After months in lockdown and a particularly cruel spring, loosening regulations combined with the start of summer brought an overdue respite for many people across Canada.
Throughout the summer Canada’s COVID-19 numbers have stayed relatively low, especially compared to the United States, which has seen outbreak after outbreak, particularly in the southern half of the country.
But with August now behind us, and the days growing shorter and colder, it’s undeniably time for Canadians to face the next major hurdle of this pandemic: the cold.
After the taste of freedom and quasi-normalcy outdoors this summer, a full return to activities of the spring—with drive-by birthdays, Zoom happy hour, and baking everything from scratch to pass the time—now seems unpalatable. Without a clear promise of when the much-anticipated COVID-19 vaccine will emerge, governments at all levels are figuring out how to toe the line between ill-advised levels of interaction and another lockdown.
“The next few months will be critical in Canada’s fight against COVID-19 as the temperatures drop and Canadians return indoors,” said the office of Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, in a statement to VICE News.
While local public health advice varies, there are several foundational guidelines Dr. Tam endorses to help all Canadians prepare for the months to come.
These include wearing masks outdoors, vaccinating against the flu, maintaining good physical and mental health, considering the risks of those close to you contracting COVID-19, limiting social interactions to a small and consistent group of people, and assessing the risks and spread of COVID-19 to make informed decisions.
“It will be more important than ever to practise public health measures and follow local public health advice,” said Dr. Tam’s office.
Dr. Bonnie Henry, the health officer for British Columbia who has attained hero-like status for the decisive, compassionate method in which she has steered the province through containing the pandemic so far, has advised that the next few months will necessitate limitations on gatherings and in-person interactions.
"As we step into our workplaces, our schools, we need to take a step back from some of the social interactions we have had this summer," she said in an Aug. 31 briefing.
With the risk of airborne transmission higher indoors, Dr. Henry stated that people should be conscious of the size of their spaces when holding indoor gatherings. Although the province has mandated a 50-person limit on all events, depending on the size of the space even six people could be too many to prevent transmission, she said.
Lessons from the spring
Scientists have long said a second wave of COVID-19 will likely hit this fall, although much remains uncertain about the severity and extent of new infections.
Among the top concerns for the next few months, alongside the reopening of in-person education for elementary and high schools, is the effect on people’s mental health. Particularly for those in colder climates, fall might mean re-entering a form of physical isolation as patios and parks become too frigid for even the thickest of flannels—or maintaining it, for those who never left.
Keith Dobson, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Calgary, has advocated the need for physical, not social, isolation since the early days of the pandemic—particularly as social isolation increases the risk of depression and other mental health problems.
While Dobson doesn’t condone activities that encourage increased alcohol consumption (sorry, Zoom happy hours), he says that creating rituals like game nights, either in person or online, are a good way to continue social connection in spite of increased physical distance.
Into the fall, Dobson expects the biggest challenge alongside physical isolation to be a widespread sense of loss—for opportunities, employment, and loved ones who have fallen sick or died.
“We’ve had three major national surveys, each with about 1,800 participants across the country, looking at various rates of mental health and challenges,” said Dobson. “We’ve seen rates of anxiety go up, and (also) rates of depression more recently.”
For Zeahaa Rehman, a Toronto resident who will graduate from the linguistics and professional writing programs at the University of Toronto this fall, this summer has been one of mounting anxiety and pressure.
“Right now, it feels like we’re all in a horror movie,” she said.
Recently, she began using Beacon, a digital therapy program free for residents of Ontario. Rehman plans to continue using Beacon in the fall, and has already started minimizing her time in public spaces to protect herself and her family.
Maintaining self-care is critical at this time, Dobson stresses, along with preserving strong social contact with others. He encourages anyone struggling over the next few months to reach out to those around them, along with accessing online and telehealth resources.
As one primary source of anxiety during COVID-19 stems from a loss of control, Dr. Joshua Gordon, Director of the United States National Institute of Mental Health, advises making a plan for what you can control, like preparing spaces for working or online learning from home, and scheduling childcare.
“We didn’t have the luxury of that in April,” said Gordon. “But now we know what it takes and we can prepare for that.”
This is a lesson that Lorraine Baldwin, a resident of Langley, B.C., has already put into action. She says her two daughters, both in high school, have lost many milestones and opportunities due to the pandemic. Baldwin is putting her energy into making her backyard and her daughters’ rooms into more comfortable, inviting spaces.
“Creating some different spaces to spend our time in is the way we've decided to go,” Baldwin said.
Despite the many things beyond Baldwin’s control, in this small way she aims to make her family’s time during COVID-19 a little easier.
Gordon is especially concerned about the impact of the next stage of the pandemic on communities without economic resources, access to the internet, or other essential community supports. These issues, like the pandemic as a whole, will disproportionately affect marginalized communities, he said.
Access to technology is one of the best ways Gordon sees for maintaining the social connection needed for good mental health.
“As we approach the fall, we can anticipate the need to reinvigorate other means of maintaining social cooperation and ties, one of the most notable of which is technology,” Gordon said. “We (should) continue to use different ways of reaching out to the people that we care about; that’s really important. That’s a lesson that we learned early on, and I think it’s served us well.”
Technology has worked for Kambria Ernst’s sons, who continue to talk and play with their friends online through Minecraft. While Ernst, a resident of Victoria, B.C., has kept her family’s social bubble small, she says the game has allowed for her sons to keep up with their friends and make new ones.
“They’re chatting, and they’re building, and they’re being really creative together,” she said. To her, it’s as important as her own close group of paddleboarding friends.
With school starting, Ernst expects to reduce how many days each week her sons play online games, although she may increase their access if she feels it’s affecting them socially.
When setting expectations this fall, flexibility should be another thing to plan for, said Gordon.
“Be aware things are going to change, and it doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world—we need to be able to be flexible and adaptive. Make the plan, but also plan on those plans (having) to change over time,” he said. “We can’t control what the pandemic is going to bring.”
An uncertain future
Dobson is grateful for the timing of the pandemic in North America, which allowed people to escape outdoors and do social, physically distant activities.
“In a sense, we were fortunate—but the unfortunate part is it looks like this is going to continue even into the winter, and become more of a challenge as time goes on,” he said.
In this moment of uncertainty, it might be difficult for some to find a bright side heading into the next few months. But ever an optimist, Dobson says he finds inspiration through the ways people have shown resilience during the pandemic.
“People are pretty amazing, I think, in that regard,” he said. “I just look at the creativity that people have, and it gives me a lot of hope for the future.”
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