Toronto

'We're all in this together': The phrase uniting Toronto in long, lonely battle against COVID-19

As cases of COVID-19 have been ticking upward, posters started appearing on the windows of Toronto's shuttered shops and restaurants all featuring the same phrase: "We're all in this together." CBC Toronto tracked down the artist behind this message of solidarity in a time of isolation.

Posters appeared on shop doors, restaurant windows, all thanks to local artist

Signs reading "We’re all in this together" have begun appearing in the windows of Toronto shops closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

"We're all in this together."

It's one of those phrases that's been tossed around long enough to become a cliché, the stuff of song lyrics and pre-game pep talks.

Now it's mysteriously started popping up on posters across Toronto.

The phrase is written in a font mimicking the storefront signs of iconic Bloor Street West mega-shop Honest Ed's —shuttered long before the pandemic when the city looked and felt a little different — and scrawled in all capitals, as if being shouted by a crowd in unison.

The posters are in the windows of shuttered shops, held up by painters' tape on restaurant doors or clinging to the front glass at convenience stores.

The owner of one such west-end corner store, still open amid the mass closures, and selling everything from bananas to dog food to cartons of milk, says someone recently popped in and offered to post it in the front window.

"Dreeem," a Toronto artist, was that someone.

CBC News agreed to withhold his identity because of concerns about reprisals for his street art projects being on public property.

On March 15, as the impact of the global pandemic was starting to hit home — Ontario declared a state of emergency just two days later — Dreeem designed the posters amid a looming sense of what was to come.

"I looked at the news from China and Iran, and I looked at the streets outside my window, at a city going about life as usual, and I just knew it was all about to change," he said. "And the virus wouldn't stop at imaginary borders, and soon people would be going through the same radical disorientation."

An emotional wave, he calls it: Shock, fear, then anxiety.

"I wanted to do something about that," Dreeem said.

Dreeem quickly printed a batch of posters and dropped them off at local businesses, some already closing down and others set to follow.

The homage to Honest Ed's, was intentional, he said, citing the store's "corny idealism" as a signal of what Toronto can be at its best.

"That place represented a side of Toronto that's really special, hopeful, a sign of community — blind optimism and faith in our neighbours," Dreeem said. "You walked in that place, and you'd find people of all walks of life buying two-dollar socks."

The artist said he's printed more than 200 of his nostalgic posters so far, offering them to businesses along main routes like Yonge Street, Church Street, and Dundas Street. More recently, he's spotted them in storefront windows of shops he hasn't even stopped by yet, each sharing the same message.

It's one that's taking on new meaning in Toronto as several million residents hunker down and wait for an invisible menace to one day disappear.

'Its power comes from its truth'

With people across the country practising physical distancing, the new normal is meant to be nipping out only for essential food and supplies.

That means video conferencing friends instead of attending a birthday party, and phone calls or visits through windows instead of dropping in at loved ones' homes.

It's not a comfortable lifestyle. But public health experts say there's really no other choice.

Staying largely in our homes and apart from each other could break our collective spirit, some fear.

But individualism — going about our business while potentially spreading the virus — could overwhelm our health-care system, leaving scores of people to die if hospitals are suddenly flooded beyond capacity with critically-ill patients, experts warn.

"Every single person" needs to stay away from others for the foreseeable future to help keep people alive, the Ontario Hospital Association's president and CEO Anthony Dale urged last week.

"This is not a drill," he continued. "This is the single biggest public health emergency in Ontario's history."

On the west coast, B.C. health minister Adrian Dix shared a similar sentiment: "This is really for all of us, as individuals and as a society, the greatest fight of our time."

It's a battle that could last far longer than anyone would like, pushing local shops out of business and leaving workers unemployed.

Signs reading "We’re all in this together" started appearing in the windows of Toronto shops closed due to COVID-19. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

"This isn't about two weeks of social distancing," federal health minister Patty Hajdu recently warned. "This is about months of social distancing. This is going to be hard for us."

Of some comfort, then, may be the well-worn phrase now hanging in many Toronto windows.

"Its power comes from its truth," Dreeem says. 

"Something can happen in a city in China, and the whole world can be going through that two weeks later, three weeks later, a month later."

Amid that ripple effect, we're now all giving up our daily routines in pursuit of a collective goal. It may feel like an insurmountable ask.

But, as the saying goes: "We're all in this together."

About the Author

Lauren Pelley

Toronto-based reporter

Lauren Pelley is a CBC reporter based in Toronto. Currently covering COVID-19, previously covered Toronto city hall and municipal affairs. Part of the team behind CBC Toronto's international win for multimedia at the 2019 Edward R. Murrow Awards. Contact her at: lauren.pelley@cbc.ca

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