It’s been a year since life as we knew it came to a screeching halt. Our churches closed, then reopened with strict capacity limits, only to close again in much of Canada. Catholic Register file photo

A year of COVID — a time of learning and caring

By 
  • March 12, 2021

Fr. Wilson Andrade’s smile is as broad, his laugh as ready and his intense interest in people as alive as it ever was. But he confesses that a year of lockdowns, online Masses and separation from his St. Ann’s parishioners in Toronto’s East Chinatown neighbourhood hasn’t been easy.

“When I was alone, I had to go to the chapel and sit down and pray,” the Holy Cross Father recalled. “Before it was always that I had to do this, this and this. Now is a time to be, to be with God, to do things that would connect me to Jesus.”

His greatest joy in recent weeks has been to be allowed back into Bridgepoint Hospital. He brings communion and the sacrament of the sick to many of the long-term residents.

“I am really blessed with this,” he said. “Some of the patients say I am the only visitor they have. That really hit me.”

The reality of COVID-19 hit the whole world hard last spring. By early March, the virus’ deadly tentacles had spread across the globe. The WHO declared it a pandemic March 11. Canada initiated bans on travel, schools closed, business shuttered, churches sat empty and we all started wearing masks and working from home. And people died ... more than 22,000 Canadians to date. The arrival of vaccines has given the world a light at the end of this tunnel, but it will be a long recovery on all fronts, including the Church and its Catholic partners. It has been a year of suffering, learning and leaning on each other.

For Andrade, to be able to lean on a community of brothers in his religious order has been a consolation, but still the isolation of the last year has taken its toll.

“We are all broken, and when we are broken that is where the light gets in. For me, that was my experience,” he said. “Yes, there was isolation and loneliness and struggle. But during those times the light could get into our hearts.”

The struggle against COVID-19 at St. Ann’s has been real and it has come at a cost. But it has also borne fruit, Andrade said.

“We kept the food bank open and we could really meet a lot of people and bring some kind of comfort to them. We served nearly, for the whole year now, 15,000 people — giving food, greeting them. It was a great opportunity to do that.”

In the middle of a phone interview about the last year of responding to COVID at St. Michael’s Hospital, Dr. Stephen Hwang’s other phone goes off, Seaton House, Toronto’s largest shelter, on the line.

Fifteen seconds later he’s back on the phone. “It’s too early to really meditate on those questions right now,” he said.

COVID is far from over for Catholic health care — which doesn’t mean that Hwang, a world-renowned researcher in health and homelessness, isn’t thinking about what the novel coronavirus has been teaching him and his colleagues at St. Michael’s. Hwang is launching a new research project to track the path of the disease through Toronto’s shelter system and the city’s growing network of encampments.

“We treat the medical complications of the social issues of our time,” he said.

While social media and newspapers are filled with descriptions of the biology of the virus and technical details about vaccines, as a research scientist Hwang is interested in how the disease plays out in society. Who gets sick, how sick they get and what happens after they get sick has everything to do with poverty, race, social exclusion and the mental health effects of how our economy and institutions sort people into categories.

“We’ve had calls from shelters, shelter operators, asking for help doing screenings during outbreak situations. We’ve had our emergency department flooded with patients who were homeless, awaiting test results and who had no place to go. (St. Michael’s) essentially had to temporarily make part of the emergency department into a shelter. We’ve admitted patients to the hospital with COVID who have either no place to go or home situations that mean that they have to stay (in hospital) much longer than average,” Hwang said. “We’ve done the best we can under the circumstances. It’s part of our purpose.”

What strikes Saint Elizabeth Health Care’s Tazim Virani a year into the pandemic is that we just weren’t ready. Collectively, we’ve all been whistling past the graveyard of global disaster.

“It’s this failure of the imagination in terms of what are all the possible things that can go wrong,” she said. “We need to think about major crises. We can’t just be thinking about these short-term crises we can get over in 72 hours, or at most a week. We need to be thinking about these larger problems.”

For the Catholic home health-care organization, a big part of the answer is staring us in the face.

“Where are you the safest?” Tazim asked. “You are safest at home, right? If you are safest at home, why is it that all of our health-care delivery tends to be in other places?”

Tazim believes COVID has taught us that our health systems should default to the home and build out from there.

“What we’re constantly saying is that we’ve got this message, we’ve got this learning, that home is the safest. So how do we actually take that as a starting point?” she asked.

After a year of at-home, online learning, COVID has taught Catholic teachers about the value of gathering together, face-to-face, said Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association president Liz Stuart.

“We’ve seen the impact on our marginalized populations. Certainly our racialized students, our students with special needs, our ELL (English Language Learner) students — those are all things that this (COVID) has definitely brought into sharp relief for everybody,” Stuart said. “It’s highlighted and exacerbated the existing gaps and inequalities, quite frankly, that exist in the publicly-funded education system.”

Going online simply widens the gaps. Kids with their own room with a desk and a chair and a laptop and high-speed Internet and white-collar parents on hand to solve technical issues, encourage and explain online lessons are living in a different world from kids sharing a room in a multigenerational home trying to do school work via their cell phone while their parents, aunts and uncles are away doing front-line jobs.

“From the Catholic perspective, we talk a lot about social justice and we advocate for that. I think we really need to focus on living that message, really focusing on our marginalized students,” Stuart said. “What do we need to put in place to make sure they are supported and they are heard?”

OECTA’s 45,000 members are deeply engaged in the problems of their most vulnerable students.

“I am always touched when I hear from teachers. Most of what they talk about is about the students they serve,” she said. “Most of what concerns them most is around the students they know who are not functioning, who are not doing well. And that real sense of angst that they feel so powerless. In this environment, it’s so difficult for them to reach out and really affect those changes.”

COVID caught Catholic social services in the middle of sweeping changes — financial, organizational, cultural — said Catholic Charities, Archdiocese of Toronto executive director Michael Fullan.

“It’s not like the pandemic told us that we needed to be doing things differently. We had already been thinking about this stuff. Status quo isn’t an option. The pandemic has accelerated that process.”

In large part the change involves how Catholic Charities’ 26 members and three affiliate agencies relate to one another.

“We need to be looking for ways of increasing levels of collaboration between agencies,” Fullan said. “We’ve got to bring down the barriers between services and say, ‘What can we do to support people in a different way?’ ”

From Silent Voice serving the deaf community with accurate and reliable information about the pandemic to Covenant House giving shelter to skyrocketing numbers of kids on the run from family violence, all the agencies have pivoted over the last year, Fullan said.

“There’s going to be a need for additional mental health services, especially for our young people who are feeling it all over the place. The final chapters haven’t been written yet. We still need to regroup. It’s like we haven’t got a break.”

But it’s that endurance through a year of crisis that makes Catholic Children’s Aid Society of Toronto executive director Mark Kartusch proud.

“What we will be most proud of is that we continued on throughout the whole process doing our job and making sure children were safe and families were helped,” he said. “When we needed to go out and see a child, make sure they were safe, if they needed our in-person presence we did it — all the way through. We never shut down. That speaks volumes about our staff.”

What’s been changing under the pressures of COVID has been the focus on prevention, rather than merely reacting when family dynamics turn toxic. CCAS social workers have been checking in with families just to ask how they are coping and offer help — from laptops for kids to delivering groceries. In the current jargon of social work, such practical aid to people is called “instrumental help.” But Kartusch thinks of it as essentially Catholic.

“The Catholic social values — it’s really about helping,” he said. “We will always have an eye on child safety, but there’s lots of ways of doing that. Doing it more in the context of what families want and need is a big part of it. Families don’t really need an investigation. They need the services.”

Kartusch praises the CCAS staff for their creativity when suddenly they needed PPE (personal protective equipment), or when the very personal, almost intimate, work of understanding families had to go online. But he’s most aware of how the essence of CCAS’s work helping vulnerable families was brought into high relief.

“What we’ve heard from COVID all along is that it has exposed the fault-lines of society even more,” he said.

But it’s our response that matters, said Kartusch. “There was all this coming together as a community. That’s what I think we celebrate the most (on the anniversary of COVID). I think we also will celebrate the most by learning, by continuing on while we learn, about being here to help.”

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