By Alex Boyd | Calgary Bureau
Dec. 30, 2020
If you could somehow rewind this past year — return those arriving vaccines to sender; dial skyrocketing COVID-19 cases back down to zero; and bleach the words “social distancing” from everyone’s minds — what would be left?
It’s been a year for the ages, with the spread of a coronavirus, no longer novel, sickening and killing people around the world.
One of the early staff stories about the future pandemic appeared in the Star’s pages on Jan. 8, as local health officials said they were watching for cases of “undiagnosed viral pneumonia.”
Later that month came Canada’s first “presumptive” case of the virus — back then, only certain labs could diagnose the brand-new illness, so officials had to couch their language — after a 50-year-old man who’d recently travelled to Wuhan, China, called 911 and was taken to hospital with a fever and a cough.
Since then, the headlines have come fast and furious, as coverage of the pandemic has largely steamrolled every other news event. Unsurprisingly, after taking stock of the past 12 months, The Canadian Press named COVID-19 the story of the year.
“Nothing has had such an impact on the lives of all Canadians since the Second World War,” Claudine St. Germain, top editor at L’actualité in Montreal, said in voting for COVID-19.
It’s not just that the pandemic was the biggest news story, but the accompanying lockdowns have also squashed a lot of the news that normally happens, says Janice Neil, the chair of the Ryerson School of Journalism.
“Part of what makes journalism and news content robust during normal times, is that lots of things are happening in the world. Cultural things, conferences where you hear interesting speakers, meetings and all sorts of civic life,” she said.
While many of those things are now happening on Zoom, “It’s not the same kind of chemistry.”
In many ways, COVID-19 coverage kicked the can down the road on issues that we’ll have to deal with now.
“My guess is the story of 2020 without COVID-19 may well have been the depth of polarization, which had gripped Canada in the aftermath of the last election,” said Frank Graves, president and founder of EKOS Research Associates, in an email.
There’s no question that COVID-19 reshaped the year for everyone — but what if it hadn’t?
We asked a few observers to imagine such an alternative reality for us, and to take a guess at what 2020 might have looked like without COVID-19.
Here’s what they said.
Would our PM be better groomed, but less popular?
This was the spring that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s flowing locks came bouncing out of the shadows and became a supporting character in their own right.
In the early days of the pandemic, the prime minister held news conferences outside Rideau Cottage, the passage of time marked by rising case numbers and his increasingly unruly hair.
The implied message: If Canadians couldn’t get a haircut, why should he?
Without COVID-19 and the lockdown that came with it, our alternative-timeline prime ministerial hair might be as groomed as ever — but the man would likely be less popular.
Canada has paid a major human and economic price for the pandemic, but the politicians charged with leading the way in this country have won support from many. Polls have found that Trudeau and most premiers have seen a bump in the number of Canadians approving of the job they’re doing since the arrival of COVID-19.
“If the pandemic had not occurred, I suspect that Trudeau government would be in more difficulty than it is today and we could well have seen an early election with an uncertain outcome,” Graves said.
Of course, Trudeau hasn’t escaped unscathed.
On April 5, a conversation between him and then-finance minister Bill Morneau about how to support students, who were hit hard by the pandemic, would set in motion a scandal that eventually prompted Morneau to resign and a 25-year-old charity founded by a couple of precocious anti-child labour activists to “wind down” its Canadian operations.
WE Charity had been given $19.5 million in federal money to run a volunteer placement program for students.
The resulting scandal was triggered by the fact that not only was Trudeau’s wife a WE Charity ambassador and podcast host, but his brother and mother had received a combined $282,000 in speaking fees and Morneau’s daughter was revealed to work there, too.
If not for COVID-19, the WE scandal “likely wouldn’t have happened,” notes Shachi Kurl, president of the Angus Reid Institute.
“But the prime minister has a particular talent for finding trouble, so it would have been something else.”
Would O’Toole be creating migraines for the Liberals?
Sometimes in politics, as in Newton’s laws of motion, an action has an equal and opposite reaction.
In other words, while Trudeau may have struggled in a COVID-19-free world, newly minted Conservative leader Erin O’Toole might have had an easier go, observers say.
The Durham MP won the leadership race in August, in a victory that was described as an upset for presumed front-runner Peter MacKay.
In our alternative 2020 timeline, O’Toole is a fresh leader taking on a scandal-plagued prime minister, and might very well be creating migraines for the Trudeau Liberals, Kurl said.
Instead, thanks to COVID-19, he was handed a tough job in the middle of a pandemic.
In recent weeks, he accused the government of seriously mismanaging vaccine procurement — shortly before the first doses started arriving — and was forced to backtrack on controversial comments made about residential schools that were documented on Zoom, the pandemic’s communication mode of choice.
Kurl points out it has been a difficult time for any politician not in power.
“Opposition leaders have had to hold their powder. There hasn’t been a lot of elbow room to talk about any other policy item other than crisis and COVID management, and that has been a winner for the Trudeau government,” Kurl said.
“What are you going to do? Be Erin O’Toole, or be any other opposition leader, and be like, ‘Well, we could do it better?’”
Would Black Lives Matter Protests have reached so many?
George Floyd died in Minneapolis in May, after a police officer knelt on his neck for nearly eight minutes. Caught on tape, it was a incident that reignited global fury about police brutality.
But if you erase COVID-19 from the equation, that week may have played out differently, Neil hypothesizes.
If you refuse to settle for second hand news and think that your loved ones shouldn’t either, give them the gift of the Star.
Picture those same protests in Minnesota, but instead of wall-to-wall coverage, the events are ingested as snippets of coverage before you head out to work or after you came home from a dinner out. Think about absorbing events while not being stuck at home watching TV coverage as it intertwined with our collective vulnerability like never before.
Neil wonders whether that would have stopped the protests in Minnesota from boiling over into a global phenomenon, with solidarity protests launched in Berlin, London and Toronto.
The gatherings were a visceral response — a fire sparked by this new, caught-on-video incident, but built upon historic and modern injustices known by people around the world.
Yet this time, they catapulted into the mainstream in a new way.
“We are all experiencing the world a little bit differently now, I think. A lot of the discourse in the pandemic has been about neighbourliness, thinking about other people, not just thinking about yourself,” Neil says.
“Maybe people’s hearts and minds are more open than they would have been when there was a lot of other things competing for their attention.”
Would fishery protests have taken on more national prominence?
On the other hand, there is arguably a timeline in which protests over the Indigenous right to fish spread across the East Coast and became an even bigger story this year.
This fall, a clash began between members of the Sipekne’katik First Nation and non-Indigenous fishers over the former’s “modest livelihood” fishery.
At one point a Sipekne’katik fisherman found himself trapped in a lobster storage facility as a mob of about 200 men gathered, some hurling rocks and racist insults. They’d come for the lobster the fisherman had caught that day, and refused to disperse when police arrived.
When the man was finally able to leave the building, the catch was plundered.
“If not for COVID, the dispute in Nova Scotia over the lobster fishery may well have become an Oka Crisis for the new millennium,” Graves said.
The Oka Crisis was a 78-day standoff sparked by the proposed expansion of a golf course on Mohawk ancestral land northwest of Montreal that galvanized Indigenous resistance across the country.
“We have seen large movements on concerns with issues of social justice linked to Indigenous peoples and communities of colour,” he said, adding that divisions around issues such as these likely got muted by the pandemic.
“These may well have received even more prominence in a ‘normal’ year.”
Four more years?
In our alternative 2020, Canadians right now might be bracing for the pomp and ceremony that mark a major inauguration south of the border — that of U.S. President Donald Trump’s second term.
“I am guessing that Trump may well have prevailed in the U.S. if the pandemic had not occurred; it certainly was the main obstacle to re-election for him,” Graves said.
In a COVID-19-less world, Trump would likely have run a campaign on law and order, Kurl says, set against a backdrop of Black Live Matters protests unpopular with his base.
Like every other year, voters would have been urged to show up to cast their ballot in person, but there would have been no massive push for mail-in ballots — an option that would prove to be particularly popular with Democratic voters.
“This president has completely failed to save hundreds of thousands of Americans. He has done such a terrible job managing this pandemic, he’s got to go — that ultimately became the ballot issue.”
In other news?
In addition to the stories that were likely changed because of COVID-19, there are many more that didn’t get the attention they might have in a normal year.
It was a big year for space news, from the explosion of SpaceX’s Starship rocket prototype in Texas to a new U.S.-Canadian deal that could see a Canadian astronaut fly to the moon, though much of it went under the radar.
It was quietly a good year for the environment in some ways, as declines in transport and travel drove a record drop in carbon emissions, though much of the plastic waste from Amazon orders reportedly made its way into landfills and even oceans. (Murder hornets probably got their due coverage, though.)
There was also a slew of what Kurl calls “sleeper issues” — stories that simmered but didn’t attain the place in the national consciousness they might have.
In that bucket she puts ongoing stories such as the squabbles between the federal government and the provinces; Meng Wanzhou, the Chinese executive detained in Vancouver; and the so-called two Michaels, meaning Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who have been imprisoned by China for two years on what Canadian officials say are trumped-up charges.
“In some ways, 2021 will be a bit of Back to the Future,” she said. “If we can get the pandemic behind us, these are the issues we’re going to have to confront.”
The pandemic also papered over issues such as climate change, race and immigration, that are likely set back to roar back in 2021, Graves said.
“My overall guess is that this disruption temporarily diminished huge fault lines and basically overwhelmed coverage of the normal new cycle,” he said.
“My guess is that the once-in-a-lifetime collision of health and economic risk has altered our path in uncertain ways, but the new normal will look little like the old normal.”