I don’t think we took it seriously at first.
Why would we? As relatively healthy 40-something adults we knew the drill. We knew about pandemics and rumours of pandemics. Swine flu, bird flu, regular flu, mad cow, Ebola, Zika ….
It reminds me of a bit that Richard Jeni used to do about infomercials for personal injury lawyers on late night television
(“I got diarrhea, pyorrhea, gonorrhea, Rea Pearlman … I got yellow fever, scarlet fever, pink eye, blue balls, tennis elbow, swimmer’s ear, leprosy, pleurisy, jealousy, PMS, TMJ, HBO … and occasional lower back pain. Bernard Shapiro got me $9 billion!”)
Even the SARS outbreak in 2003 – as legitimate and local as it gets for a pandemic – didn’t greatly affect normal life outside of Toronto.
Driving home from Texas in February the virus was just another headline zipping by. The more pressing health concern was an awful bout of food poisoning that I picked up somewhere in southern Illinois, after purchasing a Trump hat for a friend who wanted an authentic historical artifact from a dark period in history. I paid a steep gastrointestinal price for bringing that dream to life, and you can hear all about it on Episode #39 of my podcast.
I didn’t begin to see the COVID as anything especially significant until March. My wife and I were on a resort trip in Mexico, mixing with people from all over the world, and the news tickers kept flashing updates on what they were calling the Coronavirus (or “The Chinese Virus” depending on your network of choice). There seemed to be a heightened sense of alert, though it was hard to feel connected to it sipping mojitos on a white sand beach and dipping toes in the Caribbean Sea’s Technicolor surf.
There were no warning signs at the airport in Cancun. Travel wasn’t restricted and the term “social distancing” hadn’t yet entered the popular vernacular. It was very much business as usual and I can’t remember now just how much we knew about what was going on at home. Not much, I think, because this bizarre new reality struck us pretty hard upon arrival back in Canada.
We were driving home from the airport and I was listening to the news. I recalled in a podcast episode that it sounded like we were in a disaster movie. The reports were coming in about “measures” being taken in Europe and Asia. There were strange voices and accents and translations. I could feel the tension in the air just driving across town. Those white sand beaches and lazy, careless afternoons suddenly seemed very far away indeed.
Thank goodness we didn’t need toilet paper.
At that point the run on TP was still kind of new and a bit of a joke, but when we got to Wal-Mart we saw just how much things had changed in seven days. The cleaning products section was wiped. The wiping section was wiped too. There was a panic brewing already and it was hard not to get caught up in it. Some people did, of course. Facebook was alive with photos of people loading ten packages of toilet paper into their cars. Profiteers were already hoarding supplies and trying to sell them at outrageous mark-ups online. It’s amazing how quickly things turn to “Every man for himself.”
How long ago even that seems now.
When I think about driving home from Texas and the world we live in now it’s like I’m remembering the ‘80s or something. Pac-man and the PET Computer. Sony Walkman, Moon Walk, Walk This Way, Hulk Hogan, Paul Hogan, VHS, UHF, CDs, Rambo, and Rubik’s Cube.
Hey, do you remember when we used to just walk into Wal-Mart and buy stuff? That was awesome!
Self-isolation was beginning to happen at that point. The virus had come to America, and despite assurances that it would peak at about 15 cases, there were rumours of border closings. My dear friend Deni and his family made a mad dash home to Canada from Florida, squeaking under the door like Indiana Jones before the crossings went dark.
As international travellers, my wife and I were required to self-isolate for two weeks. At that point work places were still open more or less as usual. She was able to do her job from home and so she set up in our office with some gear dropped off by her colleagues.
There was a bit of novelty in the early days, you know. There was a sense that we were living some real history. There was adrenaline. There was uncertainty. There was something appealing in this notion of people taking a step back, reassessing their values, breathing again. Schools were closed for an extra couple of weeks after March Break and very quickly photographs began to emerge of China without pollution.
Nobody was thinking long-term. I think most of us still figured the crisis would pass and after a few weeks of Netflix binges and going for walks in the neighbourhood life would return to normal. We weren’t thinking about layoffs. Business closures. People actually dying. Like dying in real numbers.
There was a moment at the beginning, a brief bubble of time, when it seemed like all of this was shining a light on how messed up our values are. How we’ve sold ourselves for money. How we’ve ignored the environment. How we’ve become too attached to sports. How we’ve mistaken Instagram for a real connection with other people. It was a forced separation from reality, and I think a lot of people kind of liked the idea.
But nurses knew different.
Doctors knew different.
And, increasingly, coroners knew different.
Even in Canada, where we seem to have done well with flattening the curve (another new phrase in the lexicon), the health care system was and is severely stretched. I have nurse friends who tell me they’ve never seen anything like the demands that this thing is putting on them or their hospitals. Eventually our governments figured it out, because here we sit weeks after the initial school closures. School is out for the rest of the year and possibly even the beginning of next. Stadiums are dark. Music is closed.
It became a much bigger thing than we expected and, not surprisingly, the conspiracy theories came with it. And then a new kind of tension as the push came to end this Draconian lock-down and throw off our government oppressors.
And all the while I’ve been sitting where I’m sitting now, sipping tea and looking out my window. There were times when it was tough to do that, by the way. There were moments when I wanted to scream and run out into the street too. To go get take-out. To have coffee with someone. To get a few groceries without having to line up and fend off encroachment and sanitize my hands ten times and worry, worry, worry.
It’s been an exercise in fear, all of this.
But today the sun is shining. Skies are blue and I hear a neighbour mowing the lawn. It’s hard to prepare for a future we can’t remotely predict, so I think it’s enough just to express all of this and enjoy the sight of a blue sky. The same blue sky we sat beneath in Mexico. The same blue sky that I stared at through van windows on the way home from Texas, at least when my head wasn’t buried in a plastic trash can.
A blue sky that I hope says the worst is over.