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Nine eminent Canadians, from B.C.’s Dr. Bonnie Henry to ex-MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes, look back at Year One of COVID-19 and how the years ahead will change our lives

This week marked the unofficial first anniversary of the pandemic. With the rollout of vaccines gaining steam, there’s hope we won’t have to celebrate a second and that things might revert to some semblance of normalcy in the months ahead.

Yet, having lived through the stress and uncertainty of the past 12 months, we will all likely emerge from this crisis changed, even if only slightly. With that in mind, we asked a cross-section of notable Canadians to look ahead and answer the following question: “How will I live differently once the world returns to normal?”

Bonnie Henry

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Where I come from, we have a saying: “Common suffering builds strong bonds.” As I contemplate how our lives have been torn asunder by this global pandemic, I also think about our common suffering. I think about how our suffering in this time has shown us we are all connected and share more in common than what separates us – even as so many egregious inequities have been starkly revealed. It is only by supporting each other through the dark days that we build resilience, and emerge stronger as individuals and as a community.

Over the past year, we have seen that when faced with the immense challenges and adversity of this pandemic, every act of kindness, whether small or large, has made an outsized difference in people’s lives. And while we can’t always know precisely what another person is dealing with, we can still always choose to respond with compassion – in essence, an acknowledgement of another’s suffering.

As we move beyond the pandemic, my hope is that we will continue to offer each other this same kindness, especially to those who may still be struggling. I hope we will look clearly at the inequities the pandemic has revealed, and commit to rebuilding a better and more just society. When we reach our postpandemic world, (after a wee rest) I will be looking at how the experience I have had in this pandemic, all that I have witnessed and learned, can be put to exactly that task.

—Bonnie Henry is the B.C. Provincial Health Officer and co-author of Be Kind, Be Calm, Be Safe: Four Weeks that Shaped a Pandemic.

Madeleine Thien

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On Jan. 25, 2020, my stepmother e-mailed me: “You have to watch out for the recent severe pneumonia outbreak in Wuhan. Please protect yourself well.” That was the week Wuhan, a city of 11 million, went into lockdown. By early February, I had already begun to stock up on black beans, rice and toilet paper. One of my students had family in Wuhan, and we spoke of nights spent weeping and feeling as if we were living in an alternate reality. The COVID-19 death of Li Wenliang, who had been disciplined for warning his fellow doctors, devastated us. In March, upon returning to Montreal from my job in New York, I forced my partner to wear masks I had sewn out of old tank tops; we freaked out a lot of people.

All this to say, I knew COVID-19 would change our lives, but I completely failed to imagine how. I did not foresee the generation-defining Black Lives Matter protests, the bravery of students in Hong Kong and protesters in Lebanon, the deep awakening among so many to the messed-up ways in which we value and devalue lives. I failed to imagine the tireless work of researchers and vaccine makers. In my most sorrowful dreams, I could not have imagined 500,000 dead in the United States or the muted response to this catastrophe. I fear we are more divided than ever, despite slowly emerging from a situation in which solidarity mattered most.

We talk about a return to normal, but I think we are only at the beginning of understanding. It is human to forget, human to look to better days, but I hope we resist this tendency and hold fast to what came to light this year, despite the heartache of remembering.

—Madeleine Thien was awarded the Scotiabank Giller Prize for her novel Do Not Say We Have Nothing.

Perdita Felicien

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COVID-19 forced me to question just what kind of home life I had built. Did I really love it here? Because there was really no other place to go and only so many walks I could take. It turns out that living the same day every day is quite boring. Who knew? But what I learned is that I am deeply thankful for the life I have built: Early mornings spent with my nearly two-year-old attempting to eat every inanimate object in our house. The coffee stains on our counter that built up like the rings in a tree’s trunk. (Pssh, no one’s coming over, so why bother cleaning?) Binge-watching mindless TV on multiple steaming sites.

When the pandemic is over, I will no longer rush through the current phase of my life, which seems ironic, I know, because we all want to fast-forward through this time in human history. But the pandemic has caused me to slow down. As an Olympian and former world-class fast person, I’m not used to this. I got used to visiting up to a dozen countries in a year, on 50-plus flights. My senses got used to feasting on all that life had to offer beyond the walls of my home. But I’ve come to enjoy being in one place, and grateful for this lesson and chance to reflect. The latter, I’ll continue.

—Perdita Felicien is a two-time Olympian and author of the forthcoming book My Mother’s Daughter: A Memoir of Struggle and Triumph.

Jim Balsillie

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The prior “normal” for us in the business world is not coming back. The world of work has profoundly changed, much of it permanent. I have gotten used to the tremendous efficiency of doing business digitally, and although I travel comfortably and will not give up flying, it’s going to take some effort to convince me to fly across borders and time zones with the frequency I used to. At the same time, less personal contact will have an impact on deal-making. For business deals, developing in-person relationships, building trust while seeing eye to eye on terms and picking up subtler social nuances in boardrooms are very valuable. Human interplay can be priceless. Once the restrictions are over, my challenge will be to find the best combination of the digital and physical mediums.

On the social front, I think I am going to serve Champagne with every meal, regardless of the time of day, and I plan to enjoy it with gusto. COVID-19 reminds me that breaking bread with friends is a precious occasion, and I think it calls for a new etiquette that purposefully honours our time together.

—Jim Balsillie is a businessman and philanthropist.

Celina Caesar-Chavannes

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As a self-described “trained extrovert,” I appreciate the ability to return to my natural introverted self and stay indoors, away from the hustle and bustle of the real world. The opportunity to work from home, reflect and appreciate family is something I’m not sure I want to give up. I settled so nicely into the “new normal” of the pandemic, why would I want to go back to our old ways of living?

But I cannot forget that the “new normal” is steeped in old ways.

COVID-19 has highlighted disparities that have existed for generations, as racialized communities are further burdened with the disproportionate impact of the sickness and death.

Do we really want to return to a normal that contributed to these inequities? Or do we want better? Is it possible for us to reconnect the fibres of humanity that have been lost through generations of racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia, ableism, xenophobia and other forms of discrimination? Is it possible to not return to normal?

To be honest, I am scared to open the blinds and not see the promise of something new. But while it may be easier to remain snuggly nestled in my introverted dream, the urgency of now demands that some of us keep fighting until the norm becomes better, and the better become justice, and the justice become permanent.

—Celina Caesar-Chavannes is a former member of Parliament and the author of Can You Hear Me Now?: How I Found My Voice and Learned to Live with Passion and Purpose.

Chris Hadfield

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During my third spaceflight, we were physically isolated from Earth for half a year. On the last day, as we hurtled down through the atmosphere and smacked into the Kazakhstan prairie, I realized things had changed. The world had subtly evolved into a new normal; I would have missed the difference if I hadn’t been away. New technologies had been invented and adopted. Some businesses had gone broke, with new ones in their place. Babies had been born. We’d all gotten older. A few friends had passed away. And my family was functioning fine without me.

I’d changed, too. There’d been time to try new things, to introspect, to read and see and learn. I had new songs and stories and perspectives to share. I was a slightly evolved version of myself.

Reconnecting was slower than I expected, and gravity was painful; I felt like I’d time-travelled, somehow. I decided I needed to be patient and learn my way around the new normal. Post-COVID-19, I’m going to pretend my spaceship just landed here and be an explorer. I want to see all the familiar places and faces through new eyes, and use the unexpected time away to help rediscover where I am now. Meld together my old priorities and habits with the clean slate of reinvention.

I will be very happy to see COVID-19 in the past tense, a battle won – but even happier to see the world anew.

—Chris Hadfield is an astronaut and author of the forthcoming thriller The Apollo Murders.

Cory Doctorow

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Once, the thought that kept me up at night was, By the time we recognize the urgency of the climate emergency, we’ll be past the point of no return, and billions of people will lose their lives. After herd immunity, the mission that will keep me up at night will be, Let’s not let those millions of pandemic deaths be for nothing – let’s use them to convince people that we need to orient our civilization’s productive capacity to addressing urgent systemic risks.

COVID-19 proved that the fact that markets can’t solve a problem should not militate against solving it by other means. It showed that market-based pharma, employment, care and travel outcomes may work well, but they fail horribly. It showed us that dismantling state capacity and creating “efficient” industries with no margin of error is a path to profitability – but it is a disaster for resiliency.

When life gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla. The past year has been a nightmare, but the years to come – years of flood and fire, plague and displacement – give me night terrors. As a vaccine inoculates with a denatured exposure to the disease, pandemic was a minute quantity of the coming climate emergency. I plan on honouring our dead by learning from their loss and putting those lessons to use to rescue our future.

—Cory Doctorow’s latest book is Attack Surface.

Joanne Liu

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I don’t believe it’s likely there will be a clean return to the world we had before the pandemic – a world with full mobility and full consumption with no regrets.

Instead, COVID-19 will leave a lasting legacy on our society, as a reality check on the complex ways in which we’ve become so interconnected, interdependent and “inter-vulnerable” with others, with mother Earth and its living ecosystem.

So I will recommit myself to the fundamentals of solidarity and care, in the hopes that we can all return at least to a life where we act and think collectively and individually.

Because of our society’s interconnection, I will travel more mindfully, with enhanced awareness of my risk of becoming a vector of infectious diseases. I will be careful about choosing where and when I travel.

I will live differently by stubbornly ensuring that we learn all the lessons we need so that we are never caught so unprepared again in the event of another pandemic. I have more than 2.5 million reasons worldwide – more than 22,000 reasons in Canada – fuelling this compulsion. These tragic death tolls brought back terrible memories of people dying alone during the Ebola crisis, and these lost lives will drive me to fight fiercely for dignity in death.

In short, I will preciously, fiercely and jealously guard and savour my time with friends and loved ones. I will hug each of them, each time I meet them. I vow never to take that for granted again.

—Joanne Liu is a physician and the former international president of Médecins sans frontières.

Donovan Woods

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A friend of mine and I have a joke for whenever a songwriting session leads somewhere uninspiring: “I would’ve rather stared at a wall all afternoon – I might’ve thought of something cool.” Songwriting is just about creating ideas, after all. One good one can literally change your life.

That was in the Before Times, when I was averaging about a flight per week, travelling to songwriting opportunities and playing concerts. It was exhausting, not to mention environmentally reprehensible.

At the beginning of last year, just before the pandemic was declared, I remember reading about the daily routines of a few famous writers. It read like fantasy to me: long, languid mornings, mugs of tea, watching the sun rise over duck ponds, calmly creating space for the words to arrive. I read, transfixed, while shoving a soft pretzel into my mouth at Chicago O’Hare. These are real artists, I thought.

Then the pandemic struck, and 2020 gave me time to have a process. I was able to sit and think about songs in a way I haven’t before. I rented a little studio. It’s beside a coffee shop. I spend time quietly making music alone. Sometimes it’s music for other artists, and sometimes it’s for a TV show. More often, these days, it’s for me.

Listen: I have three kids, I got divorced once, and when this thing starts back up, I’m gone. I have to get back to work. But I know now that on the other side of this, I need to make ample time for myself – to sit, stare at the wall and hopefully think of something cool.

Donovan Woods’s latest album is Without People.

How Globe staff spent the pandemic’s first year

In March of 2020, nearly everyone at The Globe and Mail began working remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We caught up with some of the team to hear how their lives changed and what they hope will be different when things return to normal.

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