Historians hope to preserve COVID-19 pandemic stories as Sask. death toll creeps toward 2,000

A man in blue jeans and a hoodie and wearing a mask walks away from the Cornwall Centre in Regina, Sask. (Bryan Eneas/CBC - image credit)
A man in blue jeans and a hoodie and wearing a mask walks away from the Cornwall Centre in Regina, Sask. (Bryan Eneas/CBC - image credit)

As Saskatchewan marks three years since COVID-19 was first detected in the province, historians and medical experts are attempting to record the stories of those who endured the pandemic and memorialize the people who died from the virus.

With nearly 2,000 confirmed deaths, the effort becomes even more important, according to Jim Clifford, a historian at the University of Saskatchewan.

Clifford is a part of the Remember Rebuild Saskatchewan project, which brings together specialists in epidemiology, history and medical sciences to ensure the experience of COVID-19 in Saskatchewan is preserved for future generations.

"From the beginning we thought, well, you know, this is going to be probably a very historic moment in time and we need to get out of our comfort zone — which is studying the past — and actually try and record this history," said Clifford.

A deadly cost 

COVID-19 arrived in Saskatchewan quietly.

Dr. Saqib Shahab, the province's chief medical health officer, provided a news conference on March 12, 2020, confirming that a presumptive case — a man in his 60s who travelled from Egypt — had been contained.

While COVID-19 took a different path than it did in other provinces with few deaths throughout the initial year of the pandemic, the virus eventually did take its toll.

Between March 2020 and Feb. 25, 2023, the province has recorded 1,890 confirmed deaths from COVID-19. Experts have repeatedly said the actual total number is likely much higher.

Clifford says the pandemic is one of the rare universal moments that everyone has experienced.

"This is one of the the biggest events that's going to happen to Saskatchewan in the first decades of the [21st] century," he said.

Like the Second World War or the Humboldt Broncos crash, people have chosen to commemorate events they have a connection with. While a global pandemic is a different type of circumstance, Clifford says it's worth remembering and memorializing.

That's why his group's efforts to create a digital memorial are so important. He wants to make sure that those who died are not just reduced to an abstract figure.

Alexander Quon/CBC News
Alexander Quon/CBC News

It's also an attempt to provide a better understanding of COVID-19 than previous pandemics, which have only been recorded through the lens of those who were the most fortunate.

He believes that "normal people" should have a chance to share their story.

Since the pandemic disproportionately hit older generations, their efforts to collect information, firsthand accounts and narrative stories must be carried out quickly.

"A lot of this stuff is is very ephemeral and it's going to be hard for group of historians 20 years from now or 100 years from now to collect this information if we don't get it written down or recorded," said Clifford.

Oldest generations impacted

The pandemic continues to impact the oldest generations in this province.

Of the 56 deaths that have been recorded so far in 2023, only two were people between the ages of 20 and 59.

That means 96 per cent of deaths this year were people over the age of 60.

But it's rarely discussed — something that organizations like the Saskatoon Council on Aging say they are working to change.

"We did hear back similar findings that older adults felt they weren't valued [during the pandemic]. So we really want, we want to change that," June Gawdun, the organization's executive, told Saskatoon Morning with Leisha Grebinski in a recent interview.

Other experts that spoke with CBC News for the third anniversary of the pandemic highlighted how mask use became heavily politicized during the pandemic, even though it's a generally accepted practice in countries in Asia.

LISTEN | Before the pandemic, mask use here was pretty much non-existent:

Clifford said the differing views on the pandemic and how it unfolded need to be collected. Even the decisions made by the government, how they were communicated and how the public responded are important.

"There's just so many opportunities to study, to compare and contrast different jurisdictions, to try and understand that public communication aspect, what worked? What were the big mistakes?" Clifford said.

Choosing not to forget

Clifford believes that there is a collective desire to move on from COVID-19. He admits that there are times when he would rather just focus on the history of the 19th century England — his area of expertise — than talk about COVID-19.

But Clifford says it's important to resist that urge.

"For those who are you able to talk to us, we just really try and make the case that I'm making him in this interview that there is immense value not just to future historians ... but even the more kind of immediate case that we just don't know what the future holds," he said.

Clifford says people in the future need to know how thousands of people chose to work together for the greater good.

Cory Herperger/CBC
Cory Herperger/CBC

He pointed to the drive-thru vaccine clinics of early 2021 as an example of where people made a choice for the greater good by sitting in their vehicles for hours at a time in order to get a single shot of the vaccine while ensuring others' safety.

"Whatever the future challenges we face, we kind of know that we can come together and pool our resources and and do big things that we'd never thought we'd need to do," Clifford said.