Looking back: Where Canadians were when the COVID-19 pandemic began

TORONTO — Defining the start of the COVID-19 pandemic varies greatly from person to person, officially referred to as a pandemic by the WHO on March 11, it was in the days and weeks that followed, with cancelled trips and postponed surgeries, that the severity of the disease sank in for Canadians.

In early 2020, for most Canadians who had even heard of COVID-19, it was a distant problem that hadn’t yet crossed our borders. That changed on Jan. 25, when a man returning to Toronto from Wuhan, China was deemed a presumptive case of COVID-19. Two days later, he was confirmed as Canada’s first known case of novel coronavirus infection.

There was no panic at the time, however, as officials said all new cases in Canada were travel-related.

By early March, cruise ships were stuck at sea with passengers falling ill and dying, no countries willing to let them port. Wuhan, China had been locked down for weeks. Italy issued country-wide lockdown orders. Major events were being cancelled around the world. The U.S. and Canada both reported their first COVID-19 deaths. And that was just the start of what was to come.

On March 11, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic.

At the time, some Canadians were enjoying once-in-a-lifetime vacations, taking anniversary trips, or seeing family abroad, while many others were at home, already stricken by anxiety about the rapidly spreading virus.

For Jackie Polsky in Alberta, it was her birthday.

“I am a public health nurse, so a pandemic was a strange ‘birthday present’ as my parents, husband and I joked on the day,” she told CTVNews.ca in an email.

Lynda Browning, from Saskatoon, was also celebrating her birthday, but in Mexico.

“Suddenly, following the receiving of all my birthday greetings from family and friends, we started to get panic-stricken emails telling us to get home immediately because Canada was closing its borders due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” she told CTVNews.ca in an email. “We were puzzled by such pleas because there had been no mention of COVID in Mexico and the word on the street told us no one there had it.”

For Susan King, the start of the pandemic was also the day she received some bad news about her mother.

“I was at the office. I remember the meeting room because it was where my brother confirmed with me over the phone that mom did in fact have cancer. And that it was serious,” she told CTVNews.ca in an email.

King became the caregiver, and anxiously waited for her mother’s surgery day, hoping the pandemic wouldn’t result in a cancellation.

“My mom not getting her surgery was not an option,” she said. The day before the surgery, the hospital gave the go-ahead, they were still performing urgent cancer surgeries.”

Heather A., who didn’t want to use her last name, had just finished her treatment for breast cancer and was looking forward to spending time with friends and family when the pandemic hit.

“On March 11th that dream was crushed,” she told CTVNews.ca in an email.

But she is grateful to have finished her cancer treatments before pandemic restrictions took hold, and she still had the support of her loved ones throughout.

“Family and friends were and continue to be a great support! I am so thankful for all the love and caring I received. A lot was virtual, but wonderful just the same,” she said.

Travelling was a common theme for many Canadians reflecting on the day, one year later. And for one traveller, Canada’s Registration of Canadians Abroad program alerted her to the seriousness of the virus.

Marilyn McCall was in Bali, Indonesia when she received the news.

“Got an email from them on March 11, 2020 saying borders were starting to close so I had better get home now if I was coming home. They went on to explain about the poor medical facilities in Bali and expatriation was unlikely because of the cost,” she told CTVNews.ca in an email.

She was able to get back to Canada by March 16.

Trips were ruined for many, some barely making it to the airport before the news sank in, others, like Sylvia Mahlmann, were mid-trip.

Mahlmann, from Ontario, was set for a “trip of a lifetime,” she said in an email to CTVNews.ca.

She’d checked in with the cruiseline and was reassured that measures would be taken, but it wasn’t long before her dream trip became a nightmare.

“What should have been 22 days of sightseeing and shopping in Singapore, Sri Lanka and India, became 26 days at sea, with nothing to see, but more sea,” she said.

For Drew Allen, who had been at a jungle lodge without Wi-Fi for 10 days, he and his family just made it out of Thailand before closures began.

“Quite scary as we were on one of the last flights out of Bangkok before the airport was shut down and still is,” he told CTVNews.ca in an email.

For Ian and Kathleen Fox, they got to see first hand how multiple countries were handling the pandemic, as they were eight months into a year-long worldwide vacation. By the time they started hearing news of the pandemic, they were in the Vietnam leg of their tour.

“It was early January, we started sort of hearing things out of China with just all this virus going on,” Ian told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview.

While hearing about the virus and seeing reports of it on the news, the two weren’t overly concerned at first.

“Westerners weren’t wearing masks as we are still at that sort of phase of thinking that it’s not that big a deal,” said Ian.

It wasn’t until Tết, the Vietnamese New Year, that shops and schools began to shut down, and soon they were off to Cambodia. Their flight nearly empty.

“There might have been 20 people on the plane,” said Ian.

Continuing on with their travels, they flew into Kuala Limpur airport, the major travel hub was a ghost town.

“You could roll a bowling ball down the airport in most areas,” said Ian. “There’s nobody around.”

Soon, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called Canadians home and after some deliberation, they boarded a flight to make the journey home.

A stopover in Dubai consisted of temperature checks, people wearing masks and some going so far as to wear goggles and rain coats for protection, Ian said.

But landing in Boston was like entering a totally different world.

“They had no temperature checks anywhere. Nothing. They just said ‘Have you been to China?’ and that’s the only question,” he said.

When they finally arrived in Canada, they were told to quarantine for two weeks, but they didn’t hear from officials again.

“They didn’t follow up with us with any phone calls or anything. They just said, ‘You guys need to stay home for two weeks,’” he said.

They have no hesitation to travel again, but it might take a few years to complete their round-the-world trip as Ian waits for another opportunity to take a year off work.

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