The View From Here: COVID and culture

Volodymyr Kish.

It has now been almost six months since the COVID epidemic began and we are still nowhere near to bringing it under control, or even understanding its full nature and ability to devastate our bodies in so many different ways. To be sure, the scientists are working frantically to come up with effective treatments and vaccines, but there are no guarantees that these are either imminent or will provides us with the tools to decisively deal with this malicious virus.

For months now we have been isolating ourselves and engaging in sanitary and hygienic practices that a year ago would have seemed unimaginably extreme. Business offices emptied as a large chunk of the workforce was either laid off or forced to work from home. The airline and tourism industries have largely evaporated and many of those involved in it are not likely to survive a prolonged suspension of activity. Sports and entertainment complexes were shuttered and will likely remain so for the foreseeable future. Bars and restaurants were shut down for months, and though they have recently reopened, it is under a regime of restrictions that make their future financial viability questionable. Schools also are slated to re-open with the new school year, but both parents and teachers have grave concerns about the safety of doing so. It may turn out to be a very short-term experiment if a second wave of the virus results from this attempt to go back to a “normal” traditional educational model.

There is no doubt that the coronavirus has had a devastating effect on almost all sectors of our economy, and day to day lives. The financial impact on both a societal scale as well as the personal one has been profound, but perhaps equally if not more damaging has been the psychological trauma resulting from the required isolation and the curtailment of almost all social and cultural activity.

We are social animals, and our mental and emotional well-being is hugely dependent on our being able to share time, conversation, sporting and cultural activities, and regular social interaction with our families, friends and wider social circles. For six months now that has not been possible. Telephone and video chats may provide some mitigation from the hermitic and ascetic aspects of our current restricted lives, but they are no substitute for live, face to face, physical interactions that we used to take for granted. We need real human contact as much as the air that we breathe.

We must also consider the potential damage that continued restrictions will have on our group activities, particularly because, as Ukrainians, the strength of our community often is centred and highly dependent on the cultural organizations we have formed. These are usually based at Ukrainian cultural and community halls, whose very existence is dependent on hall rentals and catering. This income stream has now largely dried up, and it is debatable how long it may be before things get back to normal. In the meantime, many hall-based organizations face the very real threat of bankruptcy.

Our many Ukrainian dance groups are also under threat. Aside from the curtailed ability of getting together to practice and learn, it is very uncertain how soon it will be before they are able to perform in concerts, with live audiences. Live performances are what motivate our youth to put in the long hours and the sweat equity that has brought Ukrainian dancing to such a highly level of professionalism in our country. Lacking the ability to train properly or to perform, many dance groups face the prospect of evaporating membership, and ultimate dissolution. The same hold true for choirs and drama groups. The Ukrainian community could be faced with a devastating blow to much of what makes it such a dynamic ethnic group within the Canadian multicultural environment. Just think of not having any concerts, commemorative banquets, celebrations, art exhibitions, lectures or other large group activities for the foreseeable future, and what impact that would have on our community strength and morale.

One of the foremost such events that stands out in my mind is the annual Toronto Ukrainian Festival on Bloor West that happens every September. It draws hundreds of thousands of spectators, performers from all over the country and even abroad, and is undoubtedly the highlight of the year for Ukrainians where I live. This year Bloor Street West will not be resounding to sounds of “kolomeykas” and lively partying as only Ukrainians can do it. Instead, the Festival’s organizers have stated that a more modest festival will be staged on the grounds of Ontario Place on Toronto’s lakeshore, as well as being broadcast online. With the current restrictions, it is not clear in exactly what form this festival will be staged, or how many people will be able to attend. It is commendable that there will be something to carry on this highly successful annual tradition, but it will not be quite the same.

I pray that this COVID scourge goes away soon. I want my Ukrainian social and cultural life back.