Nfld. & Labrador·Weekend Briefing

Make no mistake: COVID-19 is a generation-defining disaster, and it's like nothing else

Massive disasters often happen suddenly and shockingly, and then things gradually improve. This pandemic is nothing like that, writes John Gushue.
An operation of the Spanish Red Cross transfers COVID-19 patients in Huesca, Spain, one of the countries hardest hit by the pandemic. (Alvaro Calvo/Getty Images)

Massive disasters often happen suddenly and shockingly, throwing everything into a tailspin, with confusion reigning and order tossed to the side. Gradually, the smoke clears, and people get their bearings and adjust to a new normal.

Think of 9/11. A day of intense violence and disorder, where it seemed the world literally changed in a few hours. Gradually, things came back to order. The world, somehow, got on with daily life.

COVID-19 is not like this at all. There was no sudden and shocking moment of transformation — it's been building over time, escalating in our part of the world in the last month.

Significantly, the world cannot put itself back in order right now. The worst has not yet happened. We're still in a tornado of chaos.

No one knows when, or how, this pandemic will end.

A turning point 

COVID-19 is just as much of a generation-defining moment as 9/11, and I think will be as significant a social turning point as, say, the Great Depression and the world wars were for older generations.

The 9/11 comparison is striking because we often mark things — like easygoing air travel, for instance — as a "pre-9/11" thing or way of thinking.

At a March 17 briefing at Confederation Building, Health Minister John Haggie and Janice Fitzgerald, the chief medical officer of health, demonstrated a principle of physical distancing. (CBC)

How will our thinking change after this pandemic? How will we behave differently?

COVID-19 is much more of a global phenomenon. Years from now, we'll likely look back and see this as a turning point in world history.

You frequently read and hear people say this was unpredictable. While this specific virus — SARS-CoV-2, the name of the virus that causes COVID-19 — may have been a surprise, there have been global and unmistakable warnings about a pandemic for, well, decades. 

Maybe it's a case of the boy who cried wolf; these warnings (well known to public health officials and better informed officials in public office) became so familiar, they were tacked on the bulletin board of public consciousness and then papered over with something else.

Still, COVID-19 seems to have caught the planet off guard. Stories have been rife around the world: pandemic plans that had become dusty; stockpiles that turned out to have no piles at all; a lack of knowledge on how to mobilize the public quickly before the grimmest statistics of all — deaths — were tallied.

We don't know what's next 

Hindsight will come later, even if armchair experts are content to lay blame now. (It's remarkable how many people on Twitter have lately acquired such expert knowledge on infectious diseases!)

For now, we're still very much living it, and we don't know what's yet to come. We've been told to brace for the worst, even if people don't agree on what exactly that means.

It's significant that people have been decorating their windows with messages of hope and inspiration, because that attitude will be as key as it was, say, during the Second World War. 

Health Minister John Haggie, whose blunt words have been a hallmark of daily briefings for the last three weeks, has been utterly clear that we're still in the early stages of a pandemic whose story is still being written.

"We're at the start of this yet. We have not even hit the surge," Haggie said at Wednesday's briefing.

It's one of those quotes that pops, especially given the zigzagging number of new cases that we've seen. The day before, the number had dropped to four new positives. That very day, though, the number of new cases soared to 23. The overall tally keeps climbing.

Haggie and Janice Fitzgerald, the chief medical officer of health, have not strayed from key messages: stay home. Go outside only for urgent matters. Never visit friends or family. Don't socialize. They've been doing this seven days a week since the crisis began. 

A medical worker wearing a protective mask and suit and a patient suffering from COVID-19 are seen in an intensive-care unit at the Oglio Po hospital in Cremona, Italy. (Flavio Lo Scalzo/Reuters)

The implications globally are fraught, and — at the local level — are no less astonishing.

Massive problems in every sector

The global oil industry has lost its legs, and most of its body mass. Aside from coronavirus, a price war involving Russia and Saudi Arabia has thrown the industry to the mat. The price of Brent crude, the type of oil that Newfoundland and Labrador closely follows, dropped like a rock in early March, and has been trading at half the projected price the government used for its budget.

Not surprisingly, but still a disappointment, the industry is shelving capital projects worldwide, including the Bay du Nord prospect that had been championed by local businesses.

I wonder how these days will be remembered years from now, and what wisdom we'll draw from them.

That's just one industry. The fishery is rolling into April in an era of extraordinary uncertainty. How do you process seafood in the era of physical distancing, and a shortage of top-quality ventilators?

Newfoundland and Labrador's tourist industry has grown steadily through the years. N.L.'s pitch — wide open spaces, fresh air, wilderness everywhere — would make sense to people seeking relief, but is meaningless so long as travel bans, quarantines and the like stay in place.

Physical distancing and self-isolation have meant profound changes at the domestic level. For tourism operators, they have swept aside plans for the coming months. The hospitality industry has effectively been furloughed.

High-profile layoffs and shutdowns have been piling up: the Come By Chance refinery, the Muskrat Falls construction site, the mine at Voisey's Bay. The service economy is being flattened. Layoffs there come in smaller numbers individually, but the collective impact is stunning. 

These are all economically devastating. It's a weird sort of comfort to realize that this crisis is not limited to Newfoundland and Labrador: every jurisdiction is in deep. It's no wonder that there is talk now not of the R word (recession) but of a depression. 

The situation now is dire, and confusing.

I wonder how these days will be remembered years from now, and what wisdom we'll draw from them.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


John Gushue

CBC News

John Gushue is the digital senior producer with CBC News in St. John's.

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