Rhonda Ross says her late husband Garry was a teacher not only by profession, but in life as well.
“He taught us about life, taught us about love, about opportunities. Everything is an opportunity. There’s gifts around us all over the place,” she said.
The couple shared many experiences over more than 30 years of marriage, including at the end. They were both diagnosed with COVID-19 during Manitoba’s deadly second wave of cases.
While Rhonda would recover, Garry became one of the 1,000 Manitobans who have, to date, died as a result of the illness. He died on Dec. 2, 2020, at the age of 54.
“As hard as it was for the two of us to be sick together in his last days, I’m so grateful,” she said.
“I’m so grateful that it was just the two of us, that we got to spend a lot of time together, and the talks and the things we shared in his last days — I’ll keep those for my life.”
With the announcement of three more COVID-19 deaths on Wednesday — a woman in her 50s, and men in their 60s and 70s — the province reached that bleak threshold of 1,000 fatalities from the illness.
Each one has left a hole in the lives of friends and family who carry the memories of the person they lost.
Ross says her husband was a proud Cree man, and the couple raised their three daughters in their home in Opaskwayak Cree Nation. She remembers him as “genuine, generous and kind, and most definitely humble.”
“Sometimes he’d buy students shoes, or jackets in the winter,” she said.
“He knew what it was like to not have a proper winter jacket as a child, or to go to school hungry. And he didn’t like seeing, especially children, going through that. So he gave a lot and that became part of our household budget.”
The family has started three bursaries in his name, which will go to students who have overcome hardship, like he did, and met their own goals.
‘A slap in the face’
Manitoba’s first death from the illness caused by the novel coronavirus was reported on March 26, 2020. The province didn’t record its 100th death until Nov. 4, nearly eight months later.
In a little more than six months since then, 900 more people in the province have lost their lives to COVID-19.
Among the most recent was Dennis Langrell, who died on April 28 at the age of 66.
His brother, Doug Langrell, says Dennis was feeling congested when they last spoke, but dismissed the symptoms as a bad cold. Dennis resisted his sibling’s urging to get tested for COVID-19, saying he had an appointment to get a vaccine. He wouldn’t live long enough to get it.
“We didn’t expect him to go quite as suddenly as he did,” Doug Langrell said. “And then to learn after some days that it was COVID-19 that carried him off — that added, you know, to our grief.”
Adding to that even further were people who refused to acknowledge COVID-19 as the cause of death, Langrell said.
In his younger years, Dennis was an athlete and carried a love of sports throughout his life.
When he died, however, Dennis was overweight and had diabetes — among the underlying conditions that have been shown to increase the risks of severe outcomes from COVID-19.
Doug Langrell says there are people “who are at considerable pains to attribute the death of anybody who has any kind of underlying health conditions … to anything other than COVID.”
Some people want to deny that COVID-19 is a health emergency or a major factor contributing to deaths in the Manitoba, Langrell said.
“I find [that] to be a little bit of a slap in the face. It hurts and it adds to the grief, not just of me, but of many, many thousands of others who lost family members to COVID.”
2nd-highest death rate
The 1,000 deaths in the 14 months since Manitoba reported its first COVID-19 case compare to 250 deaths from influenza or pneumonia from March 2019 to May 2020, according to Statistics Canada.
Accidents and unintentional injuries caused 590 deaths.
In 2016, the most recent year for which stats are available, breast cancer caused 204 deaths, colorectal cancer led to 318, and lung cancer caused 648, according to CancerCare Manitoba.
Out of all the provinces, Manitoba has the second-highest per capita death rate due to COVID-19, behind only Quebec.
Manitoba’s 1,000 COVID-19 deaths are “a very sad and depressing commentary” on the way governments across Canada have handled the pandemic, says Winnipeg intensive care unit physician Dr. Anand Kumar.
“A proactive approach of aggressively suppressing transmission of the virus well before health-care system and ICU capacity is threatened would have likely saved tens of thousands of Canadian and near 1,000 Manitoban lives and done so with much less economic ruin,” he said in an emailed statement.
While more Manitobans are getting COVID-19 vaccines and the number of deaths has slowed through the province’s third wave, Kumar says he hopes people remember what went wrong, so a better public health response can be developed for future pandemics.