Jack Knox: A year ago today, the bottom fell out of our world

On this date in 2020, we began the worst year of our lives. We hope.

The panic was well under way by then. We were already hoarding toilet paper, had started scrubbing up like surgeons, had stopped shaking hands. (Don’t touch your face they said, which made it impossible not to.)

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But March 11 was like flipping a switch. It was the day the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic, Tom Hanks was diagnosed and the NBA cancelled its season. And, oh, Vancouver Island saw its first COVID case, a man in his 60s, just back from Egypt.

After that, the world we had taken for granted disappeared as the great shutdown began.

First to fall, all the events. Michelle Obama’s sold-out Victoria talk was cancelled. Figure skater Kurt Browning, having flown here for three shows, never got a blade on the ice. The Royals’ season was over. Ditto for the TC10K and the book sale.

By St. Patrick’s Day, the Island was up to seven cases. Elective surgeries were cancelled in anticipation of overwhelmed hospitals. Victoria council decided to let the homeless people shelter in parks. How did that work out?

We took that first shutdown seriously. Downtown was as empty as the zombie apocalypse, highway traffic non-existent. Retailers closed their doors. So did schools, offices, restaurants, theatres, gyms. … The queues outside grocery stores resembled Soviet bread lines as security guards counted customers.

What day was it? Blursday, everything running together. Plexiglas at the checkout counter. Arrows on the floor. CERB. Sweat pants. Hearts in windows (and, still, in the masthead of this newspaper). A cacophony of pots and pans each night at 7 p.m. Bubbles, curves and contact tracing. Be kind, be calm, be safe.

Gas fell below a buck a litre. COVID hair became a thing. So did Tiger King. Greater Victoria buses were free but passengers were afraid to ride.

Grey-haired Islanders bellowed at their elderly parents through the windows of sealed-off care homes, praying that the seal would hold. Masks, initially shunned as lousy substitutes for physical distancing and hand-washing, became de rigeur; lipstick sales plummeted.

Homes became both workplaces and schools. Favourite meme: “Twenty years from now, this country will be run by people who were home-schooled by day drinkers.” We learned, and learned to hate, Zoom.

There wasn’t always consistency to what was shut. For awhile, the closure of provincial parks funnelled us to regional ones, where the crammed parking lots looked like Costco’s and we glared at other hikers as though they, not we, were the problem.

Dread wrestled with boredom. With nothing else to do, we flocked outside. Bike shops couldn’t keep up and kayaks sold like crack.

We took up new hobbies: Gardening centres thrived. So did a Victoria accordion store. For some reason, you felt compelled to bake bread (just like grandma did) and post pictures to Instagram (just like she didn’t.)

The 3 p.m. Dix and Dr. Bonnie show became must-see TV, the hottest daytime drama since The Young and the Restless. Right, Bonnie Henry, celebrated in song, on socks, in Fluevogs and in Banksy-like graffiti. She even had an octopus named after her. What a godsend she has been: Because she earned our trust, most of us followed the rules, and because we followed the rules, we suffered less than places with less buy-in.

Not everyone behaved well. There were ugly outbreaks of anti-Asian and anti-Indigenous racism. Some “idiots,” as Premier John Horgan called them, lit into young women who tried to enforce the six-to-a-table rule at the Mr. Mike’s restaurant in Langford. Anti-maskers abused staff at Bolen’s, Starbucks, B.C Ferries. ... At the other extreme, Alberta licence plates triggered vigilantes with a surfeit of indignation but a lack of facts. (Really, Victoria has more judges than American Idol.)

Most people, though, did their best. Early on, local tech guys bridged the PPE shortage. Distilleries pumped out (as it were) the hand sanitizer that was impossible to find but is now ubiquitous.

Those who could help, did. After the Times Colonist, the Jawl Foundation and the Victoria Foundation launched the Rapid Relief Fund, hoping to raise $1 million, donors gave six times that amount.

Time became elastic. It felt like an eternity, but the initial shutdown only lasted 2½ months before restrictions eased. The current no-gathering rules have been in place for almost four.

Our stress levels didn’t always match the numbers. We trembled in late June when, just as hotels reopened and limited travel began, the Island recorded its first COVID case in six weeks and its 131st overall. By the time the new year rolled around, the total had hit 1,000. Now it’s 2,600 and people are acting like the war is over.

It’s not, so stay the course, not unless you want another year like the last one.


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