COVID-19 crept up on us late in 2019 like fog on little cat feet but then it grew into a perfect storm. I was largely oblivious to its danger until almost mid-March. I have gone back through my calendar and compared personal events to a pandemic timeline to better understand how and when the coronavirus became the centre of our concern. I am aware that as a retiree with a pension and a good house, my experience is much different from that of a front line worker, or someone unemployed or homeless. With those qualifications in mind, here is how COVID-19 crept then leapt into my life in the past several months.
December 2019 [41 known cases/all in China]
On December 27, my wife Martha and I drive from Ottawa to Toronto to spend time with our daughter, her husband and our two young grandchildren. At an En Route stop along Highway 401 the parking lots and fast food restaurants are crowded with people travelling for the holiday.
In Toronto we make family plans. We will come back to help out with the children during the March break. They will all come to Ottawa in April for Easter and in June we will attend a family wedding in New York State. Our four-year-old grandson will return with us to Ottawa after the wedding for a one-week a summer camp, and then early in July we will take him back home.
On December 31, we leave Toronto and return to spend New Year’s Eve quietly at home. Once again, the En Route stops are crowded. Unknown to us, on the same day Chinese health officials inform the World Health Organization (WHO) about a cluster of 41 patients who are ill with a mysterious form of pneumonia in the city of Wuhan in Hubei province.
Once we are in Ottawa again our lives continue in their regular way. We go to the gym at Carleton University, to the public library, a second hand bookstore, nearby coffee shops and, most Wednesdays, to noon-hour classical music concerts at a church, all in our neighbourhood. We attend a weekly night class with about 20 others. We attend a congregational business meeting at our own church with perhaps 100 other people. One day we pay a hospital visit to an older friend who fell on the ice and was injured. On January 25, we host a dinner birthday party for a friend, with nine of us around the table. We are also planning for a trip that we have booked to Costa Rica in February.
Meanwhile the health professionals are hard at work. On January 1, WHO goes onto an emergency footing for dealing with the Wuhan outbreak. Later in the month WHO warns that limited human-to-human transmission of the coronavirus may have occurred. and that there is the risk of a wider outbreak. On January 11, China records its first death from the virus, and the first case outside of China is reported in Thailand. In Canada, Dr. Theresa Tam and her team at the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) activate an Emergency Operation Centre.
On January 25, Canada confirms its first case of COVID-19 related to travel in Wuhan. On January 30, WHO declares that the outbreak constitutes a public health emergency of international concern. That may ring loud alarm bells for health professionals, but less so it seems for our political leaders. We miss this news entirely.
On January 28, a senior WHO delegation led by the director-general Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus Tedros travels to Beijing to meet China’s medical teams and learn more about that country’s response. While in Beijing, Dr. Tedros meets with Chinese President Xi and congratulates him on China’s handling of the outbreak. This is to become an important flash point for some, notably those in the US administration. They later charge that the Chinese government attempted to hide the existence of the outbreak and that Tedros is giving them cover. They also claim that WHO did not give ample warning about the virus to the US and other countries. WHO responds by providing a detailed timeline of their communications which began in January. (In April, President Trump will withdraw US financial support for WHO, which is an agency of the United Nations).
[to read the entire diary, visit https://www.pulpitandpolitics.ca/2020/05/covid-19-diary-a-stealth-pandemic/]
Dennis Gruending is an Ottawa-based writer, a former Member of Parliament and author of the blogs Great Canadian Speeches and Pulpit and Politics. He has worked as a print, radio and television journalist, as radio host, and has written or edited eight books. The most recent is Speeches That Changed Canada which was published in 2018 by Fitzhenry & Whiteside.