January 19, 2022 — So This is the New Year

“So this is the new year / And I don’t feel any different.” — Death Cab for Cutie, “New Year”

Half a month into a new year, and the signs of improvement seem… how to put it? Inauspicious? Few and far between? Fair to middling at best? But as Wayne, my unorthodox Director General at Northern Affairs, put it, drilling characteristically to the fact of the matter, we’re still here, after all, so “we’re on the right side of six feet under.”

(What we aren’t however, or at least not anytime soon, is darkening any office doors: a mid-January departmental update on COVID-19 may as well have recommended that employees use magic crystals to divine when any adjustments might be made to the indefinite work from home situation, suggesting only that “while we are planning for an eventual return to the workplace for all employees, no timeline has been established and safety remains the top priority.”)

By contrast, in-person education for the kids returned this week — a recolonization of school buildings which is occurring against a backdrop of pandemic anxiety amped up to 11 (variant coverage having provided “that extra push over the cliff” which was memorably described in Spinal Tap). In large parts of the province, however, school reopening was postponed by a day by a massive snowstorm (cleverly dubbed “Snomicron” by someone in Twitterland) which, in Ottawa, accumulated to a depth of almost half a metre in only a few hours. The impressive meteorological event prompted Doug Ford, Ontario’s illustrious premier, to ignore the province’s distracted driver law by doing a FaceTime interview while driving through the blizzard. He then followed up that brainwave by aiding a stranded motorist: awkwardly moving a few bits of snow with a small plastic shovel, an ‘altruistic’ rescue effort which prompted a sycophantic Toronto Sun columnist to describe Ford as a “one-man army in battle against the snow.” (Perhaps he could next consider going mano-a-mano with Vladimir Putin, in a hardy, sub-zero clash of political leaders who both place great stock in demonstrating their virility via propagandistic, pre-election photo ops.)

But back, as ever, to the pandemic — where to even begin to try to summarise the complicated situation which has evolved over the past month? While the number of Ottawa residents in local hospitals for treatment of COVID-19 is now greater than it has been in eight months — the province as a whole reported a new pandemic high of almost 4,200 COVID-related hospitalizations on January 18 — and the rolling seven-day average of newly confirmed cases remains at an extremely high and surely under-reported level (because of limited testing capacity), fully vaccinated children remain unlikely to suffer serious outcomes when catching the virus.

This explains why the great majority of medical and pedagogical experts have asserted that closing schools to in-class learning — as Ontario announced that it was doing only days before the kids were to return at the beginning of this month — is more harmful than the disease, given (for example) the impact of isolation on children’s socialization and mental health. “Pandemic planning by polling, with children as the collateral damage” is how Globe and Mail columnist Robyn Urback saw it; while TV Ontario writer Matt Gurney contended, in a column entitled “What did Ontario’s school closure accomplish?”, that “Ontario’s children have yet again bought the province time by sacrificing their educations and emotional well-being for the greater good.” (Gurney’s conclusion after reviewing provincial data: the 8 days of online instruction yielded very little that wouldn’t have transpired anyway, had the kids been in classes.)

If scrolling through accounts of sky high case counts, rapid test shortages and spikes in hospital admissions isn’t depressing enough, throw in incessant coverage of the legal gambits of Serbian tennis champion ‘Novax’ Djokovic to avoid deportation from Australia — a strong early contender for the title of most boring sports reporting of the decade, in the category of periods spanning two weeks or longer. Add blatant lies by the leader of the Conservative party, who has both manically accused the prime minister of “normalizing lockdowns” — in reality, they are fully within provincial jurisdiction — and stood outside on Parliament Hill, in frigid weather, to rant unhinged-sounding fabrications about the government’s supposed intention to imminently phase out fossil fuels (or, as Campbell Clark of The Globe and Mail described it, “to sacrifice some of his credibility to make a video of himself…waving his arms and blasting Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault for saying something he never said”). There are also continued revelations about the number of parties which the British prime minister (and another leader of a Conservative party) attended while his country was in lockdown, and, for good measure, an undersea volcanic eruption near the Pacific archipelago of Tonga which was felt and heard as far as Alaska and Peru. (Though most communications remain severed, initial United Nations assessments are that the small island nation has suffered fairly widespread damage but not the catastrophic devastation first feared.)

Added up, and with the pandemic having now passed the year-and-three-quarter mark, it doesn’t feel quite like the happiest New Year ever. “Sometimes the minutes feel longer than hours,” sang Regina Spektor in “New Year,” a 2016 song which sadly proved ahead-of-its-time. “Some days feel as long as years.

And yet… (part one) — there was the provincial Minister of Health today, accompanied by the Chief Medical Officer of Health, speaking of “glimmers of hope” and “signs of stabilization” — by which they meant that the Omicron variant-driven case counts are expected to peak this month. Overall, trends are beginning, ever so slowly, to move in a positive direction.

And yet… (part two) — the other night, on the evening before he was to return to in-person school, Henry was very agitated — though thankfully past his long-time weight obsession, he was now fixated on a new dissatisfaction with his overall shape. Tuesday morning, post-snowstorm, he trudged out the door, obviously feeling very apprehensive — a feeling that I was increasingly identifying with by mid-afternoon, as the hour of his return approached. I anxiously fretted, wondering whether his first actual school day of the year had gone smoothly.

Just after 3:30pm, he appeared at the front door. “How was it?” I hesitantly ventured.

“It went ok,” he responded, in a near-cheerful tone that clearly signified that yes, it actually had.

Maybe it’s slightly too soon to give up on 2022 just yet.



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