By Karen Viveiros, MCC Director of Communications & Policy

In March 2020, the Manitoba Chambers of Commerce President & CEO returned from a massive mining industry convention in Toronto, only to receive an email a couple of days later that COVID-19 cases had been reported at the event. On March 13, our team moved instantly to remote work, and I’m still hammering away on my keyboard at my dining room table.

Almost one year into the pandemic, our little team of 8 continues to work very hard to try to make sense of COVID-19, especially through the lens of our business association members’ needs: the virus’ risks and symptoms; testing protocols; how to comply with public health orders; the ways it has devastated tranches of our local business landscape while significantly buoying other industries; the blow it has dealt to airlines, hospitality, travel/tourism, in-person service businesses; and all the eligibility criteria and application processes for ever-evolving emergency government support programs and funds.

All the while, some of us have personally endured heartbreak as the SARS-CoV-2 virus has infected friends, family, and neighbours. We’ve witnessed the crushing impact on our fragile health care system while trying to show proper admiration for our valiant health care workers, as well as our hard-working grocery store employees, truck drivers, teachers, and other frontline essential workers. We’ve tried to comprehend the sheer magnitude of the costs — financial, human, psychological — but they’re immeasurable. And for me, these past couple of weeks — after 10+ months of “trying to make sense of pandemic” — have been a slog.

Previously, I spent more than seven years dedicated to customer communications in an employee assistance program. We were typically dealing with some type of crisis. With massive corporate clients spread throughout North America, we were often called upon to support with messaging, and to research and synthesize accurate, credible information related to workplace and workforce issues. Sometimes that meant writing about ways to have fun at work or how to design a structured health promotion campaign that would attract participants. But other times, it meant talking about healing after a devastating workplace tragedy, the dangers of fentanyl, coping with unimaginable losses after floods and wildfires, how to avoid Zika or West Nile virus, how to share a cancer diagnosis with an employer, psychological harassment in toxic workplaces, “signs of suicide” training for people managers, and the like. Heavy stuff.

So, I learned to ask a lot of questions of our clinicians about human emotions and experiences, I learned which agencies and organizations were reliable, and I learned to consult with experts on these workplace and workforce issues. But there was always well-researched, established information readily available. As the COVID-19 pandemic has unfolded, the medical recommendations and the protocols have been in a fairly constant state of flux because the science is evolving. We need to accept that. It also means we need to be gentle with ourselves and others. We are all coping in our own learned ways and adapting to life with this virus in real-time: the effects, long-term risks, and prevention efforts, possibly while dealing with job loss, figuring out how to manage frustrated home schoolers, missing out on hockey and other kids’ activities, worried about a crumbling business, or trying to figure out if we’re eligible to apply for available emergency funding.

The pandemic started out as surreal, but it has become a very real way of life. As I absorb my daily double-dose of COVID-19 news, I experience peaks and valleys, balancing between being safe at home, but knowing that some aren’t. I have a job, but many don’t. I haven’t personally lost a loved one to the virus, but so many have. I may not be anxious or afraid of COVID-19, but many are, and maybe I should be. We’ve watched in horror as the first wave battered an overwhelmed Italy, France, the U.S., in personal care homes, and so on, and so on, only to watch it happen again in wave 2, in different far-flung countries and in our local communities.

I try to cope with the unknown by sharing in good conversations throughout the day, and by accepting that I can only control my thoughts, actions, and my family’s safety. But I also like to try to keep my optimism levels up and a sense of humour about some of it.

So, as we enter the weekend, here are my favourite light-hearted and/or positive take-aways and lessons of the past year:

Lexicon/vernacular can be a source of great humour: When Merriam-Webster crowns its annual “word of the year,” it’s usually something fairly fresh and special. If they decide to make a list of the most-hated words and phrases, it could be one of so many that popped up everywhere this year, for instance: uncharted waters or uncharted territory; unprecedented times; the greatest challenge of our time; pivot; shift; you’re on mute; stay home and stay safe; once in a lifetime pandemic; mask up; bubble; non-essential business; essential workers; social distancing; physical distancing; resilience; grit; superspreader events; quarantine chips; self-isolate yourself; buy local. If I had the chance to crown a winner, it would have to be a tie: the “new normal” and “speaking moistly.”

Social connections count for a lot: I miss in-person lunches with my girlfriends tremendously but I am so happy to have access to them virtually. Our daily text chains and regular zoom calls are full of acerbic wit, insults, weird news stories, silly and sometimes even offensive GIFs, debates of importance, “solutions” to national and global crises, and the like. If you don’t have this to brighten your day, may you FIND it.

My family is awesome and my kids are more than all right. I simply cannot believe how well my children, ages 11 and 13, are faring overall. I know there will be lasting effects of all kinds, and there have definitely been days when they’ve struggled, but for the most part, they’ve been lovely, helpful, tough, accepting, and agile. My husband and I have definitely taken some “weather the storm” lessons from the kids. They’ve gone to school and worn masks all day, my daughter isn’t even at her actual school due to space issues and she sat beside a sink getting sprayed by handwashers every day for a month, their music classes and electives have been dismantled, they’ve done bizarre activities for gym class (my son claims he has shovelled snow and pulled other kids back and forth across the field in a sled on multiple occasions?), and rarely have they ever complained. Thank goodness for my family and our Friday night air fryer/dance parties.

The evolving protocols can be baffling but we need to trust science: I started to look back on a few things when I was prepping to write this article, and it is incredible how much messaging change we have endured. Of course, this is all VERY tongue-in-cheek, but here’s what it seems like:

  • “No masks, well, actually, yes, wear a mask. But cloth homemade is totally acceptable, you don’t need a medical mask, your grandma can sew you a mask. Well, maybe buy your masks actually (don’t make them), and it really should be a 3-layer mask, well, maybe wear two masks actually. That’s the gold standard – a double-mask.”
  • “The virus is only transmissible by droplets, but it’s also transmissible by aerosols (those are smaller droplets). So yes, try to open windows if you can for good ventilation. I know it’s minus 28, but you can put on a coat.”
  • “Mostly symptomatic people transmit the virus, but there are people without symptoms who also transmit the virus. And they can be out and about just shedding that virus everywhere they go.”
  • “Yes, the virus can live on surfaces, those are called fomites, but that doesn’t really present a big risk, but maybe wipe your surfaces down with virucide just in case. OK, people – stop wiping down your groceries, you don’t really need to do that.”
  • “Most people will be able to recover from COVID-19 very effectively, but some don’t.”

From the bottom of my heart, the Winnipeg Free Press has a gem in editor Paul Samyn, and those of us who love to write are lucky to read his work. I seriously cannot believe he has something new and insightful to say every single day. Thank you to the Free Press for excellent pandemic coverage and for making it available to all.

Our chamber leaders and business community are resilient. So unbelievably resilient. (Sorry, but that really is the best word to use here.) You’re still trucking along, trying to support one another, dealing with changing public health orders, putting up acrylic dividers to keep people apart, wiping down PIN pads and shopping cart handles. Some of you have been forced to close to in-person traffic more than once, and in between these lock-downs, you’ve been seriously hampered by restrictions and capacity limits. I hope that you have applied for every last dollar of emergency relief for which you’re eligible. I also hope that you’ve moved your business online if it makes sense to do so, and that you can take over the world when it’s back up and running full-tilt.

It has been more than ONE YEAR since the pandemic’s declaration by the World Health Organization. We have made incredible progress in this global fight, but we’ve also seen so much loss. And now, the variants are travelling, but the vaccines are arriving too. In an effort to help our members make sense of COVID-19 and understand how to manage risks to employees, clients, and operations, out little team of 8 has tried really hard to champion the right issues, for the right reasons, at the right time. I hope we’ve made a difference.

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