Adapting in a Pandemic

As an historian I tend to think historically even about the present, especially when we find ourselves in a significant historical moment! In the past few months each of us has undergone a tsunami of emotions and experiences as we “pivoted” from life as we knew it to our present state. We could fill a dictionary with words like pivot, unprecedented, (a)synchronous that have become common vocabulary in the past three months.

Our lives have changed. We have learned to wash our hands thoroughly. We have learned that we touch our faces a lot. We have learned that two metres is the wingspan of an eagle, the length of a moose, a cariboo, a snowmobile, a hockey stick, the space occupied by four ravens, one mountain lion, three Canada geese, or two adult-size arm lengths. We have (mostly) learned to un-mute ourselves when it is our turn to speak on Zoom. We can probably all name our own chief provincial health officer. How many of us could have done that at the end of 2019?

Much has been cancelled or reconfigured: graduations, travel, gatherings with family and friends, sports, theatre, concerts, and major summer festivals. Virtual church has become the norm. For those who have lost loved ones during this pandemic, whether due to COVID-19 or not, necessary public health limitations have hampered our capacity to gather in mourning. So many of the rituals that mark the passage of each year have been cancelled or profoundly changed.

People yearn to get “back to normal.” But we will never go back to “normal.” Historians know that the worlds before and after watershed events are different. They may be similar, but they are not the same. The “normal” of December 2019 will not re-materialize. We are not going back in time. The economic and psychological impact of the COVID-19 pandemic will be with us for some time. 

We are adapting. History is full of examples of humanity’s capacity for resilience and adaptation. Entire societies adapted to the Bubonic Plague, an endemic pestilence that became pandemic seventeen times between its first European appearance in 1347–50 and its last in 1664–67. In my research on Quakers, I’ve encountered epidemics and adaptation a number of times.

Consider this Canadian example. In 1801 two groups of Quakers, one from Vermont and the other from Pennsylvania, settled in the densely forested land on Yonge Street at what is now Newmarket, Ont., about 55 kilometres north of Toronto. These families initiated a series of chain migrations as settlers encouraged family and friends to “mak[e] ready to come to a land as it were flowing with milk and honey.”[1] Immigration helped this community—the Yonge Street Monthly Meeting—to flourish and become the largest Quaker meeting (parish/congregation) in Upper Canada (now Ontario). A Quaker school opened in 1806, the community expanded geographically with a settlement at Pickering on Lake Ontario, there were solid ministers and elders in the meeting, and Yonge Street led the effort for the unification of all the Upper Canadian meetings from Kingston to Niagara.

In 1808 the meeting decided to build a one-storey frame meetinghouse measuring thirty-five by seventy feet at a cost of $1,750 to be raised by subscription. Excited about this new venture, members raised $1,600 in the first month. It appeared to Friends that their community was divinely ordained for success.

Then, in 1809, the community was ravaged by an epidemic. While some called it “the Fever,” no one knows what the disease was that almost wiped out some families. Quaker records do not document the death toll. Timothy Rogers, who led the initial Vermont settlers to Upper Canada, noted that he personally knew thirty Quakers who died about this time. Timothy and Sarah Rogers’s family was especially devastated. They lost five daughters, two sons, one son-in-law, and three grandchildren. Rogers recorded in his journal, “My wife entirely gave up business, my family half gone.” We have no records from Sarah, but her son Wing’s memories align with his father’s: “My parents buried seven children out of the fourteen & most of them were married & had families, which was a great trial to them both … I was young but I can remember of seeing [mother] meet the neighbour women & talking of her troubles & great loss, with the tears running down her aged face, & comparing it to Job's troubles.”

The psychological impact and personal losses were more than some could bear. A number were so devastated that they left Yonge Street and returned to their meetings of origin. So many died that the meeting decided to decrease the size of the meetinghouse then under construction by ten feet in length and five feet in width.

The smaller meetinghouse was a daily reminder of an epidemic that damaged the community, but did not destroy it. The community was resilient; it adapted to its current reality. There were more challenges in store: another epidemic (1812), a war (1812-14), a rebellion (1837), and two religions schisms (1812 and 1828). (Historians can see in hindsight what historical actors could not foresee.)

We are adapting to our current reality. We are deploying technology in innovative ways, practising spatial distancing, and following evidence-based health protocols. TWU faculty are learning a lot about multi-access education. I am excited about the 2020/21 academic year and the classes I am preparing! There are unknowns. But we have an incredibly supportive community committed to learning, integrating, and disseminating the most recent developments in our disciplines. We will—we must—remember and learn from this important historical moment as we adapt and journey forward together.

Robynne Rogers Healey, PhD

Professor of History and Co-Director, Gender Studies Institute


[1] Sources for quotes about Yonge Street Quakers are available in my book From Quaker to Upper Canadian (MQUP, 2006).