The moment of the day when the reality of the situation continues to hit the hardest is the minute before I wake up.
Sometimes it’s in the middle of the night, sometimes at 5:00 am just before the alarm goes off. I go to bed thinking about coronavirus, and I wake up thinking about it. I’m sure it’s the norm right now for everybody. Our collective dreams must be made of this new reality.
As I write this, it is the first week of April and the beginning of the fourth week of strict physical distancing in Canada. My regret is not having the time to talk about this sooner: the pandemic and its impact on our world have been so swift that whatever our mental state two weeks ago, it feels more like our mental state two years ago. If at the beginning of March the pandemic felt like a circle closing in around us, bringing grimmer and grimmer news and with it, more and more stringent measures, today it already feels like a new normal. Still, it’s worth remembering, in any way we can, how this still evolving tragedy fell upon us so that we do not forget the moment when everything turned into a before and after.
I think it’s fair to say that, similar to September 11, everybody will remember when it finally hit them that the coronavirus was serious. Was it when their kids’ schools closed? When their companies told them to work from home? When they saw the lineups at their grocery stores, the stunned customers shopping in eerie silence?
In my mind, and in my conversations with my family, I keep going over and over the days when the pandemic hit here in North America. With an air of annoying superiority, I keep retracing my days in late February and early March in search of proof that I was getting ready for what was to come. How, after suffering two weeks of serious depression in mid-February, I decided to change my work at home routine in the first week of March and take my laptop to our brand new public library and work from there. How I thought it was bad timing, but it was that or not meet my deadlines.
How, one day at the library, that first week of March, a girl approached me and asked me to borrow my charger and I thought that was not very prudent, but of course, I lent it to her anyway. How I told the story to my mom, half-joking, and half-serious after I went by their house to have an afternoon coffee. How a week later, the week of March 9, I went to my weekly volunteering shift at my son’s school breakfast program and felt I had landed in another world.
This is because, as I quietly tended to my griddles, I heard teachers and other volunteers discuss arguments scientists had been debunking for weeks: “The flu is more deadly, what’s all the fuss about?” and “how are they going to enforce self-isolation for those coming back to Canada?” this said with a tone that betrayed resistance and a questioning of the logic or need for such a measure. I think that was the day I realized it was serious, when I realized the messages from our public health officials, still sparse at that point, true, were not getting through to people. That it would be one thing to combat this deadly virus in the front lines, in our hospitals and clinics, and another to combat our deeply entrenched human behaviours.
It’s odd, because the panic buying had already started at that point–the first two weeks of March–with stories circulating of shortages at Costco and other large retailers and of people hoarding disinfecting wipes and hand sanitizer. So the world seemed to be divided between those feeling the response was overblown, and those preparing for the end of times. I was in the middle, alarmed but refusing to go shopping. I just kept waiting for our public health officials to give us clear information about what we could expect in the next few weeks. I’m just an immigrant with a deeply ingrained need to follow the rules, what can I do?
At the same time, a riff occurred in our family group chat, as my siblings and I discussed what to do with our parents who are in their 70s. Should our dad, a driver for a charity organization, still go out and work? Should we cancel the spring break camp my mom had organized for my son and his cousins? It all seems so naive now: yes and yes, and yes to canceling any other outing or get together at this time.
As the pandemic’s epicenter has moved from China to Italy and Spain, and now to the United States, many personal changes have started to occur. My eldest sister, who lives just south of San Francisco, California, lost 10 pounds in the first two weeks of their state lockdown. She, like many, experienced a sense of shock at the rapidly moving situation in her country. Her anguish, however, was mostly caused by the almost criminally inept approach of Trump and company in handling the crisis. Still, she’s an engineer at Cisco, so she is one of the lucky ones in the midst of so much loss and uncertainty. My other sister and my brother have handled it better, but everybody has experienced huge changes in their lives.
My sister in Germany, a newly appointed team lead in her company, doubled down on work as her office implemented measures to handle the crisis, only she had to do it at home and with two elementary-age school kids showing up on her hourly Zoom meetings to tell her they were bored. She fell in bed, exhausted, at the end of the first week. My brother, finally sent home with a laptop, has to contend with sending his medical assistant wife out to her job, which she thankfully does in full protective gear, multiple times a week.
I have been working from home full-time since last October, so my life was already very similar to the one required by the physical distancing measures. I am also lucky that we live in a townhouse large enough to provide three people the space they need to do their own thing once in a while. As history will show, we are the lucky ones, those who were able to do physical distancing, that for the most part could work from home (except for my sister-in-law and my husband, a journeyman joiner), and had the means to remain connected to each other via technology.
Still, when a war is raging, do we not all feel the need to contribute in some way, however small? How do we, the non-front-line workers, the civilians, contribute to winning this war? Governments around the world have answered that question firmly by telling us that our job is to “stay home” and to “help flatten the curve.” It’s true that that is empowering. That by us staying out of the way from the front line, we can help the doctors, the nurses, other healthcare system staff, and the essential service workers, more easily face their daily battle. That’s very good.
In the last few weeks, we have also learned many ways in which we can continue to support those whose livelihoods are at stake: the artists, the musicians, the local restaurants, the local and small merchants, and the most vulnerable to the disease. We must continue to do this, unwavering in our empathy and commitment to each other.
And still, the question remains. How do we face this? How do we continue to do our “non-essential” jobs when nothing seems relevant anymore? How do we make sense of what’s happening? What can I, an aspiring, mostly unemployed writer, contribute at this time? How do we talk about anything that’s not the pandemic?
As it’s often the case for me, I found some answers in the distant past.
A Journal of the Plague Year, by Daniel Defoe, is a historical novel published in 1722. It is a vivid account of a merchant’s experience during the 1665 London plague, which it is estimated took the lives of 100,000 people, equivalent to a quarter of the city’s population, in a mere 18 months. The novel is a work of fiction, but one that it’s considered to be quite accurate in its account of the ravages of the Great Plague.
I love podcasts, and not being able to bear current news about the pandemic, my two favourite podcasts–The Daily from The New York Times and Front Burner from the CBC– are out. A Journal of The Plague Year has been made available as a podcast and that’s how I found this book. I’m currently in part 8 of… many, but I have already been struck many times by a sense of familiarity and the feeling that there is nothing new in how we are dealing with this pandemic. Human behaviours are human behaviours, no matter what century we’re in.
The story starts with a detailed account of the infected, and how each week, to the great concern of the affected parishes in the city, the number of ill and dead began to grow. It was the end of 1664 and as the year turned and winter gave to spring, and then summer, the plague started to consume the city. The merchant explains how from the very beginning, both the authorities and the people began to hide the real number of infected or dead. By June 1665, while one part of the city counted hundreds of dead, another was still under the impression that the plague would not touch them and life carried on as normal.
In the parts of town where the plague had taken hold, there was an exodus of the noble and the rich to their summer homes, all leaving before the city would close and all travel was banned. Despite urging from his brother, the merchant fights an internal battle about what to do, finally resolving to stay home. He then proceeds to tell the story of everything he saw: the empty streets, the worried faces, the suddenly unemployed.
“Business led me out sometimes to the other end of the town, even when the sickness was chiefly there; and as the thing was new to me, as well as to everybody else, it was a most surprising thing to see those streets which were usually so thronged now grown desolate, and so few people to be seen in them […].”
“All families retrenched their living as much as possible, as well those that fled as those that stayed; so that an innumerable multitude of footmen, serving-men, shopkeepers, journeymen, merchants’ bookkeepers, and such sort of people, and especially poor maid-servants, were turned off, and left friendless and helpless, without employment and without habitation, and this was really a dismal article.”
Not only that, he tells stories of how the servants, the few that remained, were the ones who most likely brought the “distemper” (the illness) home because they were the ones who had to go out shopping. He observes also how people who could buy food in large quantities were able to leave their house less, but those who could not, were, unfortunately, much more exposed:
“And here I must observe again, that this necessity of going out of our houses to buy provisions was in a great measure the ruin of the whole city, for the people catched the distemper on these occasions one of another, and even the provisions themselves were often tainted. […] However, the poor people could not lay up provisions, and there was a necessity that they must go to market to buy, and others to send servants or their children; and as this was a necessity which renewed itself daily, it brought abundance of unsound people to the markets, and a great many that went thither sound brought death home with them.”
Most incredible of all, he even tells stories of being shut down at home, not able to shop, and having to start baking his own bread and making his own beer.
“It was now the beginning of August, and the plague grew very violent and terrible in the place where I lived, and Dr Heath coming to visit me, and finding that I ventured so often out in the streets, earnestly persuaded me to lock myself up and my family, and not to suffer any of us to go out of doors; […] but as I had not laid in a store of provision for such a retreat, it was impossible that we could keep within doors entirely. However, I attempted, though it was so very late, to do something towards it; and first, as I had convenience both for brewing and baking, I went and bought two sacks of meal, and for several weeks, having an oven, we baked all our own bread; also I bought malt, and brewed as much beer as all the casks I had would hold, and which seemed enough to serve my house for five or six weeks.”
On and on, Defoe provides great detail of everything the merchant witnesses, including the unscrupulous peddling magic cures, the measures taken by city officials, the great pain of the mourners, and the great horror overall felt over the plague. I have not finished the book yet, but I have an idea of how it ends.
So even though it may sound like a morbid choice at this time, A Journal of the Plague Year has given me some solace. It has shown me that we have experienced this before and survived. It has shown me that no matter what technology or advances we have, human experience is what unites us to each other, as well as to our future and to our past. Most important of all, it has shown me that we must bear witness, record this time to memory, to photos, to blog posts, and show future generations how we learned, how we supported each other, and how we overcame.
Quotes from, A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe, being Observations or Memorials of the most remarkable occurrences, as well public as private, which happened in London during the last great visitation in 1665. Written by a CITIZEN who continued all the while in London. Never made publick before.
To listen to the podcast, click here. To read the book, click here; the entire text is available online.
Featured photo: The trees blooming at the entrance of our townhouse complex, in Port Coquitlam, BC, Canada.