Clearly, the pandemic is 2020’s story of the year internationally, not just Surrey’s. It’s impossible to look at what has truly been an annus horribilis except through the lens of this seemingly surreal, yet all too real, global health crisis.
Here in our neck of the woods this deadly coronavirus made its presence known in practically every aspect of our daily lives and continues to though vaccines are beginning to be distributed to those most under threat, providing us with some faraway light in this dark tunnel we’re in.
At the outset, few probably imagined that Surrey alone would have recorded well over 10,000 COVID-19 cases, and in B.C., at least at this time of writing, 808 deaths and counting.
Before the pandemic, and the toll it has exacted, what passed for trouble now seems a bit quaint.
Say what you might about Doug McCallum, you can’t accuse him of being a boring mayor. His epic battle with Uber and other ride-sharing outfits like Lyft, which he lost, raged on through January into February. The mayor didn’t want these services operating in Surrey, his argument being that their existence threatens the livelihoods of locals cabbies. Critics said having bylaw officers “luring” Uber drivers into the city to hit them with $500 fines was entrapment. In the end, Uber took the city to court, filing for an injunction to stop Surrey from issuing illegal tickets, and won.
Opponents to the city’s transition from the Surrey RCMP to its own police force, in particular the Keep the RCMP in Surrey campaign, applied pressure on the mayor, the province and individuals like former B.C. attorney general Wally Oppal – who was tasked with overseeing the plan – to have a referendum on the matter. This, although Oppal had repeatedly stated that wasn’t in his mandate or power to order. Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth dug his heels in, responding that the city’s civic government has the right and authority to say it wants to move to a new policing model.
In early March, Farnworth’s move to grant the city approval to create a police board was in local headlines. And then, the pandemic began to hit home, with the Surrey school district cancelling international school trips on account of the risk the virus posed. At about this time B.C. confirmed more than a dozen cases here. The virus was linked to two Surrey schools as the virus claimed its first victim in B.C., a man in his 80s who was a resident of the Lynn Valley Care Centre in North Vancouver. In Surrey, an elementary school was the first to close on account of the virus and on March 18 the Now-Leader published a photo on its front cover of Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.’s provincial health officer, beside the headline, “IT’S GOING TO BE HARD.”
Henry announced a ban on gatherings of more than 50 people, hospitals cancelled thousands of elective surgeries to free up hundreds of beds if needed, and McCallum made a public appeal to people’s “basic humanity” to stop stockpiling and re-selling household items.
Community and business organizations, such as Surrey Board of Trade, abandoned in-person meetings for virtual ones along with city hall, as Zoom, social-distancing and “covidiot” became household words.
The microscopic menace also held a mirror up to society, figuratively speaking, that reflected back to us the best in people – such as nurses, doctors and other frontline workers who selflessly put themselves at risk to help others – as well as the worst as some people thumbed their nose at the pandemic and continued to have parties, refuse to wear masks and demonstrate little regard for the safety of others. This of course continues today.
The pandemic dealt a crushing blow to local businesses, particularly restaurants, hotels and other outfits in the service industry and critics renewed their call for the city to put the brakes on the policing transition as city hall laid off 2,016 employees. For the remainder of the 2019-20 school year the Surrey school district rolled out remote learning and then a hybrid of online and part-time in-class schooling, with students trickling back to the schools while local university and college students now pursued their degrees and diplomas online. Many people began working from home. The annual Vaisakhi parade was cancelled, Surrey’s Christian churches celebrated Easter “Zoom-style,” and the Cloverdale Rodeo and practically everything else that’s fun was either held “virtually” or not at all.
— Tom Zytaruk (@tomzytaruk) March 12, 2020
Against this backdrop controversy continued to stream out of city hall, as a tweet from the Safe Surrey Coalition’s account accused the RCMP of murder, McCallum dissolved the Surrey City Development Corporation and brought its operation in-house, and the Surrey Police Board was formed.
By August, students, parents, teachers and educational assistants were stressing out over the provincial government’s return-to-class plans for the fall despite the rising number of coronavirus cases in B.C., particularly in Surrey.
By September people were rattling city hall’s chains to re-open pools as debate raged over the wisdom of re-opening schools, accompanied by some conditions, as B.C. braced for a second wave of COVID-19.
Premier John Horgan’s decision in September to call an election for Oct. 24 was roundly criticized as being “nakedly opportunistic” during the pandemic but in the end, following one strange campaign on account of COVID-19, it scored him a large majority government and the NDP picking up another seat in Surrey. On the eve of the election, the Surrey Board of Trade released a report indicating that the pandemic has cost Surrey 25,000 jobs since February.
Meantime, our Nov. 19 newspaper edition had two stories on the front page. The story to the left was on Health Minister Adrian Dix declaring Surrey to be “ground zero” for cases of COVID-19 in B.C., and the story to the right concerned tax hikes in the city’s controversial budget for 2021, a plan which McCallum described as “historic” and the best he’d ever seen considering these difficult times.
His take was in stark contrast to the many Surrey taxpapers who damned the budget, as one resident put it, as “insulting, heartless, cruel and mean-spirited.”
And now we say good riddance to an historically awful year in which many fine people were lost to a terrible virus.
Best wishes for a brighter 2021.