What’s your pandemic start date, and what will be your end date?

OPINION: The first news from Wuhan. The NBA shutdown. The WHO declaration. We probably all have our own markers for when COVID-19 began — one of mine is Costco
By Matt Gurney - Published on Mar 11, 2021
Shoppers at the Thorncliffe Park Costco in Toronto on September 6, 2020. (Rachel Verbin/CP)

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We are all set for a barrage of one-year-later pieces in the days and week (or so) to come. This is, I suppose, one of those pieces.

Thursday is the one-year mark of the World Health Organization declaring COVID-19 a pandemic. It will be marked as such in proclamations and at events all over the world. But that’s silly, in a way. The WHO was intensely criticized for its delay in making official what had already become plainly obvious. We are marking the one-year mark of a weirdly delayed recognition.

Indeed, if we are honest, there is no firm start date for COVID-19. To the best of our knowledge, it emerged in or around Wuhan in late 2019, began circulating in that city in December of that year, became a big enough problem to get noticed globally in January, got really noticed when China sealed the city off from the outside world, and began popping up all over the globe in February. At least for us North Americans, the bottom pretty much fell out of everything in March. You could make a damn good case for almost any date in February or the first half of March being the first day of all this, at least for us in Ontario. You could also argue for dates in January or February, too.

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When it comes to picking the start date, we each probably have our own marker. I have a few, actually, and I’ve never really settled on which one counts as the real one. I began writing about the risk in January. I did my first major “just-in-case” shopping trip in February. Are those my starts?

Or was it later, when concern became certainty? One of the underappreciated little miracles of the modern age is that our communication is mostly digital and so is therefore largely indexed and searchable. As I contemplated the approaching one-year mark of all this, I recalled an email I’d sent to a friend. We’d been talking about the situation for some time, and I wrote her one night to say, “OK, yeah … I think this is actually going to happen.” I popped into my email this week, looked it up, and checked the date. That was March 3, 2020. Maybe that’s my date.

But there’s another. My wife’s school has a March break that is out of sync with the rest of Ontario’s, so we were travelling abroad in early March. In my email to that friend, I specifically noted that I thought we still had a few weeks until things really popped and that I was confident — though it was a risk — that we’d be able to get our vacation in and get home safe before it all went to rat poop. That ended up being exactly what happened: if we’d waited for the regular March break week, the trip never would have happened. Since we were early, we had just enough time to head south and back for our 14-day quarantine. We landed in Toronto on March 14, just as things were really getting weird, and discovered, as I wrote for the National Post at the time, that there was an awful lotta daylight between what the federal government claimed it was doing at the airports and what was actually happening.

We waltzed through Pearson like we owned the place and grabbed our bags and went home to isolate without incident for two weeks. Our 14-day isolation ended up lasting 138 days.

So March 14 has been “the day” for me all along. But looking through my photos from a year ago, I was struck by a strange coincidence. One of the last things I did before leaving on that trip was a final Costco run. This was well before the big panic hit, wiping out canned soup and toilet-paper supplies — that came a few weeks after we left for down south. I remember noticing, very clearly, that the Costco was packed. I’d very specifically chosen an off-hour to do my shopping, but the place was still a madhouse. I’d never seen it that busy. After I’d paid my tab, I turned around and snapped a picture of the crowd. I’d already done my “panic” shop a few weeks before, so this one was just to load up on some bulk stuff and complete the checklist, as it were. It was clear to me that day that a lot of people had caught up to where I’d been weeks ago and were doing their panic shop. That day is a candidate, too — the day I realized other people were getting nervous.

Those are just my candidates. For a lot of people, the big moment seems to have been when the NBA and NHL cancelled their games — in the NBA’s case, rather suddenly. Each of us probably has their own date in mind of when this “began.” And now, or at least soon, we’ll probably have a day in mind when it ends.

And that’s where the coincidence comes in. That Costco photo I have was taken at the Thorncliffe Park location. That very same Costco is one of the Toronto-area outlets that is going to be a distribution centre for Ontario’s allotment of AstraZeneca vaccine. Approved at this time only for Ontarians between the ages of 60 and 65, and with a relatively short shelf life for this shipment, there is an urgent need to get these vaccines out the door now. Ontario has turned to pharmacies to get these shots into arms, and Costco isn’t just a place to get 47,000 jumbo all-beef hotdogs (per package) and a 10-metric-tonne bottle of body wash. They also have large pharmacies and have joined the effort.

I’m a few decades short of the age cutoff, but you know who are between the ages of 60 and 65? My parents. Throughout this entire pandemic, their safety (and that of other older members of the family) has been my primary focus. My wife and I are young and well out of the high-risk categories. My children would likely shrug COVID-19 off with nary a sniffle. But my parents are just old enough to be at risk. In many ways, my pandemic will end when they get vaccinated.

I’ll still be careful, of course. I’ll wear a mask and sanitize and get my jab, once it’s available. But a huge burden will be lifted from my shoulders when fewer than a dozen people out of Ontario’s many millions — my personal loved ones over the age of 60 — get their shots and are protected.

And there’s a damn good chance that’ll happen at the very same Costco I stopped to snap a picture of when this all was getting started. Our start and end dates for this weird time will be arbitrary, but Costco might end up being an unexpected bookend for my COVID-19 experience … and I suspect there’ll be at least a few others who can say the same.

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