WHEN DID WE STOP CHEERING ON OUR HEALTH WORKERS?
THERE WAS A TIME WHEN WE STOOD IN SOLIDARITY AGAINST THE VIRUS. THEN CAME THE SECOND WAVE
It was first week of the first lockdown, back in March, when all of this felt new and strange and terrifying. “We were doing one of our first pandemic walks,” said Jasmine Irwin, who lived in Toronto's Seaton Village at the time. “(It)'s a very kind of Jane Austen habit that all of us have taken up ... We were wandering around the neighbourhood, and we heard this noise.”
It was barely dusk, the sun beginning to set on the empty streets. Irwin and her partner were walking down the middle of the road. You could do that back then. There were no cars. Everyone was at home. Everyone knew what to do. “It felt in some ways like the most frightening or ambiguous or kind of scary part of the pandemic,” Irwin said. “But it also was the part of the pandemic with the greatest moral clarity, which was comforting.”
When they rounded the corner, onto a new street, Irwin and her partner found the source of the noise. Standing in front of her porch, in a long brown parka and red scarf, an older woman stood, hammering on a saucepan with a wooden spoon. She wasn't alone. From up and down the street, they heard yells and clattering and even the honk of a distant vuvuzela.
“It was completely confusing, because it's not obviously typical, especially when you're in a moment of total unprecedented chaos and crisis, to go for a stroll and have people cheering at nothing,” said Irwin. She filmed a short video of what she saw and posted it online. “I went up to someone and asked what was going on. They explained that it was to show support for health-care workers,” she said.
On March 19, just as all our old lives were bleeding out into the new, the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario put out a call for support. The nurses asked everyone in the province to make themselves heard at 7:30 p.m. by stepping outside, banging pots, singing songs, and honking horns.
The nurses' call piggybacked on a movement that had spread all over the world. It began in Italy with the national anthem, sung from locked down balconies and rooftops on March 13. It soon mushroomed to singing and clapping in Italy and Spain, then Portugal, New York, England, Australia and more.
By the end of the March, you could hear the hollow “pock-pock” of wooden spoons on kitchenware every night all over Toronto, accompanied by yells of “Thank you, nurses! Thank you, frontline workers!”
Irwin started planning her walks around the sound every night. Her own street was mostly quiet. So she went back to the original road as often as she could. “I really enjoyed seeing that kind of display of unity and civic mindedness. I found it very charming,” she said. “I'm typically a sucker for earnest, saccharine gestures like that. I might be the only person on planet Earth who watched that celebrity “Imagine” video and was like, ` Oh! They're trying to be nice!'”
Eventually, as the pandemic wore on, Irwin and her partner decided to leave their small apartment and go stay with Irwin's parents in the country near Smiths Falls. By the time they came back in the summer, to pack up their old place, the cheering had mostly disappeared. Irwin wasn't surprised. At some point in late spring, the public mood had changed. Frustration had set in, and exhaustion. “I feel like the unbridled enthusiasm for the cheering and clapping waned a bit with that,” she said.
On one small street in south Etobicoke, right by the lake, the cheering stopped after precisely 100 nights on Sunday, June 28. Lee Scott's son is a registered nurse. So for her, it wasn't a hard sell. She was out on the first night after the nurses' call out.
At first, it was just Scott and her husband cheering on the lawn outside their bungalow. Eventually, some neighbours joined them and they built up a routine. Scott would play a song every night. People would come out with cowbells and pots. Sometimes the residents of a nearby low-rise apartment complex would step out onto their balconies and join in.
By the beginning of June, though, the crowds had begun to thin. “Some of our neighbours weren't coming out as often,” Scott said. “They were starting to not be home, I guess.” The Scotts wanted to hold on until they reached 100 nights. “We thought, let's finish at a nice round number,” Scott said.
On June 28, they put four little handmade signs on their lawn announcing the final show. At 7:30, Scott put on “Hey Ya!” by Outkast. She held a sign that said ` Thank you frontline workers.” She rang a hand bell and cheered.
The Scotts wanted to keep it going after that, maybe once a week. “Our son's a nurse, we knew that things weren't over. It's just that our lives were kind of changing, right?” she said. And they tried, for a couple of weeks. But none of their neighbours joined them. “People (were) looking at us like we're completely insane,” she said. “So it's like, OK, I guess this isn't in people's headspace anymore. So that's kind of how that petered out.”
By late summer, in most neighbourhoods, the banging had stopped and the cheering had faded away. But inside the hospitals, laboratories and long-term care homes, pandemic life carried on as before. Every day, nurses, doctors, respiratory techs and personal support workers continued to live the exhausting rituals of infection control, even as outside, on the streets, people were doing their best to pretend that the worst was done.
When the second wave hit in the fall, few of them had had any real break. They watched as the streets stayed full, the patios stayed packed and the ICUS slowly started to fill up again. Most of them don't seem to miss the banging much. But they do miss the solidarity, the sense that all of us were in this together, that we were staying home for each other, not for ourselves. “I think we've really seen an interesting evolution of people's attitudes and their coping mechanisms, and just their different visions of what this pandemic means between the first and second wave,” said Dr. Abdu Sharkawy, an infectious disease specialist and associate professor of medicine at the University of Toronto.
“The first wave was very unique in that there was so much uncertainty, and there was very little known about how long things would last, about how serious things would be, how many people would actually die, and if the health- care system would actually collapse or not. … And that made it easier for people to listen to public health directives.”
The first wave was awful, especially in long-term care homes. But the system survived. “We did OK. We didn't run out of PPE. We didn't end up with the situation that they saw in Lombardi or in New York City, where people were dying in stairwells,” Sharkawy said.
In a weird way, Sharkawy thinks that fuelled a kind of backlash against the doctors and public officials that everyone was cheering in the spring. “I think because things never reached that sort of calamitous peak there was almost this sense of, `well what was it all worth?'” he said. “And I think that became the beginning of a movement, of almost a rebellion.”
Now, instead of cheers, when Sharkawy speaks out, he often gets death threats. “I can't tell you the number of emails that I've received from people who are telling me that I'm ruining their lives, that restrictions of any kind are going to destroy their livelihoods, that I have no business talking about how to restructure society and that I should be in jail,” he said. “It's been awful. It's been over the top. And I think it's because people just don't want to confront the reality here, that this is a very complex situation. It's a complex problem. And it needs decisions that are going to be painful to endure.”
It's not that the cheering didn't matter to Sharkawy. It did. For the first two months of the pandemic, he didn't hug his kids. He didn't put them to bed. He was scared of bringing COVID home. At work, he watched a married couple die of COVID, in the same room, three minutes apart. He's seen a previously healthy 35-year-old who will never walk again.
So, it wasn't that the cheering didn't matter. It's that it was never really about the cheering at all. It was about the recognition that no matter how hard it is to stay home, to stay away from family, to close stores and restaurants, to skip Christmas, to miss hugs, to miss friends, to miss saying goodbye — none of it is harder than having to watch someone die who didn't have to.
“It's about feeling like people can identify with what we're dealing with inside those walls,” said Sharkawy.
Back in April, in the very early stages of the pandemic, when you could still hear the nightly cheering in many Toronto neighbourhoods, a doctor in Seattle who dealt with the first real American wave of COVID-19 reflected on what he was seeing.
“Even if you're not concerned about you personally getting this disease because you're young and healthy and think you're going to be fine, you will probably transmit it on average to two other people who in turn are going to transmit that to two other people and so on,” he said. “And one of those people ultimately is going to end up dying. And had you taken the appropriate action, had you socially distanced yourself ... that person would not have died.”
That's the message I've thought about every time I've wondered whether or not to take a new risk over the last nine months. It's the message I still have with me now as vaccines are on the horizon and an end is finally in sight.
My daughter turned three during the pandemic. For several months, every night, she would bang a little toy xylophone or a metal lid by our window at 7:30 p.m. She asks me now about the things she'll do “after COVID is gone” — little kid things that are big in her world, like taking her stuffed monkey to school, and bigger things like visiting family again.
Years from now, I'm sure she'll ask me about this time. I'll tell her that she was small but that she did her part, and that it mattered, and that I was proud.
SOME OF OUR NEIGHBOURS WEREN'T COMING OUT AS OFTEN.