Remember the 1970s? Okay, maybe you are too young. How about the 1980s? 1990s? Early 2000s?
I ask because back in the 1970s, or any one of the decades to follow, starting in the fall, and continuing into winter, a lot of people got colds. Some got the flu. I remember one difficult week in November of 2014 when both of my sons were home for five days straight, refusing homemade carrot soup at the height of fever, demanding greasy grilled cheese when the Tylenol kicked in, and spending the rest of their time crouched on the couch, in bed, or over the toilet. That week, like so many before and after it, I nursed, cooked, and cleaned while their fever-induced naps gave me a chance to do whatever work I could manage.
When actual bedtime arrived, I collapsed onto the sofa, grabbed the remote, and prayed no one would puke on their sheets before sunrise. By Day 6, everyone was well, the boys were off to school, and I did the dance of joy every parent does while watching an exterior door close behind children with whom they have been caged for a week.
At no time during this chaos did I feel terrified. This was life. Normal life. In fact, the City of Toronto Influenza Fact Sheet tells me it has been normal life every year in Canada for 5-10% of adults and 20-30% of children. And that is just rates of flu infection. You cannot find a number for the common cold. Ask Google, “how many Canadians get a cold every year?” and the search engine gets all politician-like, evading the question and trying to satisfy you with more flu stats.
Kids are back to school, and parents will have about four weeks of virus-free bliss as they watch their children leave for and return home from school on schedule without any “Mom? Can you come pick me up?” phone calls to derail everything. Of course, this uneventful period will end by mid-October, as Canadian statistics confirm, when the first child sniffles, and the other complains, “I don’t feel so good.”
This isn’t terrifying. This is life. Normal life.
Except now it is not normal. For some reason, we are supposed to be terrified.
Global News is trying to scare the proverbial poop out of parents with two headlines on their home page the day of writing: “Canada ‘likely at the start’ of new COVID-19 wave. How big will it get?” and, in their effort to freak parents out directly, “COVID-19 cases are starting to rise as kids return to school.”
At the time I looked, the first story featured a video of Bonnie Henry, British Columbia’s provincial health officer, telling residents of the Canadian province just how afraid they should be. The photographer captured Dr. Henry as she leaned toward her audience with hands raised and eyes wide behind wire-framed glasses, looking like she had just seen a ghost … or realized the data does not support her attempts to terrify the populace.
The article indicates she is afraid – or at least wants us all to be – because we are facing what Dr. Henry is calling a “tripledemic,” a word which is underlined in red as I type this, unrecognizable by the Oxford Dictionary, has “no scientific definition” according to Yale Medicine, but which Dr. Henry explains for word processors and scientists everywhere is a season of “dire” flu, RSV (cold), and COVID cases.
Sounds like 2014 all over again. My oldest boy, Sean, turned in a classic influenza while younger Julian went for the more theatrical and physically demanding stomach-flu/head-cold/single-ear-infection combination. It was nearly a gold medal performance until his cousin stunned the judges with a strep-throat/Scarlet Fever/double-ear infection feat that knocked Julian to the second level of the podium. Little did we realize it was a “tripledemic”!
Fear works. I am already seeing more masks about. Inside, outside, driving, walking. Never mind that the Canadian Medical Association released a study on August 14 showing that as of March 15, 2023, 76% of the Canadian population had humoral immunity to SARS-CoV-2 meaning our body’s B-cells are prize-fighters and COVID is on the ropes.
Never mind the same study attributes much of this immunity to most of us catching Omicron, the variant that cackled, “Vaccines? What vaccines?!” and blazed through an estimated 47% of the Canadian population by mid-June 2022.
Never mind the study shows that in the first year of the pandemic when we were largely the proverbial deer in COVID’s headlights, fewer than 6% of the population became infected, a fraction of what cold and flu have been doing every year since John Travolta strutted down a sidewalk in embarrassingly tight bell bottoms to show us he was, “Stayin’ alive.”
Someone wants us masking up again. Who? Experts, Global News tells us in today’s story with the headline, “School mask mandates. Why some experts believe it’s a good idea.” Or it could be nameless “grassroots groups of healthcare professionals”, as CBC warns us in, “Growing concerns for back-to-school as data shows rising COVID-19 cases in B.C.” According to CBC, the grassroots people want a mask mandate in schools to prevent a “tripledemic”. There is that word no one had ever heard of again.
Not only do they want us to dismiss the Canadian Medical Association data, we should ignore the Cochrane Review, whose published January 2023 study on the “Physical interventions to interrupt or reduce the spread of respiratory viruses” concluded after 12 trials, including 10 clusters of randomly controlled trials, that despite the difficulty in studying the effects of these interventions, “wearing masks in the community probably makes little or no difference to the outcome of influenza-like illness compared to not wearing masks.”
It seems GO Train of Ontario, Canada, had a crystal ball on our myopic view of news sources when in June 2020, they bolted thick sheets of plexiglass between the seats and never removed them. I rode the GO Train with my niece (the one of 2014 “tripledemic” fame) to Union Station this week. Every sheet of plexiglass donned a sticker that read, “Wear a mask. Take any seat. Safety Never Stops.” What the three statements have to do with each other is a mystery that only the Dr. Henrys of the world can answer, but more notable was the fact that none of those stickers showed signs of wear and tear. Nary a peeled corner. Boy, I thought, did whoever stuck these suckers to the plexiglass in June 2020 think they were doing something permanent?
My niece and I took full advantage of the GO Train safety measures, leaning forward past the plexiglass so we could face and talk to each other. It was early morning, and the other passengers were quietly on their phones or staring out the window. We chatted quietly, enjoying the sun coming in the windows and remembering some funny times during the week we had just spent together.
Suddenly, a woman was in our space. She had walked to our seats and thrust her face into the space between us and the unsuspecting stranger sitting across from us. A black medical mask covered most of her face. Her long, brown hair swung back and forth with the movement of the train. Her eyes were wide, like Dr. Henry’s.
“You can’t talk in here!” she hissed.
I looked at her blankly, not understanding what she was saying. Instinctively, I looked at the “Wear A Mask” sticker, wondering if I’d missed something.
She leaned in some more and her eyes got wider.
“This is a quiet zone,” she breathed forcefully. “You can’t talk in here.”
“Where does it say that?” I asked, incredulous.
She pointed to a sign at the front of the car showing a pair of headphones with the words Quiet Zone in the middle. “You can’t talk in here! See? Quiet zone.”
There was a pause while I looked at the sign, and then, ironically, she was talking again: “No talking!”
Duty done, she walked away, choosing a seat across the aisle, and facing us while I picked up my phone and looked up the GO Train Quiet Zone policy to confirm that, yes, electronics must be quiet, but humans are allowed short, quiet conversations.
Why did I tell you that story? If mandates do come back, we had better brace ourselves for the type of exchanges I had on the GO Train. Some of us will read the studies, decide we are done with restrictions that have not been shown to work, and flout the rules. And if the Quiet Zone incident is any indication, it will not be long before someone walks over, leans in, and tries to enforce them. Just as we are cozying up to each other – gathering, crowding spaces, pulling our chairs closer, talking freely, and hugging fiercely – a mandate that needs citizens to enforce it will be the bolted plexiglass that tears us apart.
Personally, I am optimistic. I think most folks are not worrying about COVID variant Ellis, or Perry, or whatever they are calling it. I imagine they are trying to relearn the pack-a-lunch-and-get-them-to-school routine while they celebrate hanging up the apron on being a short-order cook in between Zoom calls.
Either way, I am going to act like it is 1970, or 2014, and let the chips fall where they may. Who needs government mandates anyway? I figure I have six weeks before my boy comes home with a fever and forces me into an intermittent lockdown that won’t end until the snow melts. Until then, I will not be wearing a mask and taking a seat. I will hunt for those bell bottoms, strut down the sidewalk, and let everyone know that, no mask in sight, I am “stayin’ alive.”