It has been six months since officials announced B.C.’s first case of COVID-19. Daily life has been upended for millions, in ways both immense and intimate.
Public health officials said the best way to fight the coronavirus that causes the disease was to stay apart and stay home.
We lost connection. Libraries. Community hubs. Support centres. Shelters. Food banks. Ice rinks. Pools. Parks. Open courthouses. Restaurants. Bars. Small businesses of all kinds. Schools at every level. Access to surgeries and therapies to ease pain. Free travel. Stable income.
Coffee with a friend. Hugs. Sports. Concerts. Proms. Birthday parties. Places of worship. Weddings. Births with families in the room.
One month turned into two, then three.
Epidemiologists say those sacrifices paid off, more so than it did for many similar jurisdictions around the world. The province flattened the curve of infections and began a gradual reopening process in May. A province of just over five million, B.C. has reported just over 3,300 new cases in six months, or 0.066 per cent of the population. Fewer than 200 people have died.
During the past six months of uncertainty and anxiety, Ben Nelms, the staff photojournalist at CBC Vancouver, went out into the community to capture our changed way of working, living and being nearly every day. These photos are a portion of his work.
The work of the pandemic carries on, as the province now fights something new: keeping the resurgent virus in check following a case spike in July.
After weeks of tracking developments overseas, provincial officials confirm a mysterious new virus causing fever and respiratory illness in hundreds of people throughout Asia has reached British Columbia. A local man who took a business trip to Wuhan City, China, tested positive for the novel coronavirus after returning home to B.C.’s South Coast.
Officials are studying growing evidence showing the virus can be transmitted from person to person, although it is still not clear how easily or how sustainably.
Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry says the province is well prepared for the virus, also called 2019-nCoV, and stresses the risk of spread in the province is low.
The B.C. Centre for Disease Control is working around the clock to test dozens of people for the novel coronavirus. Dr. Henry says the lab, which quickly developed its own diagnostic test for the virus in January, is “stretched” by the sudden workload but processing samples as fast as possible before sending them to a national laboratory in Winnipeg for a second confirmation test.
More than 100 people are tested for the virus by Jan. 31. Henry says only one was positive. She promises weekly updates on testing, but says the risk is still low.
With only a handful of cases confirmed in B.C., life continues as normal for most of the province in early February. Officials start encouraging people to wash their hands thoroughly multiple times a day, while working behind the scenes to secure protective gear and materials for tests. Most British Columbians watch the worst of the pandemic unfold overseas — and on the sea. Cases of the virus aboard the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship reach 450, including 32 Canadians. Federal officials work to bring home Canadians in China, where around 60 million people are under lockdown, to prevent the virus from spreading further.
On Feb. 11, the respiratory disease caused by the virus gets its official name from the World Health Organization (WHO): COVID-19, an acronym for the coronavirus disease of 2019, the year the virus was first identified.
A man in his 80s who caught the virus at a nursing home in North Vancouver, B.C., becomes the first person in Canada to die after being diagnosed with COVID-19. The Lynn Valley Care Centre would be ravaged by an outbreak of the disease. The devastation to the elderly brings Dr. Henry to tears during a news conference on March 7.
Long-term care homes from B.C. to Ontario and Quebec would become flash points for lethal COVID-19 outbreaks, marking a grim chapter in Canada’s experience of the pandemic.
The WHO announces the spread of the novel coronavirus is now a global pandemic, and urges countries to launch an all-out war on the virus through rigorous testing, tracking, training and treatment.
A few private schools in B.C. close, large events are cancelled and medical professionals begin preparing for the possibility that medical resources could be stretched thin.
Dr. Henry reiterates the value of rigorous handwashing — “like you've been chopping jalapenos and you need to change your contacts” — physical distancing, protecting more vulnerable populations, and regularly monitoring one’s health for symptoms.
She begins holding news conferences six days a week, as the pandemic dominates the news.
In a single day, professional sports seasons including basketball, baseball and hockey are suspended. Concerts and events are cancelled. Large gatherings are banned. More schools shut down. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife, Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau, go into isolation after she is confirmed to have COVID-19. Officials tell Canadians abroad to come home and stay home as travel falls into chaos. Stocks tank. Cruises are out of the question. B.C. has officially banned gatherings of more than 250 people.
Life transforms faster than messages can fly between friends and family on one Wednesday evening. The pandemic, for many, begins to feel uncomfortably real.
Dr. Henry would later say, “the world changed on March 12.”
The limit on gatherings in B.C. shrinks from 250 to 50. Any business, public space or event that can’t accommodate the rule is shut down. More than 30,000 non-essential surgeries are cancelled to free up hospital space.
The social landscape in many B.C. communities changes to encourage social distancing, a public health practice of avoiding crowds and large gatherings to slow the spread of a virus.
Health officials across the country say the goal is to avoid swamping the health-care system with COVID-19 patients. The intervention is known as "flattening the curve.”
Canada further seals itself off from the rest of the world, announcing its borders will soon close for non-essential travel to nearly everyone who isn’t a Canadian citizen or permanent resident — though the U.S. border stays open.
Thousands of British Columbians begin to work from home as provincial officials tell everyone to stay in their residences as much as possible. Commuter traffic evaporates and city centres grow eerily quiet. Businesses close, one after the other after the other.
Panic-buying and hoarding begins. Toilet paper is, inexplicably, one of the first commodities snatched up from supermarket shelves.
Every school across the province is closed to hinder the spread of the virus, further upending the lives of 500,000 schoolchildren and their families. Students from kindergarten through Grade 12 are sent home indefinitely. No one has a date for when schools might reopen, leading to fears younger children will fall behind on the development of academic fundamentals and social skills. Older ones worry they will miss milestones like graduation day.
With campuses also closed, many university students move back in with their parents to tackle the first phase of adulthood from their childhood bedrooms.
Parents at home, mostly women, scramble to balance the roles of employee, caregiver and teacher’s assistant. Some face the prospect of layoffs as the economy falls apart.
Vancouver shuts down bars and restaurants across the city to stop St. Patrick’s Day from becoming an epidemiological disaster.
Officials declare a provincewide state of emergency. This allows the province to enact any measures needed to respond to, or lessen the impact of, an emergency situation.
Canada and the United States announce they have agreed to close their border to non-essential travel. Truck drivers as well as airplane and ship crews are still allowed to move across the border without going into isolation, but trips for shopping, visits and vacations are no longer allowed. It is the first time the shared border has been closed in this way since Confederation. Not even the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, closed the border.
Provincial officials ban all dine-in operations for restaurants, bars, lounges, breweries and other places to eat and drink, depriving British Columbians of another avenue for socializing and stress relief. The restaurant, hospitality and tourism industries face financial disaster.
The border closure between Canada and the U.S. takes effect at midnight on March 21. Canadian federal officials say people seeking asylum here will be turned away.
Loneliness and solitude are two different things. So learn countless British Columbians who live alone during the first weeks and months of isolation. Public health officials say people should only spend time with members of their own household, but many people have no one. Some don’t speak a word out loud for hours at a time. Many would go months without touching another human being, even for a simple hug.
Still, tales emerge of spontaneous solo dance parties, unprecedented culinary innovations in the kitchen and an unexpected sense of connection over the shared pandemic experience. Loneliness and solitude, as it turns out, can co-exist.
Playgrounds across the province become a stark symbol of how children’s lives have changed during the pandemic. Swings, slides and monkey bars are wrapped in yellow caution tape like the kind used at crime scenes. Some parents tell their kids the parks are broken just because it’s easier.
In the city, noise has disappeared. Bustling streets are empty. Fewer planes roar overhead. The hum of sidewalk chatter is gone. Music from restaurants and businesses no longer spills onto thoroughfares. The hush makes cities feel like places where one isn’t supposed to be.
For many, trips to the grocery store have become one of the only errands for which they leave the house. Shoppers are kept separated by traffic cones, wooden pallets and plastic bins as they wait to reach the aisles. For some, being close begins to feel unnatural; crowds make the heart race. Some realize they’ve started holding their breath as others pass by.
British Columbia confirms its 1,000th case of COVID-19. Provincial officials say there is “zero” chance that physical distancing orders will be lifted before May, wiping out any last hopes of a quick return to pre-pandemic life.
Businesses, closed indefinitely, begin covering storefronts with plywood to ward off thieves.
Families across the province dip into savings or borrow cash to pay bills as a new month begins in a frozen economy. Both provincial and federal officials say billions in financial aid should be flowing to the public as soon as possible, but help has not arrived in time for countless renters and landlords.
The psychological consequences of isolation sink in for many families. Public health experts warn a wave of mental illness will be the second pandemic, as daily doses of isolation, uncertainty and fear lead to potential trauma for the entire population.
The infection curve in British Columbia begins to show signs of flattening by early April due to a combination of luck, timing and calculated health measures. The news offers a glimmer of hope to a province longing to know whether their sacrifices have been a success.
Much of B.C. sees a blast of warm, spectacular spring weather. Provincial parks will soon close to ensure travellers don’t undermine the health-care progress.
Sundays without church. Ramadan without mosques. Sins without confession, unabsolved. At a time in which many turn to faith as a salve, religious leaders adapt as gatherings become impossible.
Church moves online. Calls to prayer are broadcast over loudspeakers. Catholic priests hear confessions in the parkade.
The pandemic highlights the struggle and heroism of health-care workers. British Columbians take a moment at 7 p.m. each evening to applaud, cheer, sing, bang pots and proclaim their gratitude to staff on the front lines: doctors, nurses, lab technicians, anesthesiologists, hospital administrators, pharmacists, paramedics, security guards, cleaning staff and all the other people endangering themselves and their families to keep others healthy.
To them, lives are owed.
More than 100,000 seafarers in Canadian ports have become trapped on their ships, unable to come to land, as their home countries continue to lock travellers out. Some workers will have already been on their respective ships for nine months, cooped up away from their families with incessant vibration, noise and poor-quality food. Many crews have no choice but to sign contract extensions instead of doing a crew change, meaning another months-long stint confined to their ships.
British Columbians are developing as much of a semblance of routine as they can after more than a month under coronavirus restrictions. The number of new cases and hospitalizations solidifies in a downward trend throughout April, easing one factor in the population’s anxiety. Hundreds of thousands of people watch Dr. Henry’s briefings when they air daily at 3 p.m.
Loved ones separated by the closure of the Canada-U.S. border find a way to stay close: 0 Avenue. A grassy verge beside the road that runs along the 49th parallel offers a place to chat, joke, exchange notes and see each other in the flesh. Visitors can talk, but are not allowed to reach across and touch.
Margaret Houston, a veteran of the Second World War, celebrates her 102nd birthday under pandemic restrictions. Dozens of beaming neighbours hang from their balconies in Houston’s West End apartment complex, while the Vancouver Police Department’s Mounted Squad show up on horseback.
Many other British Columbians improvise to celebrate milestones and socialize, throwing drive-by birthday parties for kids and organizing convoys for new retirees. Tailgate parties, block parties and driveway beers — all seem to have gained a new life.
Thousands of children in British Columbia dependent on school meal programs have been going without after schools were closed, with no replacement measures to keep kids fed. To compensate, volunteers gather carefully in abandoned school auditoriums and empty gyms to help pack lunches for families and students in need.
As May begins, the number of new cases of COVID-19 continue to drop in B.C. Officials begin hinting at a plan to relax the rules put in place two months earlier. More people begin stepping out of the house. Dr. Henry is able to stop holding news conferences six days a week.
It’s a bright day in B.C.: Provincial officials say the curve has flattened enough, and consistently enough, to allow gatherings of two to six people — as long as no guests have symptoms of COVID-19. They clear the way for hugs with family, small dinner parties and backyard barbecues in time for the Victoria Day long weekend. Schools will soon be allowed to reopen on a part-time, voluntary basis. Elective surgeries will start up again.
For a moment, during a press conference announcing the latest way of life, Dr. Henry beams. B.C. has become one of the best jurisdictions in Canada, and the world, at slowing the spread of COVID-19.
Workers began to carefully take down plywood boards, adorned with murals, as businesses prepare to reopen in mid-May. The transition brings deep anticipation, but apprehension and anxiety are still very real.
Parents, administrators and children begin to prepare for schools to reopen on June 1, though some children of essential service workers have been back in the classroom for weeks. For those students, foam pool noodles and hula hoops have been used to remind kids to stay apart. Hand sanitizer is everywhere. For teachers, figuring out how to work under the weight of a pandemic is likened to “building the airplane as [you] fly it.”
The testing area at the B.C. Centre for Disease Control’s central laboratory in Vancouver is one of several sites in Canada racing to evaluate serology tests in an effort to better understand whether people who have been infected with COVID-19 are immune to the virus once they get better.
Medical lab technologists work quietly against the whir of machinery, handling samples that could inform the province's pandemic response. They’re trying to answer what one clinical microbiologist described as “the million-dollar question.”
B.C.’s reopening plan is cleared to begin after more than two months of restricted life. Businesses, restaurants and other personal-service shops carefully welcome customers back under stringent guidelines. Provincial officials say a flare-up of cases is possible as people begin to interact more outside the home. Anxiety, as has become normal, is high.
The space between people came to occupy a new space in our collective consciousness in the first months of the pandemic: It isolated us, depressed us, endangered us, spared us and saved us.
Ten days into Phase 2, more people are stepping out gingerly for a drink or a meal for the first time in months. Life starts seeping back into the streets. Friends plan physically distanced visits, jilted couples plan new weddings to fit the current reality and families begin pushing to restore visitation with seniors in care homes.
Classrooms reopen for the final three weeks of the calendar school year with a mix of apprehension, frustration and relief. No one knows how or if it is going to work; many aren’t ready to try.
Thousands of people gather in downtown Vancouver to demonstrate against police brutality and racial injustice, spurred by the May 2020 death of Minnesota man George Floyd and others at the hands of police in the U.S. and Canada. Despite massive crowds, provincial officials would later confirm no cases of COVID-19 were associated with the protests.
Peace Arch Park, an internationally shared space straddling the Canada-U.S. border, has become a loophole for loved ones separated by the pandemic. Canadians and Americans roam freely through the park, and even marry there, as long as they leave again through their respective sides of the border.
The number of new cases remains largely static across B.C. in the first weeks of June, as they had done in May, which means the province is inching toward Phase 3 of its reopening plan.
Parts of life begin to feel more normal for many than they have in months. Others are struggling with how they will rebuild their finances. More than 353,000 jobs were lost provincewide since the beginning of the pandemic, with more than 30 per cent of those losses affecting young people.
The pandemic has taken the final weeks of high school away from thousands of graduating students. There is no prom. No last hugs. No grand goodbye. Only a quiet end.
Administrators, families and communities try to commemorate the graduates as best they can. Some schools hold physically distant ceremonies, where a small number of students cross the stage at a time. Others can only graduate virtually.
Seniors in nursing homes across the province are able to see their family again as non-essential visits are partially reinstated. For many of the elderly, it’s the first time they've seen somebody they love in more than three months.
The province rolls into Phase 3 of its reopening plan on June 24, which means “careful,” smart travel is now allowed within the province. For those staying in the city, outdoor space in the form of backyards, community parks and local beaches have become havens during the pandemic. Public spaces become infinitely more valuable for those living in urban centres who don’t have their own green space at home.
Health officials warn that complacency with physical distancing, handwashing and other health measures will undo all of B.C.’s progress. They say the virus will prowl across the province for months to come.
Dr. Bonnie Henry has become a household name, acclaimed nationwide and abroad for her humility and compassion as she led B.C. to flatten its curve and launch its initial reopening.
The “Murals of Gratitude” exhibition Henry visits stands just several kilometres from the building in which she confirmed the first case of COVID-19 in B.C. in January, six months and, for many, what seems like a lifetime ago.
The mask she wears at the visit is a play on her trademark phrase: “This is our time to be kind, to be calm, and to be safe.”
Friday nights are different under Phase 3. Seeing a movie at a theatre, singing karaoke with friends, watching live music and mingling at the bar are all back on the table, along with — as we are all intimately aware — a number of restrictions.
It’s the closest to normal British Columbians have been for some time. The province will not enter the final phase of its reopening plan until there is a vaccine, community immunity or an effective treatment to tackle COVID-19.
The goal, in the meantime, is to avoid slipping backwards.
After weeks of steadiness, the number of active cases of COVID-19 in B.C. triples in the first two weeks of July. The sudden spike is linked mostly to a group of asymptomatic people who spread the coronavirus at a number of parties around tourist-laden Kelowna on and around Canada Day. The new cases skew younger, cropping up in people who are primarily in their 20s and 30s.
Provincial officials begin pleading with young people across the province to stay in line with the rules. B.C. can't afford a carefree summer.
Photography by Ben Nelms
Written by Rhianna Schmunk
Edited by Jan Zeschky
Designed by Andrew McManus
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