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COVID-19 is here to stay. Here's how to live with it

While Ontario and much of the rest of the country sees fewer daily COVID-19 cases than during the peak of the pandemic — and as more and more aspects of daily life begin to slowly resemble pre-COVID-19 norms — the world still isn't quite back to business as usual.

Health experts believe COVID-19 will remain a part of our lives for years to come

While COVID-19-related measures will likely continue to remain in place for years to come, experts believe it's possible to live healthy, fulfilling lives even while the pandemic continues. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

While Ontario and much of the rest of the country continue to see fewer daily COVID-19 cases than during the peak of the pandemic, medical experts are continuing to warn that the disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus will likely remain part of our lives for the foreseeable future.

In Ottawa, medical officer of health Vera Etches has repeatedly cautioned residents that COVID-19 remains a concern, even telling city council in May that "we need to learn to live with the virus." Canada's chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, has made similar remarks.

So what does "living with the pandemic" look like? Here's what the experts have to say.

Adopt 'dynamic social distancing'

According to Isha Berry, a PhD candidate in epidemiology at the University of Toronto, one of the ways we'll be better able to respond to fluctuating COVID-19 caseloads is by adopting the concept of "dynamic social distancing."

"Which means sort of going in and out of times of potential lockdowns or quarantines," she said. "A good example of this is maybe looking at somewhere like New Zealand."

New Zealand experienced roughly three months without a new COVID-19 outbreak, but when new infections emerged in early August, the country quickly reimposed strict physical distancing measures to try to contain the spread. 

WATCH | How should we live with COVID-19? Be willing to adapt:

Isha Berry, a PhD candidate in epidemiology at the University of Toronto, says a willingness to adapt to new case numbers and public health guidelines is one of the best ways to weather the ongoing pandemic. 0:57

"I think that's a good example of understanding that we are living through these dynamic social changes," Berry said.

"It's not that we have to look at the future always being inside or always being outdoors, but it's understanding that we as a society will be adapting and changing our behaviours based on what's happening around us." 

Learn lessons from HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis responses

While life has yet to return to pre-pandemic normalcy, people like Catherine Carstairs — professor of history at the University of Guelph and president of the Canadian Society for the History of Medicine — say it's important to acknowledge that people have found ways to adapt to living life amid COVID-19.

"In that respect, I think it has more comparisons to HIV/AIDS, which we've been living with for a long time now," she said.

Carstairs drew comparisons between the public's initial response to both HIV/AIDS and COVID-19, pointing out that during the initial HIV/AIDS epidemic, "there was sort of a public response that only certain people need to worry about it." 

As scientists learned more about the disease, however, Carstairs highlighted that public health practices and guidelines changed to better protect against the spread, even leading to the modern safe sex campaigns that still exist today. 

WATCH | Response to COVID-19 similar to that of HIV/AIDS in fear of the unknown, professor says:

Catherine Carstairs, a professor of history at the University of Guelph, says the process of learning about COVID-19 has some striking similarities to the public’s reaction to HIV/AIDS. 1:05

"By and large, I think it's really transformed the way that we look at sexuality, HIV/AIDS has really transformed how we look at sexuality and how we practice our sexuality," she said.

Acknowledging that there are notable differences between the two diseases, Berry agreed that there are "some important parallels" between HIV/AIDS and COVID-19, including "the importance of social behavioural interventions and public health interventions at a massive scale."

"Where there are differences is that … where we are now compared to the 70s and 80s is so different in terms of science, medicine, technology, and that, I think, is making a big difference in our ability to respond, in our ability to consume information and disseminate information," Berry said. 

It's understanding that we as a society will be adapting and changing our behaviours based on what's happening around us.- Isha Berry, PhD Candidate, University of Toronto

Carstairs also drew a comparison between COVID-19 and tuberculosis (TB), highlighting that lessons about germ theory developed as a result of the spread of TB in the 19th and early 20th centuries have enabled the human species to better combat future pandemics. 

At the same time, she pointed out that the establishment of anti-spitting ordinances, as well as campaigns against public drinking cups were also controversial — similar to how some Canadians have pushed back against lockdown and stay-at-home orders, as well as, more recently, mandatory mask rules

"As a result of tuberculosis and germ theory that came about as a result of research into tuberculosis, we suddenly became conscious that there [were] microscopic organisms that could cause disease and we needed to live differently as a result," she said. 

Readjust mental health and wellness expectations

Still, psychologists who spoke with CBC News were clear that continuing to live with the threat of COVID-19 will require adjusting our personal and social expectations.

"Think about going back to April and May, if back then we had said, 'Sorry, every time you go anywhere and you go into a building, you have to put on a mask,' people would have gone, 'Are you crazy?'" said Allyson Harrison, an associate professor of psychology at Queen's University. 

WATCH | Ongoing pandemic means learning to live with anxiety:

Allyson Harrison, an associate professor of psychology at Queen's University, says learning to live with COVID-19 also means learning to handle fear and anxiety more effectively. 1:26

"Now we just sort of go, OK, that's the new normal, we're going to do that. We're slowly adapting to this and we will continue to slowly adapt to this and evolve."

Harrison also highlighted the importance of setting routines to try to combat COVID-19-related fatigue.

Additionally, she recommended communication and establishing clear boundaries when dealing with friends and family members who might be reacting to the pandemic at different levels of urgency. 

Re-evaluate work-life balance goals

Winny Shen, an associate professor of organization studies at York University's Schulich School of Business, said employers and employees will also need to negotiate expectations, especially as workplaces slowly begin to reopen. 

"In times of great uncertainty, we know that people will look to their leaders more," she said. "I think it's very important for organizations to be extra transparent and take extra efforts to communicate their decisions and their reasoning more carefully during this time." 

WATCH | Working from home more often might be lasting byproduct of pandemic:

Winny Shen, an associate professor of organization studies at York University, says work-from-home arrangements may outlast the pandemic. 1:19

For her part, Shen said she was torn about finding a work-life balance as the pandemic continues, adding that it's possible, but will require the acknowledgement of "real constraints."

"If you are compassionate to yourself and you realize how your demands have changed, if you change that standard of evaluation, then maybe you can be satisfied," she said. "I think it has to do with perhaps a realignment and a reframing of what are the standards that I want to evaluate myself by, what's reasonable and how harshly do I treat myself when I don't meet those standards sometimes." 

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