Strange days are here again because we've had them before

Carl Hnatyshyn

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We live in strange times. There is no doubt about that.

Take a quick drive around town (bonus: gas is super cheap, though there is literally nowhere to go now. Thanks a lot, pandemic, he said sarcastically) and you can clearly see that things are not in any way ‘normal’ because of this COVID-19 virus: empty schools, empty businesses, empty streets. Even Tim Hortons is devoid of people for the love of all that is holy, which is one of the signs of the Canadian apocalypse (not to worry, the other sign of the Canadian apocalypse is the Leafs winning the Stanley Cup, so we’re all very, very safe for the next 60 or so years).
Though it seems like we are living in what amounts to a complete nightmare of a year – Queen Elizabeth II once aptly summed up these kinds of years as ‘annus horribilis’ – and by the time this column is published next week, this pandemic will probably have become much, much worse in Canada, we aren’t actually entering uncharted territory here, folks. We just think we are, because like pretty much every single generation before us, we are convinced that we are living in End Times.

Example: My grandparents were all super nice people (didn’t get a chance to meet my paternal grandfather as he died before I was born, but by all accounts he was a stand-up guy). They seemed to have a good grasp on the truly important things in life and were wholly unimpressed by the hoarding of wealth and people who had a need to broadcast how rich they were to others (seems like we have no shortage of those people nowadays). They were pretty humble people just looking to live a ‘normal’ life here in Canada.

Why? Because during their lifetimes, they lived through tremendous political instability – just compare how the map of Europe changed between 1900 and 1945 – they lived through not one but two bloody, horrific world wars which, combined, took the lives of around 80 million people. They lived through a global influenza pandemic that killed approximately 50 million people, as well as a Great Depression that left them scrounging for the basic necessities of life.

They craved normalcy like a smoker craves a cigarette, because after living through all that nonsense, they probably though the end was nigh, as they say. And after all that, who wouldn’t think that the apocalypse was coming? But somehow they managed to survive and thrive.

Example 2: Many people might have already forgotten this, but from the period right after the Second World War until around 1990 or so, there was a completely new, pretty terrifying and, if you Google the name Stanislav Petrov, nearly realized phenomenon called a nuclear holocaust which was hanging over people’s heads during the Cold War. It was a time that was also filled with proxy wars, terrorist bombings, recessions, crazy inflation and hostage takings.

Like people today, people back then were rightly pretty fearful about this whole being annihilated after the push of a button thing and probably thought ‘this is the worst time to be alive in history’. Yet somehow they also managed to survive and thrive.

So while people who are turning 20 this year might be wondering if they are cursed, being born right before 9/11 and having to live through things like the Iraq War, the war in Afghanistan, global recession, the rise of celebrity politicians and now the whole coronavirus thing with its rampant spread, the social distancing and self-isolation, they really aren’t. It’s just part of being human – living through bad times seems to be something every generation has to go through.

On a similar note, while I was spending some of my quarantine time last week surfing around the Internet, I stumbled across a social media post that reminded me that Canadians, in the not too distant past, had faced a virus that caused much fear and panic, a virus that also shut down ‘normal life’ for long stretches of time.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Canada had a rather significant outbreak of polio, the highly infectious viral disease that primarily (though not exclusively) attacks the nervous system of young children. Also known as infantile paralysis, polio had been around for some time – American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously contracted it in 1921 when he was nearly 40, and the disease profoundly affected the rest of his life. But in post-war Canada there were numerous outbreaks and it spread to many communities across the country (including in my hometown of Saskatoon, where a building not far from my home housed those who had been affected by the disease).

People were rightly terrified of this viral disease because contracting polio could lead to paralysis and death. Iron lungs – devices that helped people who had contracted polio breathe – became a common sight in hospitals during these times and ultimately 11,000 Canadians became paralyzed by polio and hundreds more died from the disease.

Much like today, a variety of measures were enacted to stop the spread of the virus, including quarantining, the shutting down of schools, the prohibition of children going to movie theatres, swimming pools or pretty much any other public space. In many cities, streets were deserted, playgrounds were empty and parks were closed for the summer – in short, ‘normal’ life was altered significantly.

It eventually took the creation and widespread use of the Salk vaccine in 1955 and later the Sabin oral vaccine in 1962 to reduce incidences of polio, which tailed off by the 1970s. Canada was finally declared polio-free in 1994, though it still exists in Pakistan, Nigeria and Afghanistan.

I suppose looking back at the polio epidemic of the 1950s shows that while viruses are terrifying and create a whole lot of anxiety, we’ve been through something like this before and if we stick together and stay calm, we can get through it again. That’s my inner optimist speaking, I guess.

 

 

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