March 15, 2022 — Loosening Restrictions, and Atrocities in Ukraine: Work From Home Week 104, Week 105…

Almost unnoticed, the drawing to a close of the workweek last Friday marked a significant milestone: two years away from the office through the COVID-19 pandemic. A full 104 weeks of working remotely from home — or, depending on one’s perspective, of living at work.

But there are multiple indications that changes are on the way. The month began with Treasury Board president Mona Fortier releasing a statement which directed federal departments and agencies to “resume their planning to gradually increase building occupancy.” Coincidentally, it was also on March 1 that Government of Ontario employees were given the green light to begin returning to work in person, while also being informed that they would be expected to be present in their office for at least three days per week starting April 4.

My federal department is sending similar signals. On March 8, in an email circulated to all staff, the Deputy Minister confirmed that “we are planning for a gradual return to the workplace that includes flexible work arrangements while keeping safety as our top priority.” No clarity, as of yet, on how (or when) “flexible” will be defined or implemented.

These moves toward repopulating long-cobwebbed offices are occurring against a backdrop of pandemic restrictions being dropped like flies. Citing improving health indicators — a stable COVID-19 test positivity rate (though the provincial Chief Medical Officer of Health has acknowledged that the actual case count is likely up to 10 times the number being reflected, given the limited PCR testing) and declining hospitalizations, as well as Ontario’s high vaccination rate — the province announced on March 9 that most mask mandates in schools, restaurants and stores will be dropped on March 21. All remaining pandemic restrictions will be lifted by the end of April.

It was a move which, to say the least, was not universally applauded: Dr. Peter Jüni, head of Ontario’s COVID-19 science advisory table, was unable to mask (pun intended) his surprise, bluntly stating that “it’s too early to tell” if removing mask mandates is the right move at this time, and that the decision is “not supported by science right now.” A coalition of children’s hospitals, in advocating for the province to retain masks in schools for at least two weeks following the March school break week, commented that “we all want the pandemic to be a memory for our kids, not part of their day-to-day. But we’re not quite there yet”; in a similar vein, Karen Brown, president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, released a statement calling the move “premature,” adding that “unfortunately, it appears that a fast-approaching June [provincial] election is influencing politicians’ decisions to lift COVID-19 safety measures.”

Only weeks ago, in February, the World Health Organization Director of Emergencies, Mike Ryan, lamented that “time and again, governments have tried to get back to normal, and have overshot the runway” — a sentiment which Globe and Mail health reporter Andre Picard, in a CBC radio interview this week, paraphrased as “by lifting all restrictions at once, we’re just asking for trouble.” (Toronto Star cartoonist Theo Moudakis wordlessly illustrated the internal dilemma which many are experiencing in relation to the relaxing of restrictions by drawing a hand holding a now-removed mask — with fingers crossed for luck.) Picard went on to lament the seeming lack of clear plans for dealing with the potential resurgence of the virus, then reminded listeners of the famous Wayne Gretzky axiom that “we need to skate to where the puck is going, not to where it’s been.”

The problem is that precisely where that ‘puck’ is headed is not always easy to predict. Is it too much loosening, and too soon? Another wave has been described as “almost inevitable” and, judging by rising COVID-19-related hospital admissions in some western European countries, may have already begun. To date, there have now been over 6 million deaths from COVID-19 globally, 37,278 of which, as of March 14, have been in Canada (just over a third of those fatalities have occurred in Ontario). Absolutely everyone — certainly not just the wingnut ‘Freedom’ Convoyers who held central Ottawa hostage last month — is well and truly sick of the pandemic: of the misery and isolation, of the restrictions, of the variant waves, of the endless uncertainty, of every aspect of this virus. Surely there is no one who is not far past wishing that it would just go away, end and be replaced by the pre-March 2020 version of ‘normal.’ But if wishes were horses, beggars would fly — an expression which my Grandma Jean, who was short on neither words nor opinions, was very fond of repeating.

I’ve been listening to a fair bit of Bruce Cockburn lately. Normal — and the trouble with it — is a topic he tackled on one of his biggest hits, released, remarkably, almost 40 years ago, in 1983. “It always gets worse,” Cockburn concluded; in the song notes on his recent career retrospective, he elaborates that “each time we allow ourselves to get used to some new ugliness, we set the stage for something worse.” The current new ugliness is, of course, now taking place on a daily basis in Ukraine. In under three weeks, the Russian invasion has killed thousands and displaced some 2.5 million people; at this point, Russia appears entirely undeterred by international condemnation, fully unwavering in its determination to systematically pulverize Ukrainian cities — apartment blocks, hospitals, kindergartens and military targets alike — to rubble. It is, commented Globe and Mail columnist Andrew Coyne, “a cul-de-sac of blood and madness” which Putin has driven his country into — “one from which there would appear to be no way out.”

It’s unsettling to read the daily headlines, see the horrific images of suffering, and hear the first-hand accounts of Ukrainians in the media, but it feels unconscionable to not remain informed. The war is being discussed in the kids’ classes — Henry asked one day if we are in danger, given that we live in the national capital. I reassured him and mentioned, not for the first time, our astounding luck to have been born where we were. (Moudakis, the cartoonist, also nailed this sobering reality, drawing a man in a rig — plastered with a “Tyrant Trudeau” sticker and a FREEDOM license plate — lecturing a group of Ukrainians in front of a bombed-to-smithereens building. “Lemme tell you how rough we have it in Canada,” the man says.) Of course, there are many days when everything feels grey and — overly dwelling on the details of my own situation — I don’t feel particularly lucky, but the past three weeks have provided a jarring jolt of reality and perspective.

The reality we are privileged to enjoy in Ontario is about to unfold in an increasingly maskless, learn-to-live-with-COVID manner. I’ll still keep some handy (and possibly even cross my fingers for luck, as in the cartoon), but I’m not hesitant to start re-emerging, triple-vaxxed, into my thankfully peaceful corner of the world. Two weekends ago I had meals in restaurants twice in one weekend for the first time in memory; seemingly every establishment in Ottawa’s Hintonburg neighbourhood was bursting at the seams with enthusiastic patrons. Last night, with my friend Krista, I attended live music for the first time since late 2019 — local jazz band Safe Low Limit, playing at the Westboro Legion of all spots. It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening. Quickly, it is again feeling normal to be out and about.

So that’s the state of affairs as the calendar continues its unstoppable march forward. Week 105 of working from home in Ontario, with the pace of rolling back provincial pandemic restrictions quickly picking up. Week 3 of heartbreaking and infuriating war crime-level atrocities in Ukraine (and of course many other unfortunate and underreported places). Year 39 of hoping that Cockburn’s lyrics will someday be proven wrong.

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