Since the World Health Organization first noticed cases of what would later come to be known as COVID-19, late in December of 2019, the world has gone through an experience like never before. In Saskatoon, daily case counts are rising rapidly, the health care system is being pushed to the breaking point and controversy still stirs over vaccines that are in high demand.
The experience of COVID-19 is something that a few members of the University of Saskatchewan community say they will forever carry with them going forward.
Expecting the unexpected
On Dec. 31, 2019, the WHO learned about cases of “viral pneumonia” in Wuhan, the capital city of China’s Hubei province. The cause of the illness was not yet known but it spread quickly within the next few weeks, with Canada’s first case reported on Jan. 25, 2020.
Maria Haneef, a second-year health studies student, says her initial reaction to this news was confusion and denial. She was surprised after receiving texts from her friends in Ontario and learning that gyms were closed. However, she was hopeful that things would not get worse.
In January, it was confirmed that the virus could be transmitted between people. Towards the end of the month, the U of S started communicating COVID-19 updates and their response plan.
Kim MacKay, now a bioinformatics researcher at the Global Institute for Food Security, was still a graduate student when COVID-19 arrived in the city.
“[There were] a lot of different attitudes towards it because it didn’t seem like such a threat to our lives and how we operate on an everyday basis,” said MacKay, who is also an adjunct professor in the department of computer science.
The news hit differently for Joel Schindel, a family physician and a faculty member of the department of academic family medicine at the university.
“It wasn’t a reaction of shock or disbelief, but rather, it was more or less realizing that things were going to be quite different,” Schindel said.
“This was definitely a challenge, to be able to expect the unexpected.”
A sudden shift
In March, the global number of cases had surpassed 100,000. The situation reached a dire point, with WHO issuing a statement for countries to “stop, contain, control, delay and reduce the impact of the virus at every opportunity.” On Mar. 10, the university posted a list of countries students could no longer travel to for university-related activities.
On Mar. 11, the WHO officially declared the virus to be a pandemic.
The university’s suspension of in-person classes on Mar. 13 and Saskatchewan’s declaration of a state of emergency on Mar. 18 were a turning point for both MacKay and Haneef.
“Everything was moving into this remote online world, including the university, and in that short amount of time it was like, ‘Oh no, this is very real,’” MacKay said.
Staying at home, having exams online and being temporarily laid off from work are what reinforced Haneef’s recognition of the gravity of the situation. Like many others, MacKay and Haneef were both concerned about how to proceed with the new restrictions.
“I think it feels a little bit misdirected,” Haneef said. “We were so used to having that social aspect of school and gaining that connection with our profs and meeting new people.”
The transition to both learning and teaching online was a big one for MacKay.
“There was a lot of stress at the beginning when it all moved online about how [this is] actually going to work,” MacKay said. “How am I going to defend my thesis online? How am I going to teach a class of 140 undergrads to code in Python?”
As for Schindel, he had returned to working in La Loche around the end of April, after the first wave of COVID-19 hit. He describes that tension was prevalent not just in the community, but wherever he went.
“The atmosphere was quite different. Things that we were seeing in the emergency department were different,” Schindel said.
A whole new reality
By April, it was confirmed that there were over one million cases of COVID-19 worldwide. Cases in long-term care homes in Ontario and Quebec had begun to rise rapidly, even involving the military for assistance. Towards the end of April, the provincial government released its Re-Open Saskatchewan Plan, and Canada’s total case count hit 50,000.
For many post-secondary students, this was also the month of final exams for the Winter Term 2020. Having finals happen remotely after an unanticipated transition to online learning provided a whole slew of challenges, from a lack of social interaction to “self-teaching,” says Haneef.
Despite these obstacles, Haneef enjoyed learning at her own pace. Additionally, the pandemic has enabled her to take hold of new opportunities, like helping to organize a virtual summer camp in Ontario.
“That was a huge learning experience for myself, and I think I would definitely not have had that opportunity if it wasn’t for COVID,” Haneef said.
For MacKay, it was a chance for her to enjoy the flexibility that came with working from home.
“I found that my attitude towards this whole shift is quite positive and that’s because my experiences personally have been quite positive,” MacKay said.
“I’ve been trying my best, especially now, as an instructor to try to use the benefits that we get from having classes online and emphasize those for my students instead of focusing on all of the things that we’re missing out on.”
Schindel says that the pandemic has allowed him to see how much people have neglected “the things that really matter,” including not just health but connections and interactions.
“It really helped me hold on to the things that I do value, which are connections to my family, my faith and relationships, colleagues and patients,” Schindel said.
One month later, the U of S announced its plans for remote learning during Fall Term 2020.
In May, Canada’s chief public health officer Theresa Tam also made a recommendation that Canadians should wear masks in areas where COVID-19 was continuously spreading.
Adapting to change
In September, Canadian students faced an unprecedented first as they attended schools in person or virtually in the midst of a pandemic. Cases began popping up shortly after schools reopened, prompting parents and community members to question their children’s safety.
Towards the end of the month, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that the second wave of the virus had already begun.
The news came while the majority of students were still grappling with remote learning. Haneef says that despite the difficulties of being in an online environment, it provided many opportunities for her to connect with others, something she recommends to other students.
“Don’t miss out on the different online opportunities and don’t be afraid to expand your network despite that limitation of meeting in person, and don’t be afraid to reach out to your classmates and people,” Haneef said. “You never know who you’re going to meet.”
In November, MacKay graduated alongside hundreds of other students in the university’s virtual fall convocation ceremony. Another milestone for her was starting her position as a researcher at GIFS. Despite not being able to see anyone from her workplace in person, her computer science background enabled her to enjoy relying on technology for communication.
“There’s a lot of stuff that we learned through this transition, at least from my perspective, creating a more equitable environment for people by allowing them the flexibility to work from home some of the time if they wanted to, or attend classes remotely if they needed to,” MacKay said. “If we can hold on to those positives for those people, I think we’ll all be better for it.”
Even with the challenges that came with COVID-19, Schindel’s experience as a physician has been “transformational.”
“There’s a lot of things that, as [physicians], we get to experience and see that maybe other people don’t get exposed to,” Schindel said.
“You get to see a lot of resiliency. You get to see a lot of tragedy. You get to see a lot of opportunities and be reminded of even our own fragility or mortality.”
As 2020 drew to a close, Tam released her annual report and communicated facts on coronavirus inequalities and the changes required to address them. These changes included targeting existing problems highlighted by the virus for a more “sustained approach” in future scenarios.
The light at the end of the tunnel came when Canada approved Pfizer-BioNTech’s and Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccines in December. From the start, the university’s Merlis Belsher Place has been a site for people to receive the vaccine within the city.
Nearing the end of 2020, the U of S’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization’s vaccine was approved to begin human clinical trials.
Resilience, perseverance and humility
Despite the tumultuous year characterized by COVID-19, MacKay, Haneef and Schindel’s stories from this time had more positive thoughts than negative ones.
For MacKay, the pandemic has seen major milestones in her career as a student and a scientist. Interacting with others and finding new approaches to teaching her students has been an interesting experience that she hopes will also raise opportunities for others.
Describing her pandemic experience in a few words, MacKay highlights perseverance and adaptation.
“For me, a lot of this has just been figuring out how we can adapt to these new restrictions and still continue to get the research done that we need to get done or … get the information out there that we need to get out there, and connect with the individuals that we need to connect with,” MacKay said.
One of the words Schindel uses to describe his pandemic story is “humbling.” The adversities brought forth during 2020 are many, and he says it is important to remember them.
“To forget this year would be I think almost as big a tragedy because we’ve had this opportunity to learn so much,” Schindel said, referring to communities, the healthcare system and new innovations that came as a result of COVID-19.
“The experiences are priceless and should not be forgotten,” Schindel said. “Looking at the bright side of things, being as optimistic as possible, will be better for us now and in the future.”
The connections and opportunities Haneef has enjoyed because of the pandemic are something that she believes have changed her for the better.
“We would assume the pandemic would be the obstacle that stops you from those things, but I truly believe it’s because of the pandemic that I was able to experience that,” Haneef said.
“I think it really brings forth a sense of resiliency. We can feel proud that despite the current situation we’re in, we can say we went through it, and not just in any way, but we did well and we still proceeded and we still stood up despite having those obstacles.”