How does one even come close to recapping such a hellish and unprecedented annus horribilis? 2019 was the year that saw 500,000 Montrealers hit the streets, shoulder to shoulder, to raise awareness about climate change. 2020 would be the year we barely saw each other.
Looking back on how the year started, it’s almost quaint to see how unaware we were of what was to come. I can now officially confirm that I much prefer reading about history than being a part of it.
What dominated international headlines in January of 2020 were the massive Australian wildfires that would kill people and animals, displace thousands and destroy over 15 million acres of land. It was a harbinger of what climate change will do if not taken seriously.
February saw the Wet’suwet’en crisis unfold across Canada. As rail blockades multiplied against the expansion of the Coastal Gas Link pipeline, national columnists and politicians — from François Legault to Andrew Scheer — discussed the “lawlessness” of the civil disobedience and urged police to “lay down the law.” Reconciliation, once again, proved to be nothing more than words.
February was also the month that saw Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein get his comeuppance. More than 100 women had to come forward before justice could finally tip in survivors’ favour. A few months later, the Quebec music industry would be rocked by its own #MeToo allegations, reminding us that privilege has a way of protecting people for a long time, but karma catches up with us all.
February would be the last “normal” month we would experience. By early March, what started off as distant stories of a virus spreading in Asia would catapult us all into the unknown. Within weeks, COVID-19 would evolve into a full-on global pandemic, the likes of which none of us had seen in our lifetime.
“Social distancing” would become the buzzword for 2020. Zoom calls, proper mask etiquette, CERB and “flattening the curve” became part of our vernacular and our daily lives, as social media replaced our daily commutes and 5à7s, and some of us wouldn’t see our loved ones for months.
Toilet paper wars
Images of people fighting for toilet paper and bottles of hand sanitizer started making the news. Rapidly updated and often-conflicting government information started making the rounds and sharing online space with conspiracy theorists and anti-maskers.
Then, the stories from hospitals and CHSLDs started making headlines. Our sense of security and order crashed like a badly built Jenga tower. One volunteer nurse blew the whistle, journalists started probing, family members started talking and everything came tumbling down.
Our underfunded healthcare system
Years and years of neglect and refusing to prioritize eldercare came back to haunt us. Story after story of seniors dying in eldercare facilities made frontpage headlines. So many stories… Each story representing a life and the family that loved them and lost them. Each story representative of our collective failure as a society and successive governments’ inability to prioritize healthcare.
Thousands of frontline workers exhausted both physically and mentally. While writing this year-end column, Quebec has registered a grim milestone: more than 7,000 COVID-related deaths, far more than any other Canadian province. Globally, close to 1.5 million people have died from coronavirus. The world is collectively in mourning, whether we realize it or not. And that number is only expected to go up before mass vaccinations roll out.
Guardian angels and sacrificed frontline workers
By May, the stories making headlines were frontline healthcare workers and “guardian angels” being left to their own devices and sacrificed by chronic underfunding. Many of these orderlies working the frontlines, risking (and sometimes losing) their lives were asylum seekers. Many Quebecers demanded the government — in a show of solidarity and appreciation — fast-track their applications. The Legault government would initially reject and then reluctantly (and disappointingly) agree on limited fast-tracking for healthcare workers only.
BLM and denial of systemic racism
By June, Quebec’s Black Lives Matter movement was gaining momentum. Spurred on by George Floyd’s death in the U.S., and continued instances of police brutality right here at home, BIPOC communities increased pressure for much-needed change. Joyce Echaquan’s tragic death in September rocked Quebec and laid bare the systemic discrimination suffered daily by Indigenous communities. Still… Premier Legault (and by extension his government) continued to deny systemic racism exists, making Quebec seemingly the only place in the world untouched by it.
The hot summer months gave us all a bit of breathing room. Able to escape our homes and come together in public parks and terrasses, Montreal felt alive and almost “normal” for a minute. Unable to travel abroad, Quebecers flocked to rural towns and national parks, many of them discovering, for the very first time, the beauty in our own backyards. Summer bliss didn’t last long. By the end of August, Sir John A. Macdonald’s head was bouncing off the pavement at Place du Canada and COVID cases started to climb up again. Healthcare workers warned everyone a second wave was coming.
While writing this, Montreal’s restaurants, theatres, bars, cafés, museums, live-music venues and all the things that make this city what it is are shut down and gasping for air. I worry about whether we have what it takes — financially, emotionally, physically — to get through the next six-month hurdle before vaccines offer us some hope for normalcy. I worry about how long it will take for Montreal to bounce back and I worry about our morale and our sense of solidarity.
The final stretch
2020 has been the year where our collective weaknesses and our failings as a society were laid bare for all to see. But I also saw some of our finest moments. People found incredibly creative and generous ways to support each other and push through. It’s the good I choose to focus on.
The 7,000 Quebecers who responded to the premier’s call for retired healthcare professionals willing to help. The people who reached out to thousands of housebound seniors. The people who volunteered their time in food banks and shelters. The people on the frontlines: the orderlies, nurses, doctors, teachers, maintenance workers, grocery store cashiers, warehouse and delivery folks, risking their lives daily, who have made it possible for the rest of us to stay home and stay safe.
The people who wore their masks religiously and did everything to keep the numbers low to protect the most vulnerable among us. The people (politicians included) who have been working tirelessly and resiliently around the clock, trying to devise plans and figure out ways to keep us going and keep the city functioning, while dealing with a pandemic they never signed up for.
I see you. And I thank you. You are what makes this city shine. Stay safe. Hang in there. A new year is coming. I hope it’s a supremely boring one. We could use one of those. ■
This feature was originally published in the December issue of Cult MTL.
Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.