April 11, 2021 — Is Groundhog [Month] Rock Bottom?

Are we now at — or at least approaching — rock bottom?

On April 11, for the third consecutive day, Ottawa reached a new high in new COVID cases — the 370 recorded today is over 6 times higher than the total on February 25, when the kids and I travelled to Chesley to visit Mom and Dad. The weekly incidence rate for the city, the rolling seven-day total of new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents, has, over the 13 days since I last wrote, more than doubled, to 163 — also an all-time high. Wow.

As for the province as a whole, the news is, if possible, even worse — 4,456 cases today. The much-criticized “emergency brake” morphed (“a hasty escalation of restrictions,” as CBC reporter Joanne Chianello worded it), after being in effect for only 5 days, into yet another stay-at-home order on April 8.

Some have suggested that the provincial government’s constant adjustments and U-turns and announcements of upcoming announcements might be charitably described as seat-of-your-pants, make-it-up-as-you-go policy-making, but Premier Doug Ford, after careful consideration, made it clear that the problem, actually, is all of us. “You go by Yorkdale [Mall], you couldn’t get a parking space. It was absolutely jam-packed, and I truly was hoping that people wouldn’t be going in there to the volume that we saw.” The Premier paused, struggling, it seemed, to contain the full extent of his disappointment with Ontarians for having so enthusiastically complied with the non-shutdown ‘shutdown’ measures put in place by himself and his Cabinet. “I’m sorry,” he added at last, “but going to the malls is not essential.” The contradiction at the heart of this decision-making and subsequent scolding has been so roundly pointed out that it scarcely requires an iota of further analysis; as simply put by Bruce Arthur, in The Toronto Star, “This province keeps blaming people for doing what it allows them to do.”

The bleak headlines — “Bring out-of-province ICU nurses to help GTA, says Toronto critical care doctor Michael Warner”; “Nearly 600 patients in intensive care units with COVID-related illness”; “Percentage of ICU admissions for people aged 18–39 doubled nationwide January-March” — illustrate starkly the severity of the current crisis. As did the sudden announcement, on April 7, that all adults in pandemic hotspots — which include 3 postal codes in central and western Ottawa — are now eligible to be vaccinated, and that pop-up clinics and the deployment of mobile vaccination teams would be used to facilitate the belatedly expedited rollout. (The provincial COVID-19 Science Advisory Table had been urging “a concerted vaccination push in the most-affected areas” for weeks.)

In fact, vaccine eligibility actually now seems to be expanding faster — or with more complexity, perhaps, given the various public health, provincial government and pharmacy criteria, guidelines, booking systems and wait lists — than can be reported without a flow chart that extends halfway across a room. Crystal announced yesterday that, as teachers, she and Chuck were able to secure appointments for this coming week (hooray!), during the school break, though I have yet to see any public or media announcement which would indicate their eligibility. Yes, there are reasons why the Vaccine Hunters Canada account on Twitter has over 261,000 followers. Remind me why a centralized booking system wasn’t seen as a sensible idea?

But on the subject of spring break — since it has now begun, four weeks later than originally scheduled — at the start of the month, Ford described keeping Ontario schools open as a “top priority.” But as the situation evolved and worsened, several school boards abruptly shifted to fully online classes in the days prior to the April break week; Vera Etches, Ottawa’s Medical Officer of Health, was also forced to concede, with “a heavy heart,” that the quickly worsening situation makes it “more likely than not” that Ottawa students would not be returning to classrooms on April 19. “Closing schools,” stated Etches, “will underline the seriousness of the situation.”

(Jessie begged — on the grounds that she had the ability to complete the assignments at home — to be allowed to forego her final two in-person days of technology class prior to the break, and I finally relented and allowed her to stay home. I’m quite sure, however, that her reluctance to go to school was less about health concerns and more related to the fact that several of her friends had already been permitted to skip the class. But she has been consistent in expressing her preference for the 50% of school days that are already virtual, which is hardly surprising given the current elimination of all the fun aspects of being there in person, and the fact that being at home allows her to sleep in far too late and spend too many hours in her room. I am amazed that Jessie is doing as well as she is, mark-wise, but she certainly isn’t learning any good habits this year.)

We’ve been at this for over a year now, a point which was driven home this weekend when the weekly Friday Nite Truck Stop program on CKCU was devoted to a John Prine tribute on the first anniversary of his death from COVID-19. “Knockin’ On My Screen Door” was the first song to be played, by Prine himself. It’s been a full twelve months since his tragic passing was part of what precipitated this series of writings, and I still ain’t got nobody / hangin’ ‘round my doorstep. “April 2021 is Groundhog Day of April 2020,” suggested CBC’s Piya Chattopadhyay on Twitter, though I think her colleague Matt Galloway’s suggestion that this month “really does have that same ‘piano rolling down the hill faster and faster’ feeling” was, unfortunately, even more precise. Not to mention that it sounds like a lyric and image which could have been lifted directly from one of Prine’s songs.

If all this — everything that we are all living through now, this “wall-to-wall misery,” as my friend Douglas caustically termed it — doesn’t place us at least in the neighbourhood of the pandemic nadir, I really wonder what that situation could possibly look like.

If Prine was still with us, I’m sure he would do his utmost to direct us to Lake Marie — or, much more likely and appropriately, to a similarly idyllic-sounding locale, one which isn’t marked by the sort of mysterious and violent deaths which are so jarringly featured in the song. Or, for that matter, by the staggering number of fatalities and severe illnesses which have played such a prominent role in our world over the past year. A place mercifully immune to what an article by “Brand Acid,” on the online platform Medium, described, in an analysis of Prine’s idiosyncratic “Lake Marie” lyrics, as “the passing of time… the neverending parade of death we all witness as every moment we ever experience passes away from us forever. Even and especially the good ones.” Only the night before, I had learned of the passing of one of my father’s college friends, just a couple weeks after a member of my parents’ church congregation had died after a short illness. “All we do anymore is go to funerals,” lamented Mom.

After the year we have all had, I expect that Prine would, this time, want to sing about a lake where at last we could all again simply be standing by peaceful waters.

John Prine, Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings

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Jason Thomson

Jason Thomson

Music, single parenting, and pandemic-tinted views of the world from central Ottawa, Canada.