and his family discovered that an equally common fate was a long span of eerie idleness.
In early March, Mr. Barker was travelling around New Zealand in a van with his wife and baby – still a perfectly innocent thing to do. The week of March 9 brought hints that the virus was something to worry about, but that only reinforced their choice to be in New Zealand. On Friday the 13th, an elderly woman approached them in a coffee shop, with a jinx of an observation, like something out of a fairy tale. “You’re so lucky to be here and away from the bug,” she said.
The family spent the next two nights camping in sprawling conservation area without phone reception. They slept in a cleared meadow, did some light hiking and saw lots of birds. “It was pretty,” Mr. Barker said.
Only when they emerged, on Sunday, March 15, did he realize their time in the park had quietly been the fastest-moving two nights of their lives. They re-entered a world that had utterly changed in the span of a weekend. The alarming news came to them in “dribs and drabs” as they regained cell service: The Canadian government was urging travellers to come home; New Zealand’s Prime Minister had announced that new arrivals from most countries would need to self-isolate for 14 days.
They decided their holiday was over. “We realized this wasn’t a problem for other people elsewhere, it was happening to us.”
By that point, it felt unsafe to fly with an infant, so Mr. Barker looked online and found a secluded house to rent in the country’s north. He sped the six hours to their temporary home, earning a ticket along the way.
After a breathless stretch of activity, a new feeling took hold when they arrived, near the town of Kerikeri – a kind of ennui. Mr. Barker quickly realized that there wasn’t a lot to do. For the next six weeks, he and his waited in their rural fastness, playing with their son, doing laundry, feeling anxious about their families, watching the mandarins ripen in a nearby orchard.
All spring, the planet continued its work of killing and giving life, flowering and ripening and falling off the tree, and they, like the rest of us, sat very still.
Finally the beginning ended. The new world arrived. After two weeks in Mexico, Ashley Obscura returned to Montreal on Monday the 16th. She was greeted at the airport by two lines of police officers giving out flyers about the need to quarantine. Her Uber driver was wearing a mask. The highways were almost empty. She thought, “Where did the city go? When are we going to get it back?”
From the archives: ‘It doesn’t seem like a big deal right now, but that can change dramatically’
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