The Past Year of a Pandemic: Community reflects on living life in the time of COVID-19

·17 min read

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic. In Haliburton County, 51 cases of COVID-19 and one death due to the virus have been confirmed by the Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge district health unit since the beginning of the pandemic, in which to date, almost 117 million cases of COVID-19 and more than 2.5 million deaths have been reported globally. Here, residents of Haliburton County share their experiences after living through a year like no other.

Sandy Cassman of Highland Grove remembers being on a late-winter shopping and lunch date in Bobcaygeon, then to Costco in Peterborough with two friends on March 12. It was the last “normal” activity she remembers before the pandemic was declared.

“We’d been hearing about a dangerous and fast-moving virus but had no idea what to expect next,” she said. “Within four days the country was in lockdown, both of my sons had been laid off from work, and international travellers were starting to hurry home. Shortly after that, stories began to emerge about the cluster of cases in Bobcaygeon; at that point we knew that life would be drastically different for a long time.”

Adjusting to life, including public health guidelines in grocery stores, was difficult for Cassman at first.

“It seemed as though there were new protocols every time I went out for groceries,” she said. “I’m a very tactile person, so I had to train myself to keep my hands in my pockets until I had decided which item I wanted. I often felt rushed and pressured by others to move faster – it was very stressful at the beginning.”

Mask-wearing has been an adjustment for everyone, and has been particularly hard for those who have loss of hearing, like Cassman.

“It’s so frustrating sometimes, trying to understand what someone is trying to tell you from behind a mask and a sheet of plexiglass,” she said. “The muffling of voices, as well as not being able to pick up clues from watching people speak, makes communication very difficult at times. Fortunately, most people are very patient, but I will not miss masks.”

As treasurer of the Central Food Network, which runs the food banks in Highlands East, Cassman said she was delighted by the generosity of the community throughout the past year.

“We received many more donations than we had expected to; this in turn strengthened our confidence in our ability to be of service to our clients,” she said.

Cassman looks forward to phone chats with friends, a new library book, or an online Scrabble game with her son, Eric.

“When you live in a time and place where life is somewhat constricted, small treats matter more,” she said.

The weekend before the pandemic was declared, Dr. Norm Bottum was at a grand opening for his son-in-law’s new physiotherapy clinic.

“We were jammed shoulder-to-shoulder,” he said. “There was a lot of discussion about the pandemic, and a little over a week later the clinic was locked down.”

Bottum hasn’t seen some of his family since that week-end. He lives in Haliburton Village and is a family physician with the Haliburton Family Medical Centre and Haliburton Highlands Health Services.

“There have been many challenges,” he said. “Professionally, I feel it really is a secondary quality of care not seeing patients in person. There is concern for my patients most nights when I leave the office. Personally, having to judge every encounter with friends and family as to safety and appropriateness has been draining and unfulfilling.”

Generally, Bottum thinks patients know that people in the healthcare profession do the best they can at all times, not just during a time of pandemic.

“Despite the hardships and risks involved, everyone I work with was willing to spend extra time and energy working as a team for our protection and the protection of our patients,” he said. “There are many outstanding professionals at all levels of care in the community, hospital and our medical centre.”

If anything, he said, the pandemic has taught us how vulnerable we are in this era of globalization.

“We need to move forward being mindful of this, not just related to the risk of disease but also economic and food hardship, and the ever present risk of our environment creating increasingly difficult living situations around the world,” he said.

While a busy time for those in the healthcare profession – Bottum has also done shifts at the COVID-19 pandemic testing site in Haliburton and has been a source of information for local media outlets – he has found some pleasure in downtime created by the pandemic’s cancellation of events and outings, too.

“I would rather have not had this time,” he said. “But given the situation I am certainly grateful for the time to reflect, read books and enjoy crime dramas with my wife. I don’t think there are too many left to be seen.”

Chris Duchene remembers spending Family Day weekend in Nashville last February with her whole family – “flying, going to hockey games, restaurants.”

A guidance counsellor at Haliburton Highlands Secondary School, Duchene realized life was going to change in March, when staff would not be returning to the school building after the break, instead preparing to work from home and convert to an online platform for students.

She was intending to retire last June, but said that after realizing the seriousness of the pandemic, decided to work a few more months into the new school year in the fall to do what she could to “help with the new normal” in the school.

“Watching the students exit the busses on that first day in September, all wearing masks and looking very anxious about how school was going to look, made me sad and teary,” she said. “I very quickly realized that through the impressive leadership of our administration and the caring and kindness of our teaching staff, students adapted and benefited from being back with their friends and resuming a routine with in-person learning. Seeing this in person, helped me cope with the sadness of the situation.”

Duchene said she has witnessed strength and resiliency in young people who have been dealing with the pandemic during their high school years.

“Many families are dealing with tremendous hardship due to isolation, job loss, food security, etc. and yet students in both elementary and secondary schools are pressing on and managing to resume their school lives even though they have to deal with stressful personal situations and COVID protocols and routines that they had never experienced in school,” she said. “Also, some students for various reasons have had to learn at home and they also had to adapt to a situation that may have not been the way they wanted to attend school but are doing their best to be successful.”

Duchene said she will always remember not being able to see her parents or family on a regular basis, but that she will also remember the help and generosity people extended to each other.

“Many of our teaching staff became creative within the protocols in our school to help students enjoy school as much as possible,” she said. “The virtual graduation was the absolute best it could be and on a day-to-day basis, teachers are finding ways to create virtual activities to promote school spirit and some fun for the students.”

In November, Duchene was able to celebrate two milestone events: the engagement of her daughter, Jessica to Nate Feir, and the birth of her second grandchild, Jaymes, to son Matt and his wife Ashley. Not being able to see her new granddaughter has been challenging, she said, but she’s been able to connect and stay close with her through Facetime. She’s also been in awe, she said, of front line workers and students who stepped into front line jobs in essential workplaces, as well as the perseverance of teaching staff to convert their teaching to an online platform and offer flexibility and compassion to students and families dealing with hardships and barriers.

“I’m proud to be a resident of Haliburton County, and witness the caring, generosity and resiliency of our front line, mental health and essential workers and the way our residents have adapted and followed rules to protect and ensure the safety of others,” said Duchene.

Elementary school students Liam and Jack Ward said the details of pre-pandemic times don’t come to mind easily, but they do remember their last trip to see family in Arizona, and a date festival they went to there.

“I don’t feel good about COVID, because it’s not fun,” said five-year-old Jack.

“I can’t go and see my friends,” said seven-year-old Liam. He added: “It’s not fun.”

The brothers from Wilberforce, who mom Stephanie said are like best friends, remember positive moments from the last year, too.

“Summer!” said Jack. “I like playing in summer. Swim, catch frogs, slide, play at our playground [in the backyard.]”

“I like that we’ve had so much time off,” said Liam. “I like having time to put together LEGO. I like all the skiing, too.”

For many, though they are grateful to have a job, it has not been easy to work during the pandemic, pivoting to work from home or working with the public in situations made stressful due to thinking about public health recommendations to physically distance from each other, sanitize areas that have come into contact with others, limit customers in a space and implement mask wearing protocols.

Janet Sheehey, who owns Janknit’s Studio in Haliburton, has had a challenging year.

“I watch a lot of U.S. news, so when I saw how quickly the virus was spreading I knew we would be shutting down too,” she said of the start of the pandemic last March.

Sheehey has not enjoyed working during the pandemic, but has found ways to adapt her store to make working through it more manageable.

“When we were allowed back open I couldn’t keep my eyes on everyone coming in the door, especially when I was working with a customer,” she said. “So I decided to keep my store door locked and installed a door bell, that way nobody came in without me opening up and making sure masks were on and hands got sanitized.”

Her customers have brought positivity to the difficult situation as well.

“On the whole most of my customers would ask how I was doing so I know people cared about me,” she said.

“I did find most of us were on our last nerve and when you are working with the public you have to have a positive attitude, and that I found a struggle.” The worry of working in retail and keeping others safe has been stressful, as well.

“My aunt passed away and so did my mum’s husband and I didn’t get to any of the funerals,” she said. “My mum turned 90 and we couldn’t celebrate or see her. With me working with the public, I didn’t feel safe I could even visit my mum, as I had no idea who walking into my store could be carrying the virus.”

Even though she said she has “hated working,” she said, “thank God I live in Haliburton,” where she has felt “deep down safe in our town.”

Just before the pandemic was declared, Erin Nicholls was taking the HHSS curling team, including his son, to Chatham, where they won the 2020 Ontario Provincial School Championships for boys, and then to Stirling, where they won COSSA.

“We were looking so forward to OFSAA,” he said. “At the same time, we were getting ready for my daughter’s volleyball team to go to provincials, but that’s when I realized our world was changing and everything was cancelled.”

Not being able to see his kids in sporting events, and feeling like they are missing out, has been hard for the West Guilford parent. Learning to live differently during the pandemic – missing family’s special days, and also adapting to public health guidelines – has also been difficult.

“Going to grocery stores and not recognizing anyone anymore with masks, it just leaves you with such a strange feeling of the world we are in,” he said.

To cope, Nicholls goes for hikes in the woods and spends time with his kids. In the past year, he also took out the guitar he hadn’t touched in over 35 years and learned to play again, posting videos on the Music From Home Facebook page started by Minden resident Brent Coltman to offer a place for people to share and come together during the first provincial lockdown.

There have been other positives for Nicholls: “Meeting some amazing people that I believe I would have never met if it hadn’t been for this,” he said. “I have so many new friendships even without actually meeting them through the power of social media. And, of course, more time with my kids with not being able to do much so that was a positive as well.”

Being part of the boom in real estate was a memorable part of the year for Nicholls, a sales representative with the Trillium Team.

He said he will remember how people came together and helped each other in so many ways to offer support to get through tough times.

“I will remember a lot of time missing out, but also the great times we have shared on these music sites, for sure, the most, and the joy we have brought to people – especially older people – helping get through it,” he said. “Also, I will remember the frontline people and all they have been through to deal with this and keep everyone safe. Forever grateful to them.”

Jennifer Paton might still owe her husband for a lost bet.

“For March Break last year, we had plans to fly to Revelstoke [in British Columbia] to stay with friends and ski the mountain,” she said. “I remember days and days of watching the news and wondering if we should cancel, and definite relief when we did, and it turned out to be a good decision. By that point we also knew that schools would be closed for two weeks, and my husband predicted that they wouldn’t re-open before June, and I was sure he was wrong. I think I still owe him $5 for that bet.”

Paton was able to spend the summer in Revelstoke, where she said “life seemed practically normal.”

In the fall, she watched as the school system pivoted to new practices for teaching – mandatory masks for all, online learning for some, and the secondary school putting octomesters into place to help students learning at the high school in small cohorts.

“[I] saw the creativity and dedication of the teachers, and the students trying their very best,” she said.

Paton, a longtime teacher, is aware of the challenges the pandemic has posed for both students and school staff.

“It’s really hard to see young people, who should be starting something new (post-secondary or career), with such uncertainty in a confusing time. Teachers have been turning themselves inside out to help students, and they are burning out. And teachers with young children have the hardest time. But all they can do is make school as good as possible under the circumstances, and that’s not enough for lots of students.”

While Haliburton County residents have always struggled with inadequate internet capabilities, the reliance on it during the pandemic – for online schooling, virtual medical appointments, working from home and for boredom busters including movie and TV streaming – made poor connections exceptionally challenging.

“Our eldest suddenly came home from university, and our youngest started university, but they’re both at home and we have terrible internet,” said Paton. “They have worked out an arrangement with another family nearby that has been terrific for all, and I think it’s helped them stay positive about school and life.”

Paton has found positivity in moments that have gone differently than planned.

“I got to watch my youngest daughter graduate from high school sitting around the dining room table with my family instead of wearing high heels, a black gown and university hood in the hot, crowded gym,” she said.

In January, she retired from just more than 30 years of teaching with a virtual celebration that family could join in from afar.

“Since retiring, I have skied every day in February, and it’s been such a great winter for the trails,” she said. “It’s been a year like no other, and it’s been a very good year for me … I’m very aware that I have been lucky, with job security and good health and a love of being outside. People’s experiences are so different, depending on their jobs, age and family situation.”

Though Paton expected to have an empty nest this year, instead she has been able to spend time with her family … and sourdough, which saw a boost in popularity when people were staying at home as the pandemic first began.

“I make fantastic sourdough bread now,” said Paton. “If I do say so myself.”

A year ago, Melissa Tong was sailing in the Caribbean with friends, having the time of her life.

“Little did we know that international travel and making friends with strangers was all about to change,” she said.

The most challenging aspect of the pandemic, said Tong, has been navigating uncertainty.

“In the beginning, balancing the need for social interactions and maintaining physical distance seemed almost impossible, a contradictory,” she said. “The fear of ‘what if’ starts to plague you and bring you down more than ever. To make the assumption that everyone is contagious, was absolutely terrifying.”

It was also challenging for Tong when she was told she was not able to work and experienced the uncertainty of not knowing when her next paycheque would come.

“All my income sources came to a halt,” she said. “I had to exercise calm … Survival of the fittest really means at the very least, the ability to adapt to new circumstances and for some of us to be renegades and try something new. I know for my fellow registered massage therapists and healthcare workers, we’ve all had to change, adapt on how we do business. I think that really applies to all things, people and businesses.”

Tong, a Haliburton resident, has taken advantage of the space Haliburton County has to offer, connecting with nature through snowshoeing, foraging, paddling and sleeping under the stars.

“On the brighter side, this pandemic has given me the opportunity to really clarify what I need to survive,” she said. “I need people. I need connection. I need laughter and real emotions. It’s a fundamental human need. So, time to find my bubble buddies to whom I can share real feelings with, have a good laugh or tears with and who can get my butt moving.”

The pandemic has also given Tong time with her thoughts.

“I think this applies to all ages and stages of life: Life is only what you make of it,” she said. “It’s your thoughts that counts the most. Happiness is matter of perspective and only you can change that. Although the light at the end of a very long tunnel seems near, expect turbulence to return. Things will not go back to normal as we are all different now than who we were a year ago. I think the goal here is to ride the waves as they come.”

Sue Tiffin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Minden Times