Without a doubt. the unprecedented impacts of the global COVID-19 pandemic on the Cowichan Valley was the top story of the year locally.
Rumblings of what was to come began in the fall of 2019 when parts of China began shutting down, with businesses forced to close and residents ordered to stay at home as the large Asian nation tried, in vain, to deal with the growing crisis.
The pandemic began to directly impact the Valley beginning in the new year when officials warned against travelling overseas to avoid infection, and made self-isolation mandatory for those returning to the country.
But it wasn’t until late March that the full repercussions of what the health crisis would mean for the Valley, and the world, became frighteningly clear.
One of the front-page headlines of the Cowichan Valley Citizen’s edition on March 20 informed students and parents that schools in the Valley were closed until further notice due to the health crisis, and another headline dealt with the growing fear among local shoppers that led to the hoarding of toilet tissue, meats and other products, actions that were prevalent at the beginning of the crisis.
Long lines at grocery stores were appearing as people began to stock up in anxious anticipation of what could come in a worst-case scenario, leading to a number of tense confrontations when some shoppers accused others of hoarding.
The March 20 edition of the paper also carried a large special section dealing with the avalanche of cancellations around the Valley; including libraries, recreation centres, theatres, municipal buildings, sporting events, classes at Vancouver Island University and many more activities and events.
Regular life in the Valley began to come to a standstill as gatherings of more than 50 people were disallowed, with some local governments and many private businesses and organizations laying off staff, limiting hours of service, and some closing outright.
Even the Citizen switched from two editions a week to one until the situation changes.
But challenging times can bring out the best in people, and in early April, the public became aware of a team of residents of the Valley from different backgrounds who brought their expertise together in Project Draw Breath.
Using their expertise and 3D printers, the team developed working ventilator masks intended to help deal with the anticipated local shortage of ventilators needed to assist with the severe respiratory illnesses related to COVID-19.
The team at Project Draw Breath also developed easy-to-construct plastic face shields for use by the medical community where they were in short supply, and other individuals and organizations in the Valley also stepped up to create face masks and other needed medical clothing and equipment as the pandemic progressed.
As well, many local distilleries, including Ampersand, Stillhead and Merridale, used their equipment to provide much-needed hand sanitizer for local medical clinics and other organizations that needed it.
In recognition of the financial hardships being faced by its citizens during layoffs and curtailed work during the pandemic, some of the local governments gave their residents a tax break.
In early April, the Municipality of North Cowichan decided to put a hold on its plan for a 4.4 per cent tax increase in 2020 and settled for a 1.4 per cent increase for the year, but municipal staff warned of the probability of larger tax increases than planned in the coming years as a result.
The City of Duncan followed in May by dropping its proposed tax increase for 2020 from 3.16 per cent to 2.51 per cent.
The Cowichan Valley Regional District was already too far along in its annual tax process to change its tax increase for the year.
In the April 9 edition of the paper, there was a story about a Valley couple who refused to self-isolate for two weeks after they returned from outside the country, as was mandated by the federal government, and the fears and frustrations caused by the pandemic in the Valley were apparent as many residents demanded that the unidentified couple be heavily fined, incarcerated, or worse.
Ironically, the pandemic saw ongoing attempts to deal with some of the many homeless issues in the Valley finally move forward.
BC Housing announced in May that it would provide $172,000 to support phase one of a plan to create temporary accommodations for the homeless in Cowichan during the health crisis, and the Rapid Relief Fund, organized by the Victoria Foundation, Jawl Foundation and Times Colonist, provided an additional $220,000 for the plan.
On top of that, Ottawa earmarked $291,450 in 2020-21 and $463,953 per year until 2023-2024, to help prevent and reduce homelessness in the Valley.
Five temporary homeless tenting sites were established across the Cowichan region, with full services provided, and it’s hoped that the sites can be kept in operation until the approximately 100 supportive housing units that are planned for the region for people experiencing or at risk of homelessness in the Valley are in place, which is expected in the coming months.
As warmer weather came in the spring, restaurants and other eating establishments in many parts of Cowichan were given permission to set up their outdoor parking areas as temporary patios to help the businesses struggling through the protocols of social distancing.
The Downtown Duncan BIA also set up an outdoor food court in Station Street Park to allow food establishments another venue to serve their customers in addition to their restricted dining areas.
As summer approached, many of the long-standing annual fairs, concerts and other popular outdoor events, like the Cobble Hill Fair, Cowichan Exhibition, and summer shows at Lake Town Ranch, had to be curtailed, cancelled or forced to go virtual this year.
Schools in the Valley opened full-time again in September, but under an educational model established to deal with the issues related to the pandemic, so much of the learning is done online for now and students are kept in “pods” while in the schools to lessen interaction.
We’re now in the second wave of the pandemic, with large spikes in infections and deaths as more people gather indoors during the holiday season and to keep out of the cold.
But there’s a light at the end of the tunnel as, finally, vaccines that will hopefully end the pandemic should soon be available in the spring of 2021.
But there still may be many dark days ahead before the health crisis finally ends
The year 2020 has been a trying one for all of us in the Valley; let’s hope 2021 will be much brighter.