Covid-19 pandemic two years later: what next?

It feels like the world is in a state of limbo right now. It’s been in limbo for two years, yes, but with some countries individually lifting all pandemic-related restrictions, essentially declaring the pandemic over, while other countries are still experiencing lockdowns and outbreaks, what does this mean for Six Nations? Or Ontario? Or Canada?

There is no doubt the pandemic exacted a devastating toll on the people of Six Nations, and indeed, the world. Death, economic devastation, debilitating mental breakdowns – few people escaped the past two years in optimal physical or emotional health.

Two years ago, on Wed., Mar. 11, 2020, we all watched as the World Health Organization declared the newly-discovered SARS-Cov-2 virus as being responsible for a worldwide pandemic that had began a breakaway and rampant spread across the globe.

In Ontario, this week, March break, was the beginning of a long, tiresome two-year experience that saw public life close and open, then close again, then re-open again, with seemingly little sense, rhyme or reason.

Little did we know at this time two years ago that the planned two-week shutdown of schools after March break – a precaution to curb the spread of the virus in an effort to keep hospitals from overflowing – would turn into a worldwide, historical and prolonged two-year dystopia that spawned violence, anger, political, economic, and social upheaval that most of us have never witnessed in our lifetimes.

Six Nations was a relative ghost town during this time last year. By the end of March, entry points to the reserve were blocked off, with only residents and essential workers allowed to enter or exit the community under the reasoning that Six Nations people were especially vulnerable to an illness that seemed to strike the elderly and those with health conditions much harder. The community was determined to keep the virus out of here. Two years later, we’ve sadly seen that didn’t happen.

The streets and highways leading to the reserve were practically empty almost every day during March and April as people hunkered down at home and waited out advice from public health experts. Would infection numbers go down? Would the virus be contained? Would things re-open in two weeks as we had been told? Nobody knew.

There was an eerie quiet and unease in every town, on every street, and in every store in Ontario, during all hours of the day and night. Face masks had not yet been mandated but some were already sporting different kinds – that is, those who could even get their hands on the scarce commodity.

The world seemed to go to sleep. People used social media to maintain connections with the outside world. Online meetings via Zoom became a necessity and were quite strange at first, but now, they are seen as just a normal way to do business.

Here on Six Nations, everything was closed during the spring months in 2020 except essential businesses. The Six Nations Community Hall was turned into a drive-thru Covid-19 testing centre and makeshift hospital in the event neighbouring hospitals overflowed and could not treat Six Nations people. In the spring of 2020, Covid-19 was regarded as a monumentally dangerous biohazard on a scale never before seen by the public. Nobody knew the death rate of the virus at that time or how fatal the infection would be, statistically. It didn’t turn out to be as statistically fatal as other existing viruses, such as Ebola, or Middle Eastern Respiratory Virus (MERS), and thus, conspiratorial tales of an overblown fear narrative pushed by secretive and mysterious global elites began to emerge.

At the time, in the spring of 2020, none of us knew much about the virus, except that it seemed to strike older people harder. It also affected seemingly healthy folks with harsher symptoms than the seasonal flu, and many relatively young people have indeed died of Covid-19.

In the beginning, Six Nations kept a vastly tight lid on the spread of the virus in those spring months of 2020.

The monitoring of entrances to the reserve was eventually lifted in May. By the summer of 2020, it seemed the virus had died down and life felt a little normal for a short time. But the winter of 2020 and 2021 brought a devastating wave of cases that peaked in February and March 2021. Death counts began to creep up and notable and beloved community members passed away.

On Feb. 25, 202, with 36 positive cases reported in one day, it was the highest one-day positive case count the community saw until this winter.

One Feb. 1, 2022 there were 55 positive cases reported in one day. Since then, positive case counts have been dropping dramatically.

Unfortunately, any success in keeping a lid on the spread of the virus was short-lived.

Two years later, the community has lost 24 people to the virus as of press time. Those beloved people had plans for this year – 2022 – and they’re not here to fulfill them. Their families had plans for them this year, too.

Their surviving loved ones are in still in the throes of grief and mourning right now – while the rest of the world unaffected by the death of a loved one or a disability associated with a Covid infection just wants to get on with life. The delicate political balancing act of ensuring public safety, while being conscious of individual liberty to risk one’s life if they wish – has been an unachievable feat.

Mask mandates are lifting on March 21. Vaccine mandates are ending. Getting Covid-19 today is seen as almost akin to getting the flu. There were 33 positive cases on Six Nations as of press time. Those numbers don’t make the news anymore. Because it’s something we’ve all learned to live with. Covid-19 is here to stay and we must find ways to live in this current state of limbo.

But the question remains: is the pandemic over? According to some, it is. And they say it’s time to move on and just let vulnerable people die as the unfortunate cycle of life and death. Others say it’s still raging and precautions must be taken.

Here on Six Nations, most restrictions have been lifted, aside from mask-wearing, but that will end shortly, as well. The community is now following provincial guidelines when it comes to all pandemic-related restrictions – which will be practically nil soon.

But as the virus continues to circulate, there are some health experts who still ask people to exercise caution and infection prevention – even if those recommendations fall on deaf ears. How are people going to respond to public health directions now? Have we all reached a state of pandemic burnout?

Six Nations has not yet declared the pandemic over, nor has Canada or the World Health Organization. Some see this refusal to declare it over as a measure to continue “controlling” people for some nefarious end goal by some mysterious cabal of shadowy global figures. But who these people actually are or where they meet remains a mystery.

Meanwhile, here on Six Nations, it’s about public health and personal risk assessment. Not control.

Lori Davis-Hill, director of Six Nations Health Services, who has worked tirelessly with her staff throughout the pandemic to treat, prevent and educate her fellow community members, all while experiencing abuse from people who refuse to believe the virus is real or that it kills people, says people should still try to prevent spreading the virus. Especially considering only half the community is vaccinated against Covid-19 – another political, instead of medical – point of contention.

“Six Nations recognizes that we are still very much in a pandemic as long as cases are occurring worldwide and it has not been downgraded by the World Health Organization,” said Davis-Hill. “While public health measures are being lifted, people still need to consider their own personal risk of exposure to COVID-19 in indoor and mass gathering settings.”

Such advice is often touted as “keeping the fear alive” by conspiracy types (again, for some strange, nefarious purpose) instead of simply providing advice to people who wish to take it. Saying that people who practice infection prevention are “living in fear” is just one example of the many wild conclusions and insults that many Covid deniers began parroting in an effort to cope with this unpredictable time in history. Insulting others as “fear-driven” gave many people a sense of control and superiority in a time of great uncertainty. This is despite the fact that millions of vaccinated people have never been fearful of Covid or leaving their homes. They simply coped well with the pandemic and its implications.

But again, it’s all about personal risk reduction at this point in the pandemic, not control.

Nobody on Six Nations has ever been mandated to get a vaccine unless they worked outside the reserve, putting Six Nations in a unique position from the rest of the country.

“Risk is reduced when fully vaccinated and is reduced further with hand washing, physical distancing and wearing masks,” says Davis-Hill. “Since our community remains at just over 50 per cent vaccinated, and with our population having many chronic conditions, our community members should remain vigilant about protecting themselves and others.”

At this time, there are no immediate plans to declare an end to the pandemic on Six Nations, at least.

“The Incident Management Team and (Six Nations) Emergency Control Group continue to monitor the guidance and local data to determine our next steps,” said Davis-Hill.

In the rest of the country, statistics have shown the pandemic has taken a devastating toll on public life, outside of deaths or even infection numbers.

Statistics Canada reviewed the social and economic impacts of COVID-19 across the country and here are the highlights:

Hate crimes

The number of hate crimes rose by 37 per cent in 2020, with 718 more incidents reported to police than in 2019. The total of 2,669 crimes is the highest number since comparable data has been available. About 60 per cent of reported incidents were motivated by race or ethnicity, with the pandemic seeing an increase in crimes targeting Black, Asian and Indigenous communities.

Social unrest

In March and April 2020, 40 per cent of Canadians reported feeling very or extremely concerned about the possibility of social unrest. Individuals who anticipated the pandemic would affect their finances were almost twice as likely to express such concern. Sixty-one per cent of those expecting a personal financial impact from Covid-19 were worried about civil disorder, compared to 32 per cent of those who did not foresee an impact.

Births and deaths

2020 saw population growth drop to 0.4 per cent, a level unseen since the First World War. That same year, annual deaths surpassed 300,000 for the first time in Canadian history. Life expectancy fell by 0.6 years, representing the largest single-year decline since 1921. Covid-19 shaped Canadians’ plans for parenthood – one in five Canadian adults said the pandemic made them postpone having children or choose to have fewer kids.

Immigration

The pandemic also negatively affected immigration, with the percentage of population growth from international migration falling from a record high of 85 per cent in 2019 to 68 per cent in 2020. Declines in student and work-permit holders accounted for the largest net loss of non-permanent residents. However, more Canadians who lived abroad have returned home compared with those emigrating from the country for the first time since comparable records have been available. Since mid-2021, immigration numbers have been returning to pre-pandemic levels.

Pocketbooks

Supply chain disruptions and high demand pushed headline consumer inflation to a 30-year high of 5.1 per cent in January 2022. Year over year, food prices increased by 5.7 per cent. Canadians paid more for groceries, with prices rising by 6.5 per cent, the fastest annual rate since May 2009. Excluding gasoline, the consumer price index grew by 4.3 per cent, marking the largest annual increase since the index was first introduced in 1999. Wages, however, haven’t been able to keep up. Since the spring of 2021, consumer inflation has surpassed average wage growth. In January 2022, the annual increase in average hourly wages, adjusted for changes in workforce composition during the pandemic, was only 2.7 per cent.

Housing prices

Home prices have continued to soar across the country. In 2021, homebuilders in most cities saw double-digit growth in the prices of new homes, with yearly increases exceeding 20 per cent in Windsor, Winnipeg, Ottawa and London. New home prices skyrocketed in the Kitchener-Cambridge-Waterloo area, with the annual increase exceeding 30 per cent. The Bank of Canada reported that the percentage of home purchases made by first-time buyers has continued to inch lower during the pandemic, with repeat buyers and investors accounting for more homebuying. Home ownership and middle-class membership is becoming increasingly costly. According to RBC Economics, housing affordability in the third quarter of 2021 reached a 31-year low.

With files from The Canadian Press

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