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What do you miss most about pre-pandemic life? What worries you? How do you feel about the reopening? Has the pandemic provided any silver linings? 

These are just some of the questions being asked by St. Francis Xavier University psychology professor Karen Blair as part of her COVID-19 research diary study. 

More than 2,000 Nova Scotians are already chronicling their daily lives during the pandemic, and she’s hoping to recruit more as public health guidelines are loosened and the reopening begins. 

“Our perception of time is completely skewed, and so if we were to just wait until October and ask people ‘How did you experience the spring?’ they wouldn’t remember accurately,” Blair said in an interview Thursday. 

“Even if I think back to early March, I have this foggy remembrance of the urgency, but when I think about what it felt like I can hardly believe myself. If people are writing it down as it’s happening it’s accurate to the moment in time.” 

Blair was one of 40 recipients who received funding earlier this month through the newly created Nova Scotia COVID-19 Health Research Coalition. She was awarded $32,560 from a pot of about $1.5 million.

The COVID-19 Interpersonal and Social Coping Study is being co-authored by Kathryn Bell, a psychology professor at Acadia University. Blair said while the diary study will serve as an historical record, it will also help researchers learn how to better respond to mental health and other related needs during future waves of COVID-19 and other pandemics.

“The more data that researchers together can collect about people’s experiences, their risks, who did well, who needed more attention, and who fell through the cracks, the more we know about that now the better we’ll be prepared to respond to these things in the future,” Blair said.

Karen Blair. Photo: St. Francis Xavier University

“I think right now nobody wants to think about the next pandemic, but there likely will be one… Researchers want to provide information so next time we can look it up to say this is what works, this is what doesn’t, this is who needs our attention.”

From changes in sleep patterns to heightened anxiety and financial distress, COVID-19 has impacted and disrupted most of our lives in many ways. Blair said learning more about our individual experiences and how we’re coping through it all is key.

As the province moves into reopening, there will be new challenges, and she wants to document those as part of our pandemic experience.

“I actually think we have the possibility to see increases in stress again. Kind of like that urgent thing we had at the beginning where we’re like, ‘Oh my goodness the world is ending,’ and then we got used to it,” she said.

“I imagine for almost everybody it fell into some sort of a pattern and you adjusted. But now with this idea of reopening and going back, you have all these different kinds of approaches, different opinions. If your employer tells you ‘Okay we want you to work in the office now,’ and you don’t feel ready to do that, then that’s going to actually be a lot more stressful than being asked to work at home.”

They’ve already had reports from participants about interpersonal conflicts with friends and family over issues like the wearing of masks, the dynamics of family bubbles and who’s included or excluded, and friction over differences of opinion about whether the province is reopening too quickly or too slowly. 

Blair said it’s also critical to examine the state of our relationships during the pandemic and to take into account the escalation of incidents of intimate partner violence that has occurred during this isolation period. 

She said that’s an important piece reflected in their study, because researchers want to be able to identify those at highest risk and learn what measures could help if we’re forced back into isolation in the coming months. 

“We have some anecdotal evidence from people working in women’s shelters that have actually said some clients made the choice to go back to their partners when the isolation came in,” Blair said. 

“They did that even though it might come with those additional risks versus being in a shelter or being on a friend’s couch or something like that. So we need to make sure people know they are welcome, there are other places they can go, and that the home they came from isn’t the only option.”

The LGBTQ+ pandemic experience

Blair is also running a similar diary study specific to the province’s LGBTQ+ community. She said it’s important to know the impact the pandemic had on their lives. Through the COVID-19 LGBTQ+ Diary Study, she hopes to learn more about many aspects of their lives, including whether the pandemic has resulted in them being more connected to their community, or less? Have they had to go back into the closet, or has the pandemic given them time to come out to the important people around them? 

She also wants to hear their concerns around access to gender-affirming care and procedures, whether they’ve had surgeries delayed, or experienced issues around accessing hormone replacement therapy. Where do they find their resilience and what puts them at greater risk?  

We already know in general in non-pandemic times LGBTQ people are less likely to access health care in an emergency event. They’ll go to a family doctor, but don’t like going to see an unknown doctor because they don’t know how they’ll be treated,” she explained. 

“Young people if they’re living with families that they’re in the closet with, how are they coping with that? Or even if they’re out, that period from being 16 to 26 is often a time where the family is still sorting that out and it’s like a version of okay.”

Blair is also interested in how older LBGTQ+ people are coping, as they’re often already more socially isolated and don’t always have children. Another key piece is examining how those who lived through the HIV epidemic are coping. 

“A lot of people are commenting ‘We’re gay men, we’ve done this before,’ which is pointing to resilience, but then on the other hand it could also be an additional stressor,” Blair explained.

“We know where these things can lead. It can remind them of all the loss that they’ve already experienced. It can go both ways, and we don’t know which way it’s going to go and so I’m looking for that resilience and risk.”

Provincewide recruiting ongoing

The study will continue to recruit participants until the end of June and likely into July, but Blair said they’ll begin analyzing their data before then. They want to begin providing key pieces of information as plans are being made for possible next waves of the virus.

“We’ll write academic papers eventually, but we’re going to try and write some reports this summer, particularly directed at our targeted constituents, so the domestic violence shelters, the LGBTQ organizations, and Nova Scotia government,” she said.

“I imagine we’re going to have this period of reopening, and then it seems very likely that we might have to go back to a period of some form of closing again…And so if we can know what made those periods of isolation the most bearable for people, and who needed the most support and things like that, that information could be useful in planning.”

The more than 2,000 people who’ve already signed up for the diary study are on average 43 years old, with the oldest participant in her 80s. Each participant gets a copy of their diary at the end of the study.

“They get to keep their own, which becomes a personal family piece of history,” she said. “I would love to be reading my grandparents’ diaries of the 1918 pandemic but we don’t have anything like that in my family.”

Blair said as a researcher she’s excited by not only the large number of participants they’ve garnered for such an involved diary study, but by the fact they’ve managed to get people from one end of the province to the other. 

“I can’t even begin to wrap my head around what we’re going to be looking at in terms of data and stories,” she said. 

“We’ve covered the whole range of the province, and it’ll be neat to see what are these different stories once we have the time to really dig into those things.”

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Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor who enjoys covering health, science, research, and education.

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