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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Photography by Ben Nelms
Written by Rhianna Schmunk
Edited by Jan Zeschky
Designed by Andrew McManus
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