Light at the end of the tunnel

Historical POV on this pandemic

Welcome to At The End Of the Day. I’m Hannah Sung and I write this newsletter to put a people-first perspective on the news. 

I’m so excited to have a new discount code for you AND a giveaway from ATEOD x Cheekbone Beauty! Scroll to bottom for details

For all the news on the Moderna, Pfizer, Astra-Zeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines, the biggest question for most people is simply, “When?”

The good news for our family is that my parents are scheduled to get their first shots this weekend (hallelujah, high five to the jab lab!). But what about the almost 90% of Canadians who have not yet received a first shot? It’s like waiting in line forever for a rollercoaster and finally climbing in, tick-tick-ticking up to the highest ascent. 

This is the most anxious part of the wait. We are so close.

Meanwhile, outside it’s spring. The buds are out, the littlest flowers have bloomed and restaurants and bars with patios are open. People are mingling as Covid cases increase in our third wave. Experts are saying people will need to go back to stricter shutdown measures but it’s going to be like trying to stuff a genie back in a bottle. The genie wants to see friends and go shopping.

Where I am, in Ontario, it feels like we’re losing the race between vaccines and the variants. And with everything we’re learning about the new variants (they are deadlier and more harmful meaning a more dangerous third wave) it’s easy to feel panicked.1

So I called up someone who could talk big picture, like, really big picture, by imparting what she knows about the history of contagious infections.

Madeleine Mant is a medical anthropologist at University of Toronto-Mississauga. She studies “bodies through time,” meaning that she wants to know what life was like for people who experienced poor health in the past, especially overlooked or vulnerable people.2

“Right now, we have a chance to ask living people the questions I always wish I could ask the dead ones when I’m looking at hospital records or at skeletons, thinking, Oh, what was that day like? What were those experiences like?” Mant told me from her home office.

I could talk to Madeleine Mant all day

By living through a pandemic herself, Madeleine’s professional and personal experience has collided.

I asked her about what we’ve seen so far, the final stretch and her hopes for how we’ll move forward from this time.

🦠 Any surprises with how we’ve handled Covid so far?

No, I'm not surprised. If you look at infectious disease outbreaks in the past, they tend to reveal the societal fault lines that were already there. When we talk about the Black Death in the 14th century, folks were rounding up Jewish people and setting them on fire, saying they’re poisoning the wells, that's how this is spreading. Sex workers during the First and Second World Wars — incredible amounts of propaganda were put out against them, and these were often women that had been forced into this, or using sex as a means of survival, right? So we see blame and shame get laid down in every epidemic. 

I was disturbed and horrified by how quickly the anti-Asian rhetoric exploded back in March. But I wouldn't say that I was surprised.

😷 On anti-masking:

The anti-masking demonstrations we see now were also happening in 1919 in San Francisco — there was the Great Anti-Mask League.3 So that is not new. When vaccination was really popularized in the 18th century, there were political cartoons drawn where people were getting the vaccination and turning into cows, because the vaccine was drawn from cowpox. You know, “vaccination” the word, comes from “vacca” for cow. And I always wonder, did they really believe it? Or were they just sort of saying that crossing animals and humans is an unholy kind of thing? 

We see people that are resistant to believe new science. People were really upset over the changing narrative coming from Canada Health last year about masks. But science can update. So seeing that I thought, again, I'm not surprised. I'm just sort of stunned to be living through this.

🏃🏽‍♀️ How do you feel about this final stretch moment we’re in?

We can see the light at the end of the tunnel. But we can't forget that the pandemic is still raging. The weather's getting better, people are saying, I can't wait to get back out on the patios. But we need to remain vigilant. We need to remember that even if we get the shot, we're still not sure if we can still transmit the virus, even if we've been vaccinated. So until we know that, it's going to be critical to wear masks.

💡 What are mistakes we should learn from in the past?

Cutting funding to public health agencies is a major one. Also, employing fewer frontline workers, like nurses. And we don’t want to open up the closet and find emergency stores have been depleted. There was a lot of that going on here. We just weren’t prepared. 

And the biggest thing for me is that we need to continue to root out systemic racism. We need to talk about why we need to point fingers. This is a natural human thing, it has happened for thousands of years when it comes to infectious diseases. But looking at the news of what happened in Atlanta, I am horrified. And the idea that some people don’t want to connect this to be a racial thing is so obviously incorrect.4

🆘 On protecting vulnerable people in a time of climate crisis

Pandemics are going to keep happening because of climate change. We can’t just say, Thank goodness the scientists fixed this one with a great shot in the arm. We need to put our resources to deal with climate change, as biodiversity is changing, as animals are moving closer to cities because their habitats are being broken down. 

There’s a term: ecosyndemics. It basically means the interaction and synergy between infectious disease and the environment. Many experts kept saying this pandemic was coming and here it is. But it’s an opportunity to really look inward and think about how we can be better prepared. We have to think about the larger picture in terms of protecting people that are most vulnerable. 

The flu pandemic of 1918 helped drive the founding of the Canadian federal health agencies. So let’s talk about how we can use the incredible knowledge and communication abilities we have to do better and do right by the people that have been pushed to the margins.

😌 How she feels right now

I feel incredibly hopeful. I am so impressed with the engagement with science. I've been impressed with the stalwartness of the students that I teach. I am impressed with families that have made these incredible sacrifices to stay distant to save lives. The idea of people saying, I don't have any grandparents, but I don't want to hurt yours, I'm gonna stay home. That kind of generosity of spirit is absolutely amazing. And it outweighs any of the negativity that's out there. But we can't ignore the negativity while we remain hopeful. 

I feel great, the sun is shining, things are going to be wonderful. But to stay physically distant, while remaining socially connected, is going to be really important. And I hope that we learn a lesson and fund mental health and public health. Because what we're seeing is a huge spike in eating disorders and mental health problems. And that is because, you know, we are not used to being apart. We are such a social species. But we can and will rebuild and I'm just so excited to get beyond this so we can look back on it.

As Madeleine told me, whenever people come to the end of an epidemic, they just want to forget it because it has been so distressing.

But I’m hoping that we won’t just turn our backs on what we’re learning about our own societal fault lines. While Madeleine has had to dig up bones and old hospital records to understand health in the past, we have such a vastly different world of communication today that we’ll never be able to feign ignorance. We know what life is like for others right now. So what are we going to do about it?

Hit the heart below if you like what you’re reading and write me back anytime to let me know your thoughts. I always love hearing from you.

With big appreciation to Madeleine Mant for making the time to impart her wisdom. Stay safe, everyone. We are almost there.


✨✨✨ With the brilliant editing of ATEOD editor Ishani Nath and Christina Vardanis of Best Health magazine ✨✨✨

Subscribe to The Conversation Piece, a podcast that challenges the way you see everything.

From André Picard to Dr. Jenn Gunter: fascinating speakers on the topics that matter most to Canadians. Wherever you listen to your favourite podcasts.

You can also find At The End Of the Day published by Best Health magazine. Here are a few excellent articles from them to kickstart your weekend reading:

How to talk to your loved ones who are hesitant to get the Covid vaccine. By Rebecca Gao 

‘I actively fight for my sanity and my health every day.’ Hayley Wickenheiser’s view from the front lines.

8 Women Share the Impact the Pandemic Has Had on Their Mental Health

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