Back in March 2020, how long did you think the pandemic would last?

OPINION: A new study suggests that the mental-health toll on Ontarians was worse in the third wave than the first. That makes sense — and should shape our future planning
By Matt Gurney - Published on Nov 02, 2021
(L-R): Premier Doug Ford, Health Minister Christine Elliott, and Chief Medical Officer David Williams at an announcement declaring a state of emergency on March 17, 2020. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn)



A brief aside, before we get to the meat of the column: around this time last year, I wrote a piece for in which I noted that flu shots were in short supply. Huh, I just looked — it was, in fact, exactly one year ago. Time flies when you’re living through a grinding global nightmare. In any case, for those considering getting a flu shot, I’m happy to report that it was a much smoother process this time. I registered online with one of the big pharma companies that has an outlet nearby and did an online assessment. As I am young, lack any major health conditions, and am not a caregiver for someone with major health conditions, I was deemed lower priority and told I could be jabbed along with the general population on or after November 1. I was also emailed a barcode.

November 1 was Monday, and I popped by the local pharmacy, presented my health card and smartphone (with the barcode loaded), and ... that was it. A nice lady took me into a little room and stabbed me in the arm with a needle, presumably containing flu vaccine. And that was that. She asked me to stick around for 15 minutes in case I passed out or mutated or something, and that had the effect of turning what was on track to be a three-minute stop into an 18-minute stop.

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So, not bad. It really couldn’t have been easier. A vast improvement from last year. Go get vaccinated, people.

And now, back to the rest.

I saw an interesting tweet the other day. I don’t know who it was from; I think it was just a normal random person who went semi-viral. The tweet was a simple question: When this began, how long did you think it would last?

As simple questions sometimes can, this one brought me up short. Not in a bad way, but in the sense of actually having to think about it. I couldn’t precisely recall. I seemed to see it coming sooner than most others did and so made my own mental and physical preparations about a month before the stuff hit the fan (a.k.a. I already had lots of toilet paper when the rest of you were panic-buying it). But that’s the beginning of it, when it ended up arriving in Toronto about two weeks or so sooner than I’d expected. The end? I’m not sure I was even thinking about the end at the beginning.

Probably the best answer I could give was that I didn’t assume it was going to be fast or brief. On March 12, 2020, the Toronto District School Board told parents via email that the schools were closing until April 5. My wife, a teacher herself, began to think about what that was going to mean for our kids. I told her instantly that the school year was done, which she didn’t believe. I think most people were still in the “two weeks to crush the curve” mindset, and for those people, a “long” pandemic would have been four or maybe even a whopping six weeks. By mid-March, I already assumed the school year was lost and was skeptical that we’d have a normal summer. (As it turns out, we did have to cancel a bunch of our more normal events and routines.) Beyond that? I honestly don’t know whether I thought all that far ahead until the first wave was over, and we were into the relatively quiet lull of summer 2020.

All this came to mind on Monday when I read about a new study by McMaster University and the Offord Centre for Child Studies, which reported that the mental-health toll on Ontarians was worse in the third wave than the first. That made immediate intuitive sense for me, probably in no small part because that reflected my own personal experience. I was fairly well prepared for the first, stoic about the second, and positively livid when we stumbled idiotically into the third. It also makes sense purely in terms of human resilience. A lot of emotional tanks would have been near empty by the third wave. I don’t say this to make light of the report’s important work, but, yes, the differing psychological tolls of the various waves were all bad, but by the third, we’d already done two others. All of us knew what lockdowns and school closures were like. Exhausted and weary doesn’t really seem to capture it. Whatever emotional reserves most of us had had been long since exhausted by the time the third wave pushed our hospitals to the brink.

My mind drifted back to that tweet, though. And I began thinking again about our expectations. A lot of work had been done, at least at the theoretical level, to prepare for “the next pandemic.” But a lot of the planning had assumed that we’d be living through another 1918-19 scenario, with a nasty influenza sweeping the globe. That likely would have been a very different experience. I had a chance recently to interview John M. Barry, author of The Great Influenza, one of the essential histories of the Spanish flu. I asked Barry on my SiriusXM satellite radio show how the experience of COVID-19 had matched and differed from what he had expected based on his knowledge of the Spanish flu, and he noted that flus tend to hit harder and faster and then fade. COVID-19 isn’t like that. It does have waves, of course, but it’s not as nearly fast-moving as we expect a flu to be, and it lingers longer. That was probably good at the beginning, because it gave us time to prepare. It’s probably dragging out the ending phase, too, though. There are no free lunches, and all that.

Maybe the epidemiologists and scientists had a better sense of this, but Barry’s comment struck home for me. Consciously or not, I think I also had come to expect a more flu-like pandemic: a fast onset, a rapid catastrophe, and then a fairly swift return to near normal ... for the survivors, at any rate. COVID-19 was different — in some ways probably better, but in other ways probably worse. A flu pandemic might have meant a more devastating initial wave but then a more rapid return to normal. And I honestly don’t know which option is better.

In any case, it didn’t surprise me at all to see that our collective mental health was much worse during the third wave than the first. And it occurs to me that this is probably something we’ll have to plan for: we’ll have to be on guard for new influenzas, of course, but we’ll also have to consider that future pandemics might be much more like COVID-19 — a long, slow burn that gradually wears us down through sheer persistence. That will present our policymakers and public-health leaders with different assumptions and scenarios for planning responses. It will complicate planning, obviously. Yet what other choice is there?

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