Savannah’s Story

Posted By: Savannah Sewell (MARF 2021)

It was a suggestion by my supervisor to write this blog because throughout this project I have been collecting the narratives of individuals who have lived in Canada through the COVID-19 pandemic, but I have not written my own. Perhaps, this was some sort of payback for asking him to write his, no easy feat, as many contributors have expressed to me. Either way, as I sit down to write this short blog, it’s hard to land on the punchiest and most critical aspects of the last 18 months, the current length of the pandemic, and perhaps the reason for that is that all of it is important.

I’ve preached this message through emails, public calls to action, and numerous media outlets, that to archive a holistic narrative of COVID-19 in Canada, we must not be exclusive or selective in the information we record. As an attempt at the anthropological practice of holism, something I despise because it is truly intangible and impossible, I did not put any limits on what people chose to contribute to the project (besides being about a page). The topics were up to them and were meant to illustrate the variety of challenges, mental and emotional processes, and everyday life that we have all experienced in Canada during the pandemic. It’s a tall order, and one I didn’t realize was so challenging to fill until I started this project. So, the style of this blog is a little bit different, as I attempt to tell my COVID-19 story.

The COVID pandemic started, for me, in front of a TV. You’ll remember from my first blog that I was watching live as Utah Jazz did NOT take the floor on the night of Wednesday, March 11, 2020. Dad and I had been waiting for the game to start, and when it didn’t and then was eventually canceled, we knew something was wrong. My father works in healthcare and he was the first to suggest that COVID-19 might have been the reason. We had been hearing whisperings about the virus, and the infection rates in China and Italy, but nothing became real until that moment.

I then traveled back to Toronto, attended a school event at the University of Toronto, and headed home. That Thursday, at the event, our phones started to ding and the alarms of March Break being extended flew in. Everyone was told to collect their belongings from work and school the next day and take them home for the next three weeks of lockdown.

As we all know, we have not gone back to “normal” since.

It wasn’t in the plan to move home. But, I did. After seven years on my own, and two university degrees, the best option was to move back in with my parents. I love my parents, we knew this wasn’t forever, and as luck would have it, my lease was up.

I applied where I knew I was needed and where I had worked before, Lakeridge Health Oshawa, a hospital that I had worked at on-and-off for the past seven years as a dietary aide. You know, the person who brings you hospital food? The role differs from hospital to hospital, but mainly, you take the order, you pick up the food, you heat and organize the food, you deliver, and at the end of the meal, you pick it up and start all over again. In a formal write-up, I would discuss how critical it is to a patient’s in-patient experience and how completing the circle of care for my patients was a joy. And it was! I loved that job and even chose to do it at Mount Sinai in Toronto too, but I won’t get into all of that. The hospital needed staff, I knew how to do the job, I needed a job. It was an easy calculation.

There wasn’t much information about COVID yet, heck, at this point, the government hadn’t even agreed if masks were required or even helpful and many people were choosing to live away from one another if only one of them was working in an essential or patient-facing role.

What was NOT a portion of that calculation was when they offered me a job at Orchard Villa first. For those who chose not to bombard themselves with sad stories early in the pandemic, Orchard Villa is a long-term care facility and retirement community in Pickering, Ontario. It was now the end of April, I was done school, and I needed a job. However, you should know that at this point, one sister was working in an essential daycare, the other at Markham Stouffville Hospital, and my father was working at Royal Victoria Hospital in Barrie. There wasn’t much information about COVID yet, heck, at this point, the government hadn’t even agreed if masks were required or even helpful and many people were choosing to live away from one another if only one of them was working in an essential or patient-facing role. The Orchard Villa story was a terrifying ordeal, where the occupant and staff infection rate was rampant and over 80 people died in the first wave of COVID-19. The decision was difficult, but I couldn’t put my family, their careers, coworkers, patients, staff, or children at risk and I made the choice to wait for a role to open at the hospital.

Several of my friends from Lakeridge did transfer to Orchard Villa and I both respect and appreciate the decision they made for that institution and the community.

After a few months of work at the hospital, I decided I needed more work and it wasn’t like I had anything else to do after work, nothing was open. Luckily, a family friend owns a Shoppers Drug Mart and I started working there on cash. The shifts were busy, the location is very central, and the COVID protocols ensured that there was always something to do. I’ll never forget the one sanitizing spray we used contained bleach and my black jeans and uniform shirt came home with wonderful splotchy bleach stains.

Coming out of the summer of 2020, which was pretty quiet COVID-wise, I found a more full-time opportunity with a company that was associated with a family member’s contracting company. Am I a contractor? No. Can I use a few tools and clip a measuring tape on my belt? Yes, very well, and I rock it, just so we are all clear. The job was ironically, to install plexiglass within the Ontario Court System. For anyone who hasn’t spent countless hours in courtrooms installing Plexi – imagine an average TV courtroom. Add Plexiglass walls between each person in the room.

We weren’t allowed to take photos or video in courtrooms but this is a time-lapse of me setting up a conference room. Dividers in-between and in-front of each person’s seat.

The job was ironically, to install plexiglass within the Ontario Court System. For anyone who hasn’t spent countless hours in courtrooms installing Plexi – imagine an average TV courtroom. Add Plexiglass walls between each person in the room. It was an adventure of changing COVID-19 protocols, limited accessibility within heritage courthouse (ironic that heritage buildings were now my enemy considering my degrees), and a variety of personnel and timeline speed bumps. I learned a lot and even managed to keep all of my fingers while using a hole saw drill bit on individual pieces of Plexiglass – it was very intimidating. That contract ended for me right before Christmas and as a family, we decided to spend it together at the cottage, rather than the large celebrations that we usually participate in. As one might remember, that is when Ontario experienced another full lockdown.

On New Year’s day, I was painting a homemade jelly cabinet. Did anyone else make one in a woodshop in high school? Dad asked, what are you doing tomorrow? Laughing, I sarcastically gestured to the craft in front of me, having no plans for the days ahead. As of the next day, January 2, 2021, I started at the Sperling Vaccine Clinic in Barrie. I started there as a clerk, inputting clinic client information and ensuring that the client was processed through all of the vaccination steps. I stayed there until May 2021, when I started the position here at the Museum of Health Care.

I was in the first group of individuals vaccinated because of my status in healthcare, and the large amalgamation of individuals that I was face to face with each day who also worked in healthcare.

With some colleagues at the Sperling Vaccination Clinic in Barrie.

At the vaccine clinic, I experienced a variety of surprising interactions. As the vaccine rollout continued, it was no longer first responders and healthcare staff, instead, we began vaccinating the elderly and the immune-compromised. We encountered problems that we had not anticipated. For example, even as accessible as the building was, some of the processes, such as walking to three separate areas (steps) was not possible for individuals with limited mobility. So, we started vaccinating them in their cars in the parking lot. Some couples were being vaccinated in the same time slot. So, we started a parent swap, sort of like at Wonderland, where they would spend their 15 minute waiting period in a car visible from our windows. Some individuals didn’t have computers or means to book appointments. So, we started calling them individually and making it for them. With each new challenge, solutions were provided quickly, efficiently, and in a manner of kindness and seriousness associated with the appropriate level of healthcare. I learned that the easiest solution is sometimes on a case-by-case basis, that showing patience and kindness to someone in fear is easy, and that even if you put stickers on the floor, way-finding is SO DIFFICULT to streamline.

I was completing a shift at the vaccine clinic when I got the message that I had been selected for the Margaret Angus Research Fellowship 2021. The original application was of interest to me because of the intersectional nature of the potential research. Not only was the concept of developing a project of such a topical subject as COVID-19, during the pandemic exciting but, it perfectly merged my education in anthropology and my work experience within the hospital system. I was excited by the opportunity to re-enter the field of museums and experience something that I hadn’t before.

The original application that I made for this fellowship was very similar to the project that I have now completed. The project would result in a variety of deliverables for the museum to continue to use and expand upon once the initial project was complete. Those deliverables include; the written manuscript, an archive of Canadian narratives, and both physical and digital collections, all of these tools laid a foundation for future research, programming, and exhibiting of COVID-19 content at the Museum of Health Care. Crowdsourcing and media releases would be used to reach a community, on a national level, and ask for participation in building this project and a true understanding of the lived experience of the COVID-19 pandemic in Canada.

The portion of the proposal that I was not able to deliver upon was a social media campaign, similar to Humans of New York, where the museum’s social media would highlight a miniature photojournalism journey of an individual’s pandemic experiences. This was not completed largely due to timing and the lack of it. Perhaps, it can be used in the future to promote an exhibit or the collection.

The past five months have handed me a huge slap of reality. Did I think this would be similar to projects I’ve done in the past? Yes. Did I underestimate the complex landscape of the pandemic in Canada? Yes. Did the continuation of the pandemic, much longer than I have anticipated cause lots of issues for research? Yes. Did I bite off more than I could chew? MAYBE?

The entire process was difficult, and challenged me in ways that I had not anticipated but, I was surprised by the accommodations that I was successful in making to adapt. I used practical ethnography skills that I had learned in Dr. Karen McGarry’s Intro to Anthropology course at McMaster, I borrowed theory and museological practices from a plethora of courses at the Faculty of Information at UofT, and I found that the more I put myself into the project, the more relatable and readable it became.

The amazing COVID-19 Collection built during this project from a series of institutional requests and crowdsourced donations

It is almost as if this project has been an expansion on how I have mentally processed the pandemic, through a museological and anthropological lens, all accumulating towards the critical need for the human experience to be safeguarded for the future.

However, as many lessons as I have learned, I have enjoyed this process for what it was. I was blown away by the interest, contributions, and support of the community towards this project, and my heart was warmed by the willingness of people to help wherever they could. It has truly been incredible to watch the amalgamation of two such impactful aspects of my life to create, what I believe to be, such an important project.

Every experience, including this one, has been eye-opening and in ways, transformative. I am so fortunate to have had the opportunities provided to me this year, and that’s what I have taken from this experience the most.

Overall, the pandemic has brought me many amazing new hobbies and opportunities. A fun love of running, new virtual and professional skills, and a LOT of personal growth. But, it is interesting to reflect on what has changed about the world I thought I would live in post-graduation

The job market is challenging, but it was before too, so …. who knows?

I am much more critical of the individuals that I choose to spend time with. How do they approach the pandemic? Are they following public health guidelines? Are they cognizant of the critical choices they have that influence other’s health and wellness?

Mentally, the lockdowns and loss of control (that we never had), have forced me to evaluate what I truly want out of life.

I even have a new understanding of the uses of social media…. Did I mention that after my last blog a TikTok of mine went viral? We’re talking 3.5 million views….. ya!

Above all else, I am so much more aware of how others experience the world, and that I am profoundly privileged in most aspects of life.

Special thanks to Ian M. Fraser and Janine M. Schweitzer for their generous support of the 2021 Margaret Angus Research Fellowship!

Savannah Sewell
Savannah Sewell

Savannah Sewell is a graduate of the Master of Museum Studies program at the University of Toronto, and a proud alumna of McMaster University’s Anthropology Department, holding a Honours Bachelor of Arts. Savannah’s previous experience varies from numerous archaeological projects, both locally and abroad, through exhibition creation and design with the Canadian Language Museum, to an internship in Marketing and Communications at the Aga Khan Museum. She is an excited emerging museum professional with a passion for community and accessibility to museums and their critical role in understanding the past and navigating our future

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