We Can’t Pretend It Didn’t Happen

Covid was, and still is, a global tragedy – yet three years into this pandemic I rarely hear people discussing its lasting impact on humanity. It wasn’t long ago that the novel coronavirus and the threat that it posed consumed our daily newscasts, I watched as briefings from government officials occurred almost daily and we cheered for the doctors and nurses working to the point of exhaustion on the front lines. The most important question now is why aren’t we talking about it anymore?

On the surface many low risk and younger people have resumed their pre-pandemic lives. In the three years since COVID-19 was designated an emergency by the World Health Organization, workers have begun to go back to the office, public health restrictions have lifted and masks are no longer mandatory in most places. For many people there is relief and their lives are starting to resemble the pre-pandemic reality.

But in my opinion, there is now a collective sense of denial, a denying of the suffering that occurred and of the approximately 7 million lives that have been lost globally. At the beginning of the pandemic we were “all in this together” as we faced grief, fear and uncertainty. It was impossible to deny the crisis as we all watched the chaos unfold around us. Our work, health-care, education and economic systems, all of these vital systems we depend on, became destabilized.

I think most people are currently determined to put the trauma in the past and move on. It’s interesting to note that this burying of communal grief happened with Spanish flu, too: Laura Spinney’s book on the 1918 pandemic describes the “collective forgetting” and the absence of official memorials. It was, Spinney explains, remembered “personally, not collectively … as millions of discrete, private tragedies”. Nevertheless, the Spanish flu was as significant – if not more so – as two world wars in shaping the modern world. The 1918 pandemic is now recognized for disrupting, and often permanently altering, global politics— it also transformed race relations, family structures, and thinking across medicine, religion and the arts.

I see history repeating itself with our current pandemic—society in general is enormously reluctant to acknowledge the magnitude of what we’ve been through or to accept that it continues to affect us. Like many cancer survivors, I don’t have the luxury of living in denial, I worry that COVID-19 is still not considered endemic by the Word Health Organization and that I could be vulnerable if I catch the virus. Three years later I’m still not able to resume my pre-pandemic life, I don’t attend public activities without assessing my risk or taking precautions.

What I hope the future will bring.

Although vaccinations, treatments, and prior immunity have made COVID less dangerous for most people, there are still individuals who remain vulnerable, those most in danger are seniors or anyone with a chronic health condition. Ending the COVID-19 public health restrictions has actually made navigating life harder for various groups like cancer patients and the immunocompromised. To me it’s also unfair that most of the burden of COVID-19 advocacy has fallen to us—I’m proud of our small determined alliance that includes cancer patients, those with long covid and those who have lost family members.

In the future I want governments and elected officials to take more responsibility for advocating as they make COVID-19 mitigation a higher priority. Polls suggest that voters don’t particularly care about COVID-19 anymore, but it really needs to be science, not polls, that guides public health. As COVID restrictions were lifted and the pandemic was put on the back burner, in some cases the death toll rose. According to statistics released by Health Canada, 2022 proved to be the deadliest year of the COVID-19 pandemic in Canada. Almost 20,000 Canadians died from COVID-19, that’s close to a 30 per cent increase in fatalities compared to 2021.

I agree with scientific experts that the ability to control respiratory illnesses will be dependent on our ability to improve air quality. This includes measures such as CO2 monitors and air filtration devices. The airborne nature of COVID-19 is a fact not up for debate, the inability of our governments to state that categorically is, I would argue, politically based. Acknowledgement of that fact would make them culpable for their inaction on measures.

As a cancer survivor and someone who remains more vulnerable than most, I’m concerned that governments are gradually giving up their responsibility for protecting us from the virus. I worry that as the emergency winds down, it’s become more challenging to access medical services like free vaccines, COVID-19 tests, and telehealth care. In the United States there’s concern that in the future continued access to these COVID interventions might depend on the individual’s health insurance status.

Going forward, action must also be taken to address the millions of citizens who remain ill or disabled due to COVID, I notice a reluctance by officials to talk about the phenomenon of long covid—there is growing scientific evidence that some patients who have apparently recovered from the virus will face life-long health issues or chronic disabilities. Ultimately, there must be social, medical and financial supports made available to these unacknowledged victims of the pandemic. 

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