24 March 2020
A month ago, I was sitting at the table in our Portuguese apartment trying to figure out which of three local wines I liked best. The late afternoon sun was shining on the Douro river, the oranges on the trees in the garden were shimmering in a light breeze, and the wines had each cost less than €3 a bottle. Exactly one month later I am sitting at the desk in my home office, trying to figure out what surface to disinfect next. The late afternoon sun is highlighting some of the low grey cloud and reflecting up from the snow drifts in the garden, the leafless branches of the maple trees are swishing urgently in the wind, and the liquor stores are all closed. What a difference a month makes.
I’m in Day 11 of self-isolation and, so far, it’s not going too bad. Mind you, as a colleague from Calgary mentioned, those of who us who have been teaching online or are part of international research networks have been practising for this for a decade! Spending one‘s day in a home office, communicating by e-mail or FaceTime or Skype or WhatsApp, never interacting with a real person except at a distance, only venturing into the living part of the house during the evening—this is all normal for many academics. What is different, apart from the fact that the rest of the household is now home as well, is that there is a psychological barrier to going outside. In normal times one might stay at home from choice, but maintain the possibility of going out to meet friends for coffee—now that option has been removed.
After Portugal I went to the UK, planning to be there for a couple of weeks. After a week I got spooked by the UK media coverage of the pandemic and called Air Canada. I was able to get an earlier flight back and left London on a Friday morning. Heathrow was eerily empty. I got to Toronto late on Friday afternoon and connected through to home, arriving at 0200 on Saturday.
In Toronto I was delighted to discover that they have a new system in place, where passengers with connecting flights clear customs and immigration in a separate room and then get bussed to the domestic terminal, no longer having to leave the air-side and then re-enter via security. The customs lady was very nice, asked me where I’d been, said welcome back to Canada, and waved me through.
That was it! No health questions, no probing about the places I’d been to in England or Portugal, nothing. Not even a request to check for symptoms over the next week or so. After the screaming headlines in the British press, it was a welcome reprieve, if one I found a little bizarre. The next day I saw a recommendation from Health PEI that returnees from international travel should practice 14 days of self-isolation. So, here I am, with lots of time for thinking. Perhaps too much!
Generally, things are not too bad in Canada, yet. Our daily routines are framed by two events. First, the morning press conference from the Prime Minister, who himself is self-isolating, praising Canadians for all the good things they are doing to keep our country safe. Second, the afternoon press conference from the Provincial Chief Medical Officer [PCMO], telling us off for not maintaining enough distance in grocery stores or buying too many toilet rolls. The good cop – bad cop routine is probably unplanned but is nonetheless very effective.
The PCMO was particularly cross when it was announced that the liquor stores and cannabis shops would be closed at 2:00 pm the next day. Islanders immediately stopped whatever they were doing and rushed off to, lined up for, and crammed into, both kinds of shop. After berating us all for ignoring the rules about social distancing, she did acknowledge, belatedly, that perhaps officials had misjudged what Islanders considered essential! Most people here say they were stocking up because they expected to the bootleggers and dope dealers to be back in business by 2:15 pm and prices would likely go up.
Globally, it seems that a pattern where countries ‘spike’ about a month apart—China in January, Italy in February, Spain in March, and probably the UK in April. I reckon we’re about a month behind the UK and so I’m expecting total chaos here in May or possibly June, unless the warmer weather interrupts things. My calculations might also be thrown out of whack by the situation in the US, especially as we have only just closed that border, and then only to tourists and non-essential travel. There are loopholes in the cross-border agreement big enough to drive a very large truck through.
Things are still relatively quiet here on the Island—we’re small enough that the government has been able to install road blocks and health checks at the bridge, the ferry terminal, and the airport, so that will help control incoming tourists (or returning residents). Except for people on essential business, everyone who comes to the Island is now being asked to self-isolate for 14 days, no matter where they came from—apparently nobody has yet tried to claim a quick trip over to Costco as an essential activity. Most people here are following the new rules, and we’re already seeing ‘social shaming’; the other day someone called out a fellow who was in the supermarket, “You just got back from Florida yesterday, what’re you doing outside?”
Social shaming, social distancing, self-isolation—the new vocabulary of our times. These phrases are all indicative of a very human response to the COVID19 pandemic.
And yet, there are other elements to this situation that we seem to avoid as discussion topics, ironic realities that are worthy of consideration. For one, isn’t it ironic that those who are taking an individual approach, who view themselves as invincible and are ignoring all the guidelines related to gatherings, are in effect putting the social collective at risk. Whereas those who believe in the social collective, and are making sure they do their best to preserve appropriate distances and so forth, are providing the anti-social individuals with the herd immunity and support they need in order to maintain their individual anti-social actions.
For another, it is helpful to put our minds back a few months. Our main concerns at the end of the second decade of the 21st century were focused on ‘big picture’ issues such as taking steps to combat global warming, being concerned about global overpopulation, countering the insidious nature of the internet, and—in Canada at least—worrying about caring for a generally aging population. Isn’t it ironic that COVID19 is addressing all these on our behalf?
Suddenly, global levels of smog and CO2 gases have been reduced significantly, as factories are shut down, planes are grounded, and fewer people are driving cars because their work has been closed. Suddenly, a highly contagious virus with an average fatality rate of 3.4% of infected individuals (14.5% for those over 80 years of age) is starting to ‘flatten the curve’ of global population growth. The number of people infected world-wide is rising rapidly—it took 3 months for there to be 100,000 cases, and then only another 12 days for that to double to 200,000. A week later there are 400,000+ cases, and it will be illustrative to see how rapidly that total continues to rise. Suddenly, the Internet is starting to collapse under its own weight, as house-bound people under “shelter in place” restrictions try to access entertainment and communications online. Suddenly, there is an expectation of a ‘baby boom’ next December, the outcome of other diversions resulting from long periods of being quarantined at home.
It’s so easy to get swallowed up by all these matters and that way madness lies. It’s a pandemic, yes, but we’ve had others, and no doubt more will come in the future. Right now, the best way to cope with this one is to wash your hands a lot and try not to get too close to other people. Actually, the best advice I heard was from a British epidemiologist. He said, “Don’t worry about catching the virus. Pretend you already have it, and now just make sure you don’t give it to someone else.” If we all did that, if we simply tried not to give the virus to others, then pretty soon nobody would have it.
Once things calm down, hopefully later in the summer but perhaps not until the fall, it will be interesting to see how much of an impact the virus has had on the overall life of the planet. In the interim, I’ll finish my 14 days of self-isolation, and then enter a phase—the length of which is unknown—of socially distancing myself from others. Because this situation isn’t going to go away, and just because I didn’t bring the virus back from England doesn’t mean that I can’t catch it from someone else. Like everyone else, I shall have to get used to this new normal, of keeping friends and strangers at a 2m distance, of not being able to get my hair cut, of going to the grocery store at odd hours in order to avoid the biggest lines, of not being able to go to movies or plays or concerts. The spring and summer of 2020 are going to be unlike any other period of our lives.
Wherever you are, stay safe. Wash your hands. Avoid crowded spaces.
And remember, even if we each individually are required to keep 2m away from other people, we have the technology to keep in touch and communicate at a distance. There is no requirement that we must become Carthusian hermits, locked away in monastic cells under a self-imposed vow of silence. To be human is to be part of a community, and now more than ever it is important that we all participate in that community.
A pandemic does not need to result in pandemonium.