While COVID-19 has affected families across Canada and the social, economic, cultural and environmental contexts that impact their well-being, it hasn’t stopped family life by any means. Whether it’s managing work–family responsibilities, connecting to celebrate milestones or providing support in difficult times, people are finding diverse and creative ways to keep doing what families do.
As families in Canada continue to manage these transitions, the Vanier Institute is gathering, compiling and sharing these “stories behind the statistics” to provide insights and into family strengths, resilience and diverse experiences across the country.
Edward Ng, PhD
(July 23, 2020) March 16, 2020 ended up being not just another Monday. While this was the first official day of spring break for public school students in Ontario, the school board suddenly announced that the break would be instead two weeks, which was later extended until further notice. Inadvertently, some 2 million Ontario public school students – including my younger daughter, who is in Grade 9 – started a long journey of distance learning from home as a result of the pandemic.
Family home suddenly becomes school and shared workspace
The night before, I had also been asked not to report to work at my office near downtown Ottawa due to public health measures aimed at preventing the spread of the coronavirus. At the same time, my older daughter, a university student, was told that classes would move online, as the campus began to shut down.
Among my family of four, only my wife continued to leave home for work. However, after a case of COVID-19 was reported at her workplace in late March, everyone was then asked to work from home from then on, a decision that would have been unimaginable before the pandemic began. I began to wonder if this was the beginning of the end of an office-centric era, with huge implications for work and family.
Though we have an Internet connection, our home setting is not equipped to be a home office and/or a home school. Since my wife works in a sector dealing with clients over the phone, I quickly rearranged a room to set up a temporary office for her. My younger daughter, after an extended spring break, soon started to receive daily instruction and lessons from her teachers online, which meant all four of us were now using a single Internet connection almost constantly. Ultimately, we’ve had to contact our Internet service provider to upgrade our hardware, which mitigated our problems and frustrations – and the demand for me to become an Internet technologist!
Reflecting on experiences and emotions through music
In May, two months into the lockdown, my daughter was asked by her Grade 9 music teacher to select some songs that reflected her emotional state while learning from home. She chose “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees. I was surprised since she is not of the era of the Bees Gees, who were famous in my birthplace of Hong Kong when I was growing up. This upbeat disco hit of the late 1970s was described by one of the songwriters as actually being rather serious in its focus – it is about survival1 when life is “goin’ nowhere.”
Life goin’ nowhere, somebody help me
Somebody help me, yeah
Life goin’ nowhere, somebody help me, yeah
I’m stayin’ alive
It’s a cry for survival that resonated with my daughter’s experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic, with her feelings and concerns regarding the virus amplified as a visible minority2 teen.3 I admired her perseverance as she avoided venturing out as much as possible throughout the lockdown. But she also felt hopeful: the second song she chose was “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” from Mary Poppins, reflecting her anticipation of going out without fearing COVID-19.
Care and concern across generations
Like the majority of Canadians, I am more concerned about my family contracting COVID-19 than myself, and surveys have consistently shown that visible minorities experience both of these concerns at higher rates than those who are not visible minorities.4, 5 Like many families, my care and concerns extend across generations, to older and younger generations.
My university-aged daughter works as a part-time cashier at a neighbourhood pharmacy. Each shift, she ventures out to her essential job, and we were concerned about the risk of being infected with COVID-19 through her exposure to customers. In mid-April, she came down with a fever and dry cough, which are some of the possible symptoms. We were worried, and encouraged her to self-isolate by taking a leave of absence to ensure she was not positive. As soon her symptoms subsided, she returned to work, only to find her workplace had been transformed, with plexiglass installed at the cash to minimize the risk of infection. One time, she reported a scary moment when a client, while paying for the purchase, kept on coughing at the plexiglass without any concern for others!
For about three years, my mother-in-law has been staying in a long-term care home in Toronto, and we visited her whenever we went to the city. Given that these care homes in Ontario and Quebec have become the epicentre for COVID-19, we became very nervous for her. In fact, we found out that a resident at her care home was tested positive in mid-May, which indicated an outbreak, according to the local public health authority. Further investigation was conducted of staff and residents, with encouraging results that contradicted the original findings. We were relieved when the Public Health Authority withdrew its order of outbreak for the facility.
With the Ontario ruling that no visitations were allowed at these care homes at the early stage of the pandemic, we could only use online communication, such as Skype, to stay connected through virtual visits. The workers there at the care home have told us that the residents there have been bored during the pandemic and welcome these virtual visits. Now that Ontario is starting to allow visitors into nursing homes, we are making plans for a physical visit, which still needs to respect social distancing protocol.
Care and concern across borders
I experienced concerns for my family prior to the declaration of the COVID-19 pandemic. Back in February, my relatives who were visiting from East Asia decided to leave Toronto to return home to Hong Kong before Air Canada cancelled all direct flights. During that time, COVID-19 was affecting that part of Asia severely and I had suggested they stay longer in Toronto, but they decided to go. To soothe my own worry, I searched around and managed to purchase some non-surgical masks for them to use in Hong Kong. (Note that, at that time, in mid to late-February, face masks were hard to find for purchase, even in Ontario.)
In hindsight, however, my relatives felt that they had made the right decision to leave, as COVID-19 cases began to increase in Toronto and as airports started to close in Canada. Interestingly, they are now back in Toronto for their annual summer visit to Canada, just as a COVID-19 outbreak is occurring in Hong Kong.
Perhaps due to my close connection to Asia, I was quite concerned about COVID-19 before it became a household name in Canada. I vividly recall how SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome)6 hit my homeland as well as Toronto in 2003. So, as early as February of this year, near the beginning of the outbreak in Asia, I had closely followed the development of this emerging virus, which was impacting families all around the world.
Time for family memories and conversations
Thinking of the song “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” brings back memories of when my daughters were young, when we would often do this together in a nearby park.7 We would spend a lot of time talking and laughing together, and once the kite caught the wind, we would follow along and enjoy watching it soar into the sky.
As they have grown to become more independent over the years, and I focused on my own work and other involvements, there are usually few opportunities for these kinds of moments. But the pandemic has reminded me to spend time with them – and provided some opportunities to do so – before they graduate onto the next stage of life. Thankfully, the “lockdown” has allowed us time, as a family, to have some meaningful discussion about matters important to life. For that, I am thankful.
Edward Ng, PhD, is an analyst at the Vanier Institute of the Family.
- Interestingly, “Stayin’ Alive” has been used to train medical professionals to provide the right number of chest compressions per minute while performing CPR, since its tempo of close to 104 beats per minute falls within the recommended 100–120 chest compressions per minute recommended by the British Heart Foundation while performing the life-saving procedure.
- “Visible minority” refers to whether a person belongs to a visible minority group as defined by the Employment Equity Act and, if so, the visible minority group to which the person belongs. The Employment Equity Act defines visible minorities as “persons, other than Aboriginal peoples, who are non-Caucasian in race or non-white in colour.” Categories in the visible minority variable include South Asian, Chinese, Black, Filipino, Latin American, Arab, Southeast Asian, West Asian, Korean, Japanese, Visible minority (i.e. “not included elsewhere”), Multiple visible minorities and Not a visible minority. According to the 2016 Census of Canada, close to 70% of the visible minorities are born outside Canada (69%).
- According to a survey by the Vanier Institute of the Family, the Association for Canadian Studies and Experiences Canada conducted from April 29 to May 5, 2020, more than half (52%) of visible minority youth said they were somewhat or very afraid of catching COVID-19, compared with 34% of those who are not visible minorities. Link: https://bit.ly/3jlmZn3.
- More than 6 in 10 surveyed visible minorities (62%) said they were afraid of contracting COVID-19, but 73% were even more fearful for family members to get the virus, compared with 54% and 66%, respectively, among those who are not visible minorities.
- A survey by the Vanier Institute of the Family, the Association of Canadian Studies and Leger, conducted May 1–3, 2020, included 1,526 Canadians 18 years of age or older, randomly recruited from LEO’s online panel. Using data from the 2016 Census, results were weighted according to gender, age, mother tongue, region, education level and presence of children in the household in order to ensure a representative sample of the population. No margin of error can be associated with a non-probability sample (Web panel, in this case). However, for comparative purposes, a probability sample of 1,526 respondents would have a margin of error of ±2.51%, 19 times out of 20.
- Severe acute respiratory (SARS) is a respiratory disease caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV or SARS-CoV-1), which resulted in approximately 300 deaths in Hong Kong and more than 40 deaths in Canada during the 2002–2004 SARS outbreak.
- “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” is from the Walt Disney classic Mary Poppins, featured at the end of the film when George Banks (played by David Tomlinson), realizes that his family is more important than his job, and decides to take his family on a kite-flying outing.