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A woman wears a face mask as she walks by a mural on a street in Montreal, on Sept. 7, 2020.

Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

If you were asked a year ago about all the things you might finally get done if you suddenly had more time – no commuting, parties or random social gatherings, no driving kids to extracurricular activities, packing lunches or fetching dry cleaning – what do you think you’d say?

Many of us probably would’ve mused about learning a new language, re-establishing relationships with old friends, or putting in the time to finally get in shape. Flush with the naïveté of pre-pandemic life, we’d wax about seizing the moment to live more meaningfully and productively, and invest in the activities we had always wanted to do.

There was some of that ambitious energy early on in the pandemic, when those gifted with an abundance of extra time and privileged with few existential worries baked sourdough bread and proudly shared their culinary creations on the internet. But six months on, that enthusiasm for a slower version of life has waned. As we wait for life to return to normal, time has shifted from being a luxury to a burden, and ambitious energy is now about deciding not to wear the same clothes three days in a row. Who’s going to see you, anyway?

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For people across the country in all different stages of life, this has become a year of waiting: waiting for a vaccine, for a successful treatment, or for SARS-CoV-2 to become less deadly. For the sick or those dealing with chronic illness or pain, this is an extra year of waiting for treatments and procedures that often come with harrowing waits in the best of times. In Ontario, the number of oncological procedures performed between March 18 and July 27 dropped about 24 per cent this year compared with last, according to information recently obtained by the Canadian Constitution Foundation. Non-oncological procedures dropped by 74 per cent.

For young couples, it’s a year of waiting to start or grow their families, for a time when pregnant mothers won’t have to go to appointments alone or worry about the effect of a novel virus on their unborn babies. The U.S. observed a steep drop in births approximately nine to 10 months after peak mortality during the Spanish flu – a drop of about 13 per cent, according to one analysis. Experts are concerned that the COVID-19 pandemic will result in a similar decline in birth rates, which is already a problem for a country such as Canada that is struggling to balance the social security pressures of an aging population. Couples at other stages in their lives have postponed getting married, and some are even waiting to divorce.

Then there are the legions of the newly unemployed – particularly in fields such as travel and theatre that can’t meaningfully resume operations – who have few options beyond waiting for a time they might return to their jobs. Many on the other end of the career spectrum have decided to postpone planned retirement (as many as a third, as calculated by Edward Jones) due to economic uncertainty and loss of investment value. That, combined with the recognition that many of the boons of retirement, including travel, social events and recreational activities, have effectively been put on hold, has compelled some Canadians to hang on to their jobs a little longer.

For families with school-aged kids, the challenge is now to get through the year and hope that their children might actually learn something. That’s not a given; barely a few days into the semester, hundreds of kids in Alberta have been sent home for two weeks after Alberta Health Services found 11 cases of potential exposure to COVID-19 in schools. This scenario is sure to be replicated in the most populous provinces frequently throughout the fall and winter, particularly as case counts continue to rise across the country. Individual children will also likely miss days or weeks of school as they wait for COVID-19 test results and/or symptoms of other illnesses to resolve. Together, it makes for a school year where the primary goal for kids, teachers and parents is just to make it through to the other side. Learning would simply be a nice bonus.

There is no magic key that will at once unlock us from this rather agonizing year of waiting. The trade-off of returning to normal life prematurely would mean the acceleration of spread akin to that in the United States, but likely still without the economic or social benefits, as demonstrated by the Swedish experience of resisting formal lockdown. We are thus left to navigate a strange existence where life continues, but does not really move. Eventually and, one hopes, sooner rather than later, we will return to a normal where excess time is something again to be cherished. But looking ahead to a difficult winter and fall, it’s hard to see it as anything but something to be passed.

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