It’s hard to say what happened to most of May, and to the entirety of April before that. Time didn’t pass the way it should. Days slipped away in a pandemic haze until the full bloom of summer burst over a province that was both hungry for warmth and profoundly unready to greet it.
Unready, because for the first time in living memory, our terms of engagement with the newborn season were murky and uncertain. The hard clarity of authorities’ early instructions — "just stay home" — was replaced by messages with more malleable edges, their boundaries a little more blurred and sometimes conflicting.
For instance, patios are open, but don’t meet up with people who don’t live in your household, although restaurants won’t be expected to enforce that. Campgrounds are open, but you still shouldn’t travel too far from home. Getting into the pandemic response was straightforward; the path leading us out is much less well-marked.
So this is the world that summer spread over, all in a rush when it finally came. One day, the great elms of the old city were still naked; the next, clad in a spray of new leaves. Along the riverbanks, goslings waddled after watchful geese, happy and heedless to social-distancing advice; to be honest, more humans are doing the same.
In truth, though this mingling is against all advice, I find it hard to judge them too harshly. The warmth of the sun is intoxicating, especially after long weeks cooped up inside. Summer always comes to Manitoba as a balm on winter-worn skin, but this year it is especially healing; of course we yearn to share it.
Yet this seems a critical juncture. The province is loosening its regulations, in piecemeal decisions and sooner than officials once expected. We have to get this part right, in order to keep moving forward; lives still depend on it. And beyond that, there is also the matter of ensuring we learn all we need to know from what has happened.
That part is crucial. As restrictions on our lives and ways of interacting with the world ease, the idea of putting it all behind us and progressively forgetting is appealing.
But we must remember. This is the time to take stock of all the lessons of the pandemic’s first wave, because it will not be the last. Other crises are coming.
Day after day, in headlines both large and small, the spotlight of COVID-19 threw into stark relief the areas where society lacks, and where it is strong. In the months and years to come, it will fall on government to adapt to all the things it has learned; but it falls on the public to demand that this process carries on.
For instance, consider the matter of preparation. Across the world, a mad global scramble for medical supplies and personal protective equipment was hampered by battles between jurisdictions, profiteering by dubious grey-market sources and, even in some cases, evidence of outright fraud.
The United States saw a bizarre case concerning a Silicon Valley man who tweeted at Donald Trump that he could provide ventilators, which set into motion a series of events that led to his company being paid $69.1 million by New York State. The ordered ventilators never arrived; the state is trying to recover its money.
These effects were certainly felt in Manitoba. In the early weeks of the pandemic, nurses and other front-line workers sounded the alarm about their lack of access to PPE; Manitoba chief nursing officer Lanette Siragusa often discussed the challenges of sourcing and stockpiling sufficient supplies to meet the province’s needs.
Eventually, that situation stabilized. Solutions were found, though the full story of how remains to be told. Planes full of supplies began to land at the airport. Local researchers developed a way of sanitizing and reusing N95 masks. The province turned to homegrown manufacturers to build up its stockpiles to carry through the crisis.
There is still much about that process that has not been publicly documented; that ought to happen, so all can see how the process unfolded. There will surely be lessons to consider about how Manitoba can prepare better, how it can become more resilient and ready to face future pathogenic threats.
And that is just one example. Through each layer of our world, there are similar places where we must pause, and catalogue the facts of our response, and see where it papered over a tear in our social fabric. We’ll have to change how we evaluate our social safety nets, and remember the creative adaptations that kept everything afloat.
We’ll also have to change how we work. In particular, the days of employees feeling pressured to go to work sick, or unable to miss work for illness due to lack of sick days, have to be over. Chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin has said similar. Frankly, it was always both cruel and unwise how suspiciously sick leave is often treated.
So those are some things to consider as we head into the summer, as we figure out how to savour a world that demands more care and intention in how we engage it. Manitoba made it out of the first phase of the pandemic without more grief than we could bear; we honour our sacrifice by resolving never to forget it.
In the meantime, it will be a different sort of summer than the ones that have come before. There will be no beer gardens, no grand amusements and no big festivals. There is a sort of grace in this though, and it has its beautiful elements; there is a chance now for all of us to discover the season by only its simplest pleasures.
On Wednesday night, I walked to The Forks and back home. Along the way, I stopped to watch dogs frolic at the off-leash park, their wiggles and woofs suddenly more engaging than TV; further down the street, a tiny bunny nibbled a blade of grass in the shade thrown by the tracks of a sleeping construction machine.
And I wondered why, through all the years that have passed before, I’d never paused to soak in the wonder, the magic of all these small lives converging on one block of street. Everything around and outside is the big picture, complex and demanding attention. But there is still time, this summer, to savour a tiny peace.
Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.