British Columbia’s pandemic experience through the end of 2020 and into 2021, in photos

JAN. 28, 2021

After enjoying a hard-earned summer reprieve from life under COVID-19, British Columbians watched with despair as the pandemic’s second wave struck in the fall with deadlier force than the first. Now, staggering through the anniversary of its first case with mass vaccination within reach, the province has to push through its greatest challenge yet: pandemic fatigue.

By Rhianna Schmunk. Photos by Ben Nelms.
Photo: Ben Nelms/CBC; Design: Andrew McManus/CBC

Another six months have slipped by in B.C.’s pandemic experience. Daily life is still upended for millions in once-unimaginable ways.

As fall arrived, B.C. saw case counts triple — then triple again and again. The coronavirus raced through communities faster than it did in the spring. The province brought back calculated new restrictions hoping to save an economy on its knees while bringing case counts back down. Still, the shutdowns returned. The virus crept into homes and long-term care facilities, killing more people than it did in the spring. Earlier rituals of hope give way to frustration.

In December, a vaccine finally arrived. But new, dangerously transmissible variants of the virus came, too.

The official advice rang out over and over and over: stay apart, stay home.

Ben Nelms, the staff photojournalist at CBC Vancouver, continued going into the community nearly every day over the past six months to capture our changed ways of working, living and being. These photos are a portion of his work.

The work, still, carries on. As case counts plateau and an extraordinary vaccine campaign carefully begins, B.C. stands exhausted before its next challenge: finding some kind of resolve to push through the grinding fatigue or risk the progress that’s been so dearly paid for.

There is little choice. The only way out, as they say, is through.

Day 185

A group of people play volleyball near Spanish Banks beach in Vancouver on July 30, 2020. (Photo: Ben Nelms/CBC)


July 30, 2020

As July ends, B.C. is buoyed by a brilliant, blue-sky heatwave. On July 29, just as families prepare for the upcoming long weekend, provincial officials announce most children will be returning to school full-time in early September. Teachers, parents and advocates say details about the return are scant or, at best, vague and contradictory. The teachers’ federation says the sudden announcement is premature.

Day 186

Muslims give prayer during the start of Eid al-Adha, the second of two Islamic holidays celebrated each year at Al Masjid Al Jamia in Vancouver. (Photo: Ben Nelms/CBC)


July 31, 2020

The very end of the month marks Eid al-Adha, one of Islam’s most revered festivals. The four-day celebration traditionally begins on the morning of the first day with the Eid prayer and continues with feasts, gifts and time spent with loved ones.

It begins this year with worshippers waiting in line for scarce space inside the mosque, while others simply lay down prayer blankets at the front steps. Some find spaces in open, grassy areas to hear leaders recite the Takbir.

Day 199

Shawn Kumar and his mother Sadhana Kumar visit Sadhana’s mother Manik Shanta at Normanna living care centre in Burnaby, B.C., on Aug. 13, 2020. (Photo: Ben Nelms/CBC)


Aug. 13, 2020

Visits have begun again at long-term care facilities across the province. For residents, it’s the first time they’ve seen somebody they love in the flesh for six months. The visits are brief, with broken conversation through thick partitions of glass or Plexiglas — a wave, a smile, fingers touching different sides of the same pane.

Still, it’s something.

Day 205

Friends and families meet at the Canada-U.S. border along 0 Avenue in Langley, B.C., on Aug. 19, 2020. (Photo: Ben Nelms/CBC)


Aug. 19, 2020

Families and companions separated by the closure of the U.S.-Canada border continue to meet across the shallow ditches and clunky medians of the boundary. The virus lurks in the lulls in conversation, no matter how hard one tries to avoid bringing it up. With the virus raging out of control south of the border, it’s clear more satisfying reunions are further away than ever.

Day 210

People wait in line at a COVID-19 testing facility in Burnaby, B.C., on Aug. 12, 2020. (Photo: Ben Nelms/CBC)


Aug. 24, 2020

After weeks of steadily rising case numbers, active cases in B.C. are surging to record highs. The caseload is higher now than it was when B.C. began shutting down in March, but officials say the province is more knowledgeable and better prepared now than it was then. B.C. should be able to fight smarter, not harder.

An RCMP officer adjusts a sign at a COVID-19 testing facility in Burnaby, B.C. on Aug. 12, 2020. (Photo: Ben Nelms/CBC)

Day 227

Students line up outside LA Matheson Secondary School in Surrey, B.C., on the first day of term on Sept. 10, 2020. (Photo: Ben Nelms/CBC)


Sep. 10, 2020

Excitement. Anxiety. Readiness — or not. A first day of school unlike any other arrives in B.C.

Parents who have been telling their kids to stay apart and stay outdoors for months now explain the return to the classroom as best they can. They feel pinched between a rock and a hard place: risking physical health by sending their children to school, or risking mental health and emotional and developmental delays by keeping them home.

Grade 9 students (from left) Ahsen Khan, Harman Atwal and Shavi Gopal at LA Matheson Secondary School on the first day of term. (Photo: Ben Nelms/CBC)

The return to classes feels like a bold, here-goes-everything leap toward normal in a world that is still anything but.

Heightening the unease, hazy smoke from wildfires in Washington state drifts north and blots out the sky in southern B.C. Classroom windows, meant to stay open to circulate air, have to be pulled shut.

Smoke from wildfires in Washington state shroud English Bay in Vancouver on Sept. 16, 2020. (Photo: Ben Nelms/CBC)

Day 234

British Columbia Health Minister Adrian Dix looks over documents before providing an update on the COVID-19 pandemic in the province on Sept. 17, 2020. (Photo: Ben Nelms/CBC)


Sep. 17, 2020

With the first day of fall just around the corner, the infection curve continues to move in the wrong direction. The “safe six” rule used as a guideline for acceptable social gatherings is still the province’s go-to, but active cases are surging past old records. Hospitalizations creep upward. The outbreaks are still being driven by 20- and 30-somethings living in the Lower Mainland, but cases are now spilling into older, more vulnerable populations.

Day 253

B.C. Liberals Leader Andrew Wilkinson on the campaign trail at Bee Haven Childcare Centre in North Vancouver, B.C., on Oct. 9, 2020. (Photo: Ben Nelms/CBC)


Oct. 6, 2020

As B.C. keeps an anxious eye on case counts, there’s an election campaign underway. Candidates do their best to sell themselves — while some sabotage themselves — on Zoom. Masked canvassers knock on doors and then quickly take a few steps back. Organizers assure the public it’s safe to cast a ballot.

Day 263

Doctors at the South Hill Family Health Centre provide flu vaccines to their patients in their underground parkade in Vancouver on Oct. 16, 2020. (Photo: Ben Nelms/CBC)


Oct. 16, 2020

The province launches its annual campaign to encourage people to get the flu shot, with higher stakes than ever before. Health experts across the country fear the typical winter flu season will coincide with the second wave of COVID-19, creating a “twindemic” certain to overwhelm the system.

Day 266

People walk past a mural in Vancouver on Oct. 19, 2020. (Photo: Ben Nelms/CBC)


Oct. 19, 2020

After weeks of rising cases, rising hospitalizations and higher death tolls, Henry concedes B.C. — once hailed across the nation and abroad for its control over the virus — is being engulfed by a second wave of COVID-19. Cases are tripling for the second time in three months, with more than 150 new infections tallied every day.

Day 271

NDP Leader John Horgan at his campaign headquarters in Vancouver on Oct. 24, 2020, shortly after his party was projected to form a majority government in B.C. (Photo: Ben Nelms/CBC)


Oct. 24, 2020

Premier John Horgan is re-elected for a historic second term and will continue to lead the provincial government as it responds to the pandemic, voters having chosen to stick with what they’ve got. For all the effort to get people to vote, the population is detached: Turnout was the lowest for a provincial election in nearly 100 years.

Day 276

A Fraser Health COVID-19 testing centre in Surrey, B.C., on Oct. 29, 2020. (Photo: Ben Nelms/CBC)


Oct. 29, 2020

The “safe six” rule that survived September is snuffed out as the daily number of new cases approaches the 300 marker. More than half of all identified cases across B.C. are in the Fraser Health region, despite it only making up a third of the province’s population. At a grim afternoon briefing, provincial officials tell a story about a woman in her 80s who died because she went to a birthday party with fewer than 10 people in the same house.

Day 277

A Halloween display outside a fireworks store in Vancouver on Oct. 30, 2020. (Photo: Ben Nelms/CBC)


Oct. 30, 2020

While the majority of the public is falling into line to get a handle on the virus, some lose patience and choose a different path. Halloween revellers who’ve had enough of a paused life flock to the streets, to parties, to each other. People who continue to stay home are incensed by photos of sloppy hugs and wide smiles from people breaking rules written and unwritten.

Day 285

John Butler at home in Langley, B.C., holding a photo of his daughter Olivia Dalton, who died of a fentanyl overdose. (Photo: Ben Nelms/CBC)


Nov. 7, 2020

After the pandemic brought daily life to a standstill in B.C., the ongoing overdose crisis in the province took a steep turn for the worse. Everything about the pandemic — the loss, the isolation, even the closed borders — not only pushed many people toward an ever-poisonous drug supply, but also pushed many of them there alone.

More than 1,500 people would die of an illicit drug overdose by the end of November, more than three times the number of people killed by COVID-19.

Day 287

John Wilvers visits his mother Elizabeth Jeppesen, 94, who tested positive for COVID-19 at her residence in the Tabor Home assisted living centre in Abbotsford, B.C., on Nov. 18, 2020. (Photo: Ben Nelms/CBC)


Nov. 9, 2020

Desperate to bring the second wave under control, provincial officials abruptly announce new restrictions on daily life in Lower Mainland that bring the region back to a familiar place. People who live in the Vancouver Coastal and Fraser Health regions aren’t allowed to see anybody outside their households, leading to confusion about what defines a household in an era of blended families and non-traditional relationships. 

Hospitalizations hit levels not seen since the spring. The premier warns the entire province could return to the lockdown life they had in March if case numbers don’t come down.

Day 291

Skiers and snowboarders on the opening day at Cypress Mountain ski resort in West Vancouver, B.C., on Nov. 13, 2020. (Photo: Ben Nelms/CBC)


Nov. 13, 2020

A new round of modelling shows cases in B.C. are on track to double every 13 days if the public does not change its behaviour. As cases skyrocket in the Fraser Health region in November, officials point to how transmission can happen in large, multi-generational households — even if people stick to the “household” rule. Meanwhile, mountain resorts desperate to recoup last year’s financial losses open their hills, drawing in scores of people looking for something to do.

Day 297

A dancer has her hair and makeup done prior to performing in the Nutcracker for Goh Ballet’s production, which was filmed this year instead of performed live due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo: Ben Nelms/CBC)


Nov. 19, 2020

Henry relents on one of the longest-standing debates of the pandemic, ordering masks be worn inside every public space in the province. Many who have been masked for months wonder about the delay. Meanwhile, the “household” rule for socializing is expanded to the rest of the province.

Just as during the first wave, long-term care homes continue to be hardest hit by surging cases.

An outbreak at the Tabor Home residence in Abbotsford sickens more than 100 people, becoming the largest outbreak at a long-term care home in the province since the pandemic began.

Day 312

People wearing face masks walk near Main and Hastings streets in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside neighbourhood on Dec. 4, 2020. (Photo: Ben Nelms/CBC)


Dec. 4, 2020

Crawling through a time that feels impossibly dark, the country hits a bright spot: A fully tested, clinically authorized vaccine is approved for use in Canada. Federal officials say the vials will arrive within days, kickstarting an enormous immunization campaign to beat down a disease that has killed more than 12,000 people nationwide.

People living in long-term care — the population most vulnerable to and most devastated by the virus — are first in line for the shots.

Day 325

A body is removed on a gurney from the Little Mountain Place long-term care centre in Vancouver on Dec. 17, 2020. (Photo: Ben Nelms/CBC)


Dec. 17, 2020

Another outbreak in a long-term care home sets an unbearable record. Nearly every one of the 114 people living at Little Mountain Place in Vancouver has tested positive for the virus by mid-December. More than 40 have died.

Families say visitors were still welcome after the virus was detected inside the home, group activities went ahead, and residents wandered the halls. After dozens of similar stories emerge from B.C.’s long-term care system, the outcry over Little Mountain and a lack of transparency from health authorities prove to be a tipping point: The seniors’ advocate promises to investigate what went wrong.

There are now more than 10,000 active cases across the province. Daily case counts are falling slowly, but since the full effects of the virus take weeks to materialize, the number of people in intensive care units and the number of people dying reaches its highest level yet.

Day 330

People wait in line for their COVID-19 vaccine in Vancouver on Dec. 22, 2020. (Photo: Ben Nelms/CBC)


Dec. 22, 2020

B.C. begins giving its first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. The colossal effort is not without bumps in the road: The vaccine needs to be kept at very cold temperatures; first and second doses need to happen within a short time frame in order for the vaccine to be effective; and almost as soon as the vaccinations get started, the federal government says fresh shipments have stalled and the entire immunization schedule is thrown off.

Still, the fact that immunizations are happening is enough for the population to indulge in daydreams that life as we knew it might actually be on its way back. It’s months away, but those moments offer more hope than many have had in a long time.

Day 332

An employee of The Pie Hole hands over an order to a customer in line at their location on West 4th Street in Vancouver on Dec. 24, 2020. (Photo: Ben Nelms/CBC)


Dec. 24, 2020

Desperate to preserve some semblance of the holiday season after a harrowing year, families contort tradition to fit the pandemic mould. Homes are quieter, dinner tables are emptier and too many people are missing from too many homes — the spaces we can’t fill in a season meant to feel most full. Still, people adapt; bend, so they don’t break.

Day 339

Travellers are pictured outside international arrivals at YVR International Airport in Richmond, B.C., on Dec. 31, 2020. (Photo: Ben Nelms/CBC)


Dec. 31, 2020

The world says goodbye to 2020. Millions ringing in the new year are arguably happier to be punting the last 12 months out the door than they are to be welcoming the incoming year. Some don’t bother staying up until midnight, eager to wake up in a different time.

Day 350

A woman walks in front of a mural near Victoria Street in Vancouver on Jan. 18, 2021. (Photo: Ben Nelms/CBC)

1,000 LOST

Jan. 11, 2021

As the pandemic stretches toward Year 2, B.C. passes an unbearable milestone: More than 1,000 people are now confirmed to have died from COVID-19. They leave behind families, friends and lives not fully lived in their final months. People living in B.C.’s long-term, assisted-living or independent-living homes account for nearly two-thirds of those killed.

Day 364

Students are pictured on a school bus after classes end at Earl Marriott Secondary School in Surrey, B.C., on Jan. 4, 2021. (Photo: Ben Nelms/CBC)


Jan. 25, 2021

The number of new cases in B.C. has plateaued at around 500 new cases every day. It’s still too high. The shortage of vaccines, coupled with several highly infectious variants of the coronavirus, leaves the province at risk of repeating the surges of October and November. Henry asks the province to cut down on what’s left of daily life and “do more” — leaving many wondering what “more” they can possibly do.

Day 365

Demonstrators take part in a rally in support of Indian farmers outside the Indian consulate in Vancouver on Jan. 26, 2021. (Photo: Ben Nelms/CBC)

365 DAYS

Jan. 26, 2020

It has been 365 days since B.C.’s first case of COVID-19 was reported, 10 months since the provincial emergency began, 70 days since hundreds of thousands of people have had a proper hug. If B.C. plays its cards right, it could be looking at the beginning of the end of a marathon nobody signed up for, nobody trained for and nobody wanted to run. The map to the finish line is clear.

It has been a year.

“We must never forget how far we have come by working together. Over the past months, we have all made sacrifices for the health of our families and communities, and now more than ever we need to hold the line and stop transmission of COVID-19 as our vaccination program ramps up.”
B.C. Minister of Health Adrian Dix

One Year In


Photography by Ben Nelms

Written by Rhianna Schmunk
Edited by Jan Zeschky

Designed by Andrew McManus

Senior Producer
Andrew McManus

Ben Nelms

Rhianna Schmunk
Jan Zeschky

Special Thanks
Franny Karlinsky