OTD: COVID-19 declared a pandemic with widespread philatelic impacts

On this date last year, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19, a novel coronavirus first identified in January 2020, as a global pandemic.

As of March 11, 2020, COVID-19 hit more than 120 countries with nearly 125,000 cases and about 4,300 deaths; however, its spread began impacting economies worldwide long before the WHO’s pandemic declaration. In a matter of days, dozens of stamp shows, auctions, club meetings and other philatelic events were also cancelled as concerns about the pandemic escalated. Today – 365 days later – the philatelic industry is one of many sectors still battling the pandemic’s widespread effects.

“Three months of chaos are beginning,” dealer and auctioneer Brian Grant Duff, the owner of All Nations Stamp & Coin, told CSN last March as the pandemic was taking hold. “The new virus is a new threat to our hobby as we know it for two reasons—the peril it presents to mostly older collectors and the travel restrictions and illness that may stop the postal system. The good news in the short term is that we can safely travel at home with our stamp and coin collections, as we always have. Our collections give us something to do while housebound, and mail order is still a possibility for buyers and sellers. Disinfecting mail may make packaging an issue.”

Collectors across the country echoed those comments.

“We stamp collectors are lucky in a sense,” Michel Houde, a member of the Philatelic Specialists Society of Canada and North Toronto Stamp Club (NTSC), told CSN last March. “We have a hobby that is there should we be forced to say home for a length of time. With the Internet, we can scan eBay and Delcampe, buy online, get things delivered to our homes, do research, write articles, work on our collections and stay in contact with our stamp friends.”

CSN published a three-part 2020 philatelic year in review in Vol. 45 #18 (“Collector interest holding strong despite pandemic hurdles”), Vol. 45 #19 (“Philately embracing ‘virtual’ gatherings”) and Vol. 45 #20 (“Modern Elizabethan hot heading into 2021”).

WHAT IS COVID-19?

In December 2019, the world began experiencing its latest coronavirus outbreak, which would later be identified as a strain of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).

The first cases were recorded in Wuhan, China, as pneumonia of an unknown cause. By January, a novel coronavirus was identified as the cause, and in February, it was named SARS-CoV-2 (after the first SARS virus, SARS-CoV-1, which largely affected China, other East Asian countries and Canada in 2002-04). The disease caused by SARS-CoV-2 is called COVID-19, which stands for coronavirus disease 2019.

COVID-19 is “much less virulent” than the first SARS, said Toronto collector and doctor Jean Wang, a clinician scientist and staff hematologist at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, so the disease is “typically very mild in most people.” But with a mortality rate ranging between one per cent and five per cent, COVID-19 far surpasses the virulence of seasonal influenza, which is caused by different kind of virus and kills only 0.1 per cent of the people it infects.

COVID-19 became such a significant global pandemic – more than the first SARS in the early 2000s and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) in 2012 – because it spreads rapidly.

“It’s sort of like a perfect storm of characteristics for this virus,” said Wang, who added SARS-CoV-2 is highly contagious but causes mild disease in most people, leading to asymptomatic spread at an exponential rate—something exacerbated by globalization, urbanization and widespread travel.

“And there’s no pre-existing immunity, so it’s a new virus – we’ve never seen it, nobody’s immune to it – and therefore everybody’s susceptible to it, and that’s why it’s spreading everywhere.”

As of June 2020, there were more than 8.1 million reported cases of COVID-19 worldwide, with nearly 450,000 deaths and 4.2 million recoveries. By this March, COVID-19 cases his 118 million with 2.625 million deaths and 94 million recoveries.

For comparison, the first SARS outbreak saw little more than 8,000 cases and 774 deaths while MERS had only 2,500 cases and about 800 deaths.

Going back to the 1918 flu pandemic (also known as the Spanish Flu), there were 500 million cases – a third of the world’s population – and about 50 million deaths.

“They implemented the same kind of public health measures that we’re implementing now,” said Wang, referencing the widespread business closures and strict limits on public gatherings put in place in Canada since March.

The goal is to “flatten the curve” – to delay or mitigate the virus’ exponential spread – through physical distancing.

“The reason to do that is because even though it causes mild disease in the majority of people, the important number here is not the relative number but the absolute number. If millions of people are infected – even if it’s only one per cent that get very sick and need ICU (intensive care unit) and ventilators – those are huge numbers, and we just don’t have that capacity in the healthcare system.”

For the past year, collectors have been forced to forgo in-person shows and instead pursue their hobbies at home and online.

SLEW OF SHOW CANCELLATIONS

Following Health Canada’s community-based measures to mitigate the virus’ spread, some show organizers cancelled their events just days before they were slated to begin.

In addition to public and mass-gathering cancellations, these community-based approaches continue to include physical distancing plus widespread school and workplace closures.

A day after the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic, CSN reported that the NTSC had suspended all club meetings and bourses until further notice. A few days later, the West Toronto Stamp Club and Calgary Philatelic Society followed suit, with club officials cancelling all meetings and shows, including the Calgary Spring Bourse on April 18-19.

A slew of show cancellations came in over that weekend, and among these was the Edmonton Spring National Stamp Show in the Alberta capital. It was the first national-level exhibition cancellation, something that has continued through this summer. Since last March, tirtually all shows – big and small – have been postponed, cancelled or moved to a virtual format.

EXHIBIT IMPACTS

Last April, CSN reported on the uncertainty surrounding the series of world stamp exhibitions managed by the Fédération Internationale de Philatélie (FIP).

Responsible for international exhibiting, the Swiss-based philatelic group has more than 80 member countries, including Canada, that are eligible to enter its world stamp exhibitions. But with widespread travel bans, event cancellations and social-distancing measures, the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on the international exhibiting scene.

“Due to the rapid spread of the Coronavirus since it began in December 2019, almost all of our members are in lockdown of some type or another,” said FIP President Bernie Beston in a statement issued last March on behalf of the federation’s board of directors.

To read more about COVID-19’s impact on exhibiting, click here.

Through much of the past year, postal service to and from many countries was significantly delayed or outright suspended.

PANDEMIC ‘MEMORIES’

In February 2020, China’s postal service began disinfecting all of its outgoing mail with a diluted bleach-based solution.

When bags containing Chinese mail were opened, an odour resembling diluted chlorine was noticed, according to the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, whose mail-carrying members expressed concern about the disinfectant.

On March 6, 2020, 25 mail carriers invoked their right not to enter a postal station in Peterborough, Ont.; however, Minister Anita Anand, who’s responsible for Canada Post, ultimately ruled there was no danger.

By mid-March of last year, Canada Post had also listed several international service alerts related to COVID-19, which the Crown corporation said was causing “significant delays” between Canada and at least eight other countries, including China, Hong Kong, Macao and Italy, where that country’s postal service – Poste Italiane – has closed its facilities. Mail services to Mongolia are also currently suspended.

Canada Post “had its corporate pandemic plan implemented since late January” 2020, according to a report by CTV News Edmonton.

“From a safety standpoint, we are encouraging employees to diligently follow the prevention recommendations from health authorities, such as proper hand cleaning,” a Canada Post official told CTV last year. “We have also prioritized the distribution of hand sanitizer and provided proper safety equipment, such as nitrile gloves, as a precautionary, where appropriate.”

The virus does “not survive for long on objects,” according to a statement issued one year ago by China Post through the Universal Postal Union (UPU). “It is therefore safe to receive postal items from China.”

The cancellation of flights worldwide “is going to impact the delivery of mail for the foreseeable future,” the UPU told the Associated Press in another statement.

On March 13, 2020, the UPU added it “recognizes that the COVID-19 pandemic is an immense challenge for postal operators and our partners in airlines, shipping and global logistics. We encourage everyone to follow the guidance of the World Health Organization, as well as the advice provided by their country’s own medical advisors. The health and safety of everyone is our first priority. UPU is following the situation closely and we continue to work with our membership to ensure the safety of delivered postal items, and that delays caused by flight cancellations are temporary and short lived.”

By April 2020, postal service to more than 150 international destinations had been suspended by Canada Post “at the request of the receiving postal operator or due to the lack of available transportation,” the Crown corporation said.

While Canada Post was still accepting letters and parcels for nearly 50 countries, including the United States, 26 of those destinations have only “partial service availability,” according to the postal service’s update last April.

To read more about COVID-19’s impact on the mail system, click here.

The National Hockey League, National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer all postponed their respective 2020 seasons.

All major awards shows, including Canada’s Juno Awards, were also cancelled soon after the WHO’s declaration.

In February 2020, Bitcoin began trading above $10,000 (Cdn.) as investors sought refuge from COVID-19’s economic impact. The cryptocurrency’s most recent low – in December 2018 – hit about $3,000 US, down from its all-time high of $20,000 US in 2017. As of this March, the price of Bitcoin is nearing $72,000 (Cdn.).

In March 2020, gold also began trading at a seven-year high, hitting about $1,765 US an ounce—its highest price since October 2012. As of this March, the price of gold has fallen back to about $1,720 US.

Silver has seen similar gains, hitting a seven-year high this February, when the price of the precious metal topped $30 US (about $38 Cdn.) for the first time since 2013.

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