Happy new year! Or “New year!” as I’ve taken to greeting people.
It’s very likely, at this point in the pandemic, that you know someone who has contracted COVID-19.
Perhaps you, yourself, have gotten sick — and, if that’s the case, I hope you’re feeling better and didn’t have too rough a go with it.
I did not get sick over the holidays, but I know many folks who did. My own holiday plans were scaled back; I gathered with family only, within the limits outlined in the public health order. And I have to say: I felt guilty about it.
I wrote two weeks ago — was it just two weeks ago? lol, time has no meaning — that December 2021 felt a lot like March 2020, but I think now, upon reflection, I was wrong. Right now is definitely weirder. It’s more squishy. More slippery.
In March, 2020, a Winnipeg School Division maintenance worker puts up a sign on an empty playground at Mulvey School after the Manitoba School Boards Association recommended all provincial schools close their play structures. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)
When the pandemic began, there was a clarity about it. We all knew that it was time to stay home. Our directive was clear: flatten the curve. Even December 2020’s Code-Red Christmas offered clarity; most people just cancelled.
Now, the messaging appears to be: “look, everyone’s probably gonna get this thing.” I don’t know about you, but even with vaccines in arms, it’s been hard for me to reconcile the current test positivity rate (nearly 40 per cent on Tuesday) and soaring case numbers with our relative freedom to do much of what we did before Omicron came bursting onto the scene, such as dine in a restaurant or work out in a gym.
I’ve noticed that more people are posting about getting/having COVID 19 — including my colleague Niigaan Sinclair, who wrote about it here — which, I think, is a positive step toward reducing stigma. It also makes sense, considering that many, may people are getting it now — including those who are vaccinated.
But I also noticed that many of these disclosures came with the qualifier “but I did everything right.” It’s a defensive holdover from when people were more fixated on “how” or “where” or “why” one got COVID. I wrote a column this week about why we need to nix that phrase from our COVID conversations and how individual actions, while important, will not make up for systemic failures.
And one of those systemic failures was in messaging. We were told, by our former premier for one example, that we were Covidiots for gathering, that we were “stupid” for doing things that were legally allowed.
We were told, repeatedly, that seeing family members was putting them in danger.
No wonder, then, people are feeling intense shame about testing positive for the thing we were supposed to avoid at all costs — even though they did exactly what was required of them. No wonder people were obsessed with “how” someone “got it” — as though everyone who gets COVID-19 goes to nightly bacchanalian orgies and not, you know, their shift at the grocery store.
Chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin speaks at a press conference on Dec. 24, 2021, asking the public to adjust their holiday plans. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)
“Where did you get it?” became the new “what were you wearing?” And the victim-blaming and shaming wasn’t just confined to people with infections, it also extended to the dead. People were obsessed with ferreting out whether or not people had “underlying conditions.”
How often does one have to be told something is all their fault until they start believing that’s true?
This newsletter is about envisioning a post-pandemic future, which I think is still a worthwhile exercise — even as we gear up to enter Year Three of this pandemic. This pandemic, like those before it, will eventually end. Planning for the future is an act of hope; the lessons learned in this life-altering time are worthwhile.
So, to that end, I’d love to see more people consider how they talk and think about health and illness — not just COVID-19, but other conditions, physical and mental. I want people to think about the limits of choices and personal responsibility absent systemic and community support, as well as moral and value judgements placed on people who, too often, are seen as the sole authors of their own health challenges.
And should you contract the virus at the centre of this pandemic despite your efforts, I hope you can treat yourself with compassion.
Jen Zoratti, Columnist