Job losses, new careers, relationships changing for better or worse, and a whole lot of perseverance – these are the stories we heard in our first community project.
Over the past couple of months, we’ve asked people how the pandemic has affected their everyday lives and what they did to adapt.
The responses varied greatly, but this much was clear: the pandemic affected our mental health and – for better or worse – changed our relationships. Despite all this, many people took time for themselves and had a better sense of what really matters.
Fifteen people responded to our first survey. Within these responses were detailed – and sometimes extremely personal – accounts of how their lives have changed since the pandemic.
Respondents work in various industries, including restaurants, home care, services, construction, non-profits, finance and consulting.
46.7% were not laid off, while 26.7% were. The remainder were in more complex scenarios. Accessing supports were a mixed bag – a slight majority was able to get support while others could not.
All respondents noted an impact to their mental health, followed by physical health, relationships and finances.
Some quotes that stood out:
After reviewing the data, we reached out to participants who indicated they would be interested in sharing more. We also reached out to people who have different perspectives.
For instance, Sharon Fusilero hasn’t been able to see her family for more than a year. They live in Ontario.
“Normally when I go see them, I make the most of it then recharge my battery. I get that love and family attention from them,” she said. “Obviously I haven’t seen them, so my battery is very empty right now.”
Some of Fusilero’s friendships have also withered. While they weren’t particularly strong to begin with, it was still tough. She also parted ways with a romantic partner.
“We just grew apart and the longer it went, it got even harder and harder,” she said. “With COVID, it’s been difficult to nurture all those relationships and friendships.”
Because her daughter is in school, Fusilero had to quarantine three times.
Hani Rukh E Qamar, the founder of the Canadian Advisory of Women Immigrants (CAWI), said the pandemic has made it even tougher for newcomers.
“The pandemic has opened those gaps further, and we’ve been trying to bridge them over the years,” Qamar said.
For instance, going to in-person language classes or career workshops have been difficult. Many newcomers don’t have computers at home and rely on support of these classes, Qamar explained.
Stats Canada data in 2020 showed immigrants were more exposed to COVID-19 because most of them work in front-line and essential services. They were also more likely to report facing harassment, attacks and stigma.
Aysha Yaqoob is a teacher and also the founder and president of Pencils of Hope, an organization that offers school supplies to help underfunded schools in Saskatchewan.
Yaqoob said more families had reached out for help this year. Many had lost work and were unable to pay for school supplies, which average at about $236 per student.
“The loss of employment made it tougher on families to afford school supplies, and we had a few families not feel safe to go out and buy them,” she said.
As a teacher, Yaqoob said it was a challenging year. They all had to constantly make changes and pivot last minute.
“It’s been emotionally taxing, but it’s been so great to see how students are persevering during this moment,” she said. “Kids have lost a lot and have been asked to make some big changes.”
Despite these challenges, survey respondents and people we spoke with said they were able to adapt.
Nearly everyone said something positive came out of the pandemic for them.
People said they met with friends a lot online, became more active, found different hobbies, changed careers, better connected with family and focused on self care. One person said they just “sucked it up.”
Fusilero said she vowed to take care of herself for her daughter, colleagues and for her own well-being. She has also taken some personal-growth courses online.
“I make sure I’m thankful every day and I pray every day,” she said. “I commune with nature as much as I can. I have a big window in my apartment. I’ll sit in front of it and read when I can’t go out.”
Qamar started CAWI after being laid off from her internship because of the pandemic.
“Part of the reason I started this stems from me losing a lot of social supports and networks because of COVID, and that newcomers might not have any at all,” she said. “Our mission is to advocate for rights and resources for immigrant women.”
Yaqoob said even though at-home learning for students has been tough, the silver lining is most families spent more time together and bonded.
“I’ve had parents email me and say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know how my kids learned a certain topic,’” she said. “It was the first time I had a chance to sit down with them and work with them. There was more family engagement in schools, which has been awesome.”
When asked to give advice on how to get through this challenging time, respondents said:
Fusilero said when we don’t feel our feelings, we tend to bottle things up. When we don’t express how we feel, it can cause further mental health challenges.
“If I want to cry, I cry,” she said. “I don’t stop myself. If days aren’t too bad, I try to celebrate. I’ll dance or I’ll sing or I’ll eat. That’s what I do when I celebrate.”
Tatenda Mhaka said giving ourselves grace makes us human.
“We all have those difficult moments. We all struggle,” she said. “No one person can ever say they have never had a tough time. So to not give ourselves grace during an unprecedented time in our world, or extend that same grace towards others is to diminish our humanness.”
Qamar said she’s learned to say no and find time for herself, whether that’s through exercise, meditating, a bath, or spending time with family.
“At the end of the day, you can’t pour from an empty cup and your mental health always comes first,” she said. “If you’re not well yourself, you can’t help anyone else.”
Yaqoob said she’s dug into her own personal relationships and encourages people to reach out to friends or family if they aren’t feeling OK.
“Give yourself some grace,” she said. “I want to say it will end, and I have to keep reminding myself of that.”
It looks like we’re heading into some sense of normalcy in the next bit. While we can’t predict what may happen, what we expect is most people (about 80%) will do fine once restrictions are lifted, according to research by Dr. Gordon Asmundson at the University of Regina.
“Unfortunately, just shy of 20% of people are going to really struggle getting back and having to go back to crowded spaces,” he said. “But for most people, give it a month and things will be back to normal. They are pretty jubilant about it. It may not be the roaring ‘20s like we saw after the Spanish Flu, but it might be.”
Asmundson looked at some of the positive changes COVID-19 has had on people, and whether those positives were real or illusory. You can read that research here.
He said we’re going to need more mental health services once we get back to normal. There had already been a shortage before the pandemic, and people are going to need it now more than ever.
“It takes a long time to train registered psychologists, so that’s not going to be the short solution,” he said. “The short solution is going to be funding and making it accessible online. Governments are going to need to recognize this and provide some funding.”
Asmundson said we need to be proactive next time a pandemic happens.
“Let’s be more prepared next time,” he said. “We need to take some of these lessons and carry them forward.”
Thank you all for participating in this first community project. I’m so appreciative of everyone filling out the survey and sharing their stories.
As a start-up journalism organization, I wasn’t sure if people would be open. But I’ve been proven otherwise.
Like many of you, this pandemic has been tough for me. A lot has changed – I left a job I had really enjoyed, moved to a new city, switched careers and launched this new initiative. Plus, my husband and I bought a house and we’re still not moved in yet.
I’ve got to brainstorm a new idea for the next community project. In the next while or so, I’ll put some feelers out with a survey.
Let me know what you think of this first project. I’d really enjoy your feedback. All the best – Jeremy.
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