There are events in a person’s life that are so pivotal, nothing is the same afterwards. They might be personal, such as falling in love, having children, or, on the negative side, a tragic accident.
There are also life-altering collective events. In 1918, my great-grandmother’s two older brothers, just returned from the First World War, died of influenza on the family’s ranch near Walsh, Alberta. Three ranch hands also died, all within about 10 days. It must have been terrible to live through that kind of loss. Nothing would be the same afterwards for those survivors or the countless others who lost loved ones to influenza.
The COVID-19 pandemic is one of those defining collective events. I was at the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association AGM in Ottawa just before the lockdown. It was an eerie experience, talking about the new coronavirus outside the meeting rooms and taking in the news during breaks.
One CCA session focused on emergency planning for a serious livestock disease. The meeting ran through a hypothetical scenario with foot-and-mouth emerging during the fall calf run. The parallels between COVID-19 and foot-and-mouth were clear to everyone. People in the meeting were talking about control measures such as setting up control zones to restrict movement. Italy had been trying to do the same thing with its citizens at that time.
To me, those CCA meetings are the marker dividing life before the pandemic and what came next. While the new coronavirus had emerged months before, it was something that I read about in the news, not something that affected me or people I knew. That changed abruptly after CCA, with my husband’s family experiencing some major changes and the loss of a much-loved family member to COVID-19.
A lot was happening in the beef industry, too. It was still bull sale season, and there was some worry about how the lockdown would affect those sales. That ended up being a good-news story for the most part, as many quickly shifted to online bidding and auction marts worked hard to limit numbers at sales and keep people safe. Restrictions at auction marts did affect markets somewhat —Deb McMillin’s column in the May issue noted a price drop in feeder cattle — but things could have been much worse. Auction marts and online auction companies deserve a lot of credit for their work this year.
Of course, many were worried about any disruptions at the packing plants, and those worries proved to be well-founded, with COVID-19 tearing through the workforces of both big Alberta packers, leading to a huge backlog of cattle. Frankly, I felt awful for the plant employees who got sick, or were afraid of getting sick. I was also worried about the economic fallout for feeders and cow-calf producers.
But the thing that struck me the most was how the disease spread even when the plants took precautions. I doubt there are very many employers outside the processing or other high-risk industries who check temperatures and screen for symptoms before people clock in. It was clear that people had to be extremely diligent in those types of environments (high numbers of people together indoors, plus employees carpooling, etc.). Since then, masks have become widely available and it seems that the plants at High River and Brooks have got a handle on the situation for the most part (knock on wood). I hope the various public health experts have studied the packing plant situation to figure out how to handle COVID-19 in other challenging environments.
The imperative lesson for all of us this year is adaptation. Whether or not you want to accept it, COVID-19 is the reality, and we’ve all had to change to some extent. Although the day-to-day lives of most cow-calf producers might look the same as 2019 (until they have to go to town), marketing strategies have shifted for some. McMillin’s market column from our December issue notes that more cow-calf producers have retained calves this fall, and feedlot placements were lower in October. High fed cattle inventories have also pressured cow prices for some time, and McMillin notes that more producers are opting to hang on to cows they might sell otherwise
Other business owners have made radical changes. A Globe and Mail article from November 15 detailed the pandemic’s effect on Vancouver restaurants (in short, people are not eating out much). One restaurant owner, Trevor Bird, closed his dining room on weekdays and focused on virtual cooking classes. The article states that a 90-minute cooking class brings in more revenue than a month at the restaurant. Bird was even considering closing down for weekends and moving to take-home meals.
There are plenty of other examples of adaptation. Canada Beef shifted its consumer outreach, focusing more on what people need to know when they’re cooking at home and even running summer cooking camps for kids on Facebook. The Stockmen’s Memorial Foundation in Cochrane, Alberta, transformed its usual annual fundraising dinner into take-home meals and an online auction, raising over $33,000 for the foundation and donating 122 meals to local people in need. Those are just two examples, but there are many, many more.
The pre-pandemic world is behind us, but we’re still stuck in an in-between time of high uncertainty and ever-changing conditions and information. Some people tolerate more uncertainty better than others. As frustrated as we can all get, it’s a good time to extend a little grace, even when one vehemently disagrees.
As for the Spanish influenza, it never really went away. An episode this fall of the podcast Science Vs. explained how scientists figured out that the virus eventually mutated to something less deadly and is now part of the regular flu mix. Eventually people had to carry on.
We have some tough sledding ahead of us, but this time will pass. There are vaccines on the horizon that should help restore a sense of safety, even if they don’t eliminate the virus entirely. One day we’ll be standing on the other side of COVID-19, surveying a post-pandemic world. I don’t know what it will look like exactly, but collectively we’ll learn to navigate it.