COVID-19: Pandemic, Stasis, and Change

Last week, I was on the subway heading off to work, a normal state of affairs for me on a Monday. This was a fairly standard train ride, except for a few notable exceptions: I was wearing gloves, and a heavy winter-jacket with a pull-over face mask, despite the face that this was late in March and the weather had been somewhat temperate. I recall being conscious of where my hands were going, of avoiding touching the support poles of the train, and of trying to sit in such a way that I wasn’t adjacent to or next to anyone. I also recall how empty the train was, with maybe six or eight people in my car– a far cry from the usual Monday morning, with train cars packed like sardines, rolling claustrophobic nightmares of compression.

And then the woman directly across from me coughed, and I immediately got up and searched for a new seat.

This was only a few days before my workplace finally managed to get me working at home– a strange experience in and of itself that I am still getting used to. While admittedly, I may have been acting more nervous than the situation warranted, it has been hard not to be even a little nervous or anxious with the media telling stories non-stop about COVID-19, its spread, or the best practices to avoid it. And with good reason: as of writing this, more than a million people worldwide have contracted the novel coronavirus, and close to 70,000 people have died (according to Worldometer). This is a disease that has been hitting worldwide, and laying low the poor and the powerful alike: even the prime ministers of Canada and the UK have been infected (as of writing this, Boris Johnson is in intensive care as his condition has worsened). At the urging of the medical community, people worldwide have been staying worldwide, limiting or outright eliminating socialization, all in an effort to flatten the curve of the infection rate.

Even so, it is unknown how long this situation will last. The Canadian government expects to be maintaining its current procedures until late June or in July, while some other worst case scenarios suggest that self-isolation and social distancing may have to be maintained until 2020 in a worst-case scenario.

When the news first came of the virus, I wasn’t overly concerned. It wasn’t until the cases started to truly erupt worldwide, and and the government of Ontario (my home province) issued a state of emergency a few weeks ago, that I began to take this a lot more seriously. I will admit, I let the panic get to me: I immediately went on several shopping trips, stocking up on non-perishable food and households supplies, and getting everything I felt I needed (and several things that, in retrospect, I absolutely did not need), and bunkered down. Days later, when I felt myself experiencing a sore throat, I went into a panic, and made use of no less than two different health sources to make phone consultations with doctors before finally being assured that this was just a minor cold. My fear wasn’t, of course, that this was COVID, but that this infection would make COVID that much deadlier if I ever caught it.

But, I assure you, in all other respects I have been handling this in a calm, adult manner.

What has been going on in the past few months has been one of the weirdest experiences in my life. After gathering supplies and bunkering down, I’ve done the following:

  • Got into endless, back-and-forth calls with my workplace’s IT department to get work-from-home functionality working on my laptop
  • Completely forgot about my own pre-scheduled vacation days, given the crisis (and also the fact that right now, with airlines down, there is nowhere to vacation to)
  • Had my first week of working from home, which was an odd experience. I’m sure everyone in the modern world is now realizing what a difference an actual office environment makes in terms of focus and actually feeling like I’m at work.
  • Had a few consultations by phone, as mentioned previously, with doctors.
  • Had my first RPG session through Discord. It was a surprisingly rewarding experience, as the fact that it was based on voice chat meant that there were fewer people interrupting one another, and a more orderly way in which the GM was able to deal with each player in turn. There were, of course, technical issues here and there, but overall, it was a fun, rewarding experience. Next I want to try my hand at Roll20, or at playing 40k/other miniature games on Tabletop Simulator (plus, of course, board games on sites like Tabletopia).

That’s how I’ve been faring so far. I haven’t yet, however, addressed how I am going to deal with future issues– ie, grocery shopping once I run out of supplies, technical support in case my laptop starts malfunctioning (or if I’m crazy enough to try to upgrade it in the middle of this crisis), etc, although I imagine placing online orders will probably be my go-to solution. I don’t even want to think about what I will do, though, if I develop a non COVID-related medical issue, or if my cat needs to go to the vet…and I even less want to consider what I will do if any of my relatives or friends get COVID-19.

The bigger questions, however, that are on the back of my mind (as I’m sure they are on a lot of people’s minds) are how COVID-19 is changing the world as we know it already, and how different things might be once this crisis is over. In particular, the things I’ve been mulling over recently, in no particular order:

  • Few have considered how the homeless and the displaced are being affected by the disease. Toronto, for instance, has a sizeable homeless population, who already have no or limited access to health insurance or medicine. Because of social distancing, however, many shelters and drop-in sites are closing, and because of this, some experts are warning that the infection may explode among the homeless population. When you combine this with the issues that the homeless already face– untreated health problems, lack of access to shelter or sanitation, and in some cases mental health or addiction issues– and it already looks like they are the ones who are going to suffer the most from this crisis.
  • The nature of the job market, the workplace, and of hiring new employees, is already changing dramatically. Already, job markets have plummeted worldwide as many companies and locations have been forced to close, and the number of people applying for unemployment benefits has skyrocketed. In some instances, this has led to some governments spending billions (if not trillions) on relief packages for failing businesses and setting up increased benefits for those left jobless, while those companies still in operation have, where possible, either had to set up work-from-home measures or increase the pay and protections for their customer-facing staff. I anticipate that, as this crisis goes on, a global recession is inevitable, and many people are going to remain jobless for a while. At the same time, many other jobs are either going to shift to shift into completely online/remote positions, or what new jobs that are created will be done so with working from home in mind.
  • Obviously, the debate over the raising of the minimum wage has come up again as a result of this. I think, and always have thought, that this is a sensible idea that should have been implemented years ago, and hopefully, this crisis will convince even the staunchest opponents that this is absolutely necessary, especially given how many retail workers, delivery people, medical staff and other essential services are still out, active, and putting their health at risk. This crisis truly is exposing, not just how essential certain classes of jobs are to the continued functioning of society, but in some cases how the wages for those jobs don’t reflect how essential they truly are.
  • Air pollution in major cities is going down, apparently, as the number of cars out on the road has dropped dramatically. It hasn’t done enough to slow climate change, but it does illustrate what could be accomplished if maybe, maybe, society committed to making serious efforts to combat air pollution.
  • The entertainment industry has been hit hard by the crisis, with many movies getting delayed releases, and many others skipping theatres and going straight to streaming. There has long been talk of how Netflix and other such streaming services might change the way movies and other media are released, and COVID-19 might be the catalyst that rolls in that change.
  • From a psychological perspective, it will be interesting to see how this crisis changes people’s behaviour in the coming months, particularly in terms of how they manage their resources at home, how they interconnect and communicate with one another remotely, and how people’s needs and values might change over time…and more importantly, how this will affect how we act once the crisis is finally over.
  • Unsurprisingly, with the crisis has come panic, anxiety, and conspiracy theories and misinformation. While there is too much crackpottery to list, I’ve heard of everything from bogus cures, to speculations that the virus may have been deliberately spread, to allegations that it is all a hoax. And of course, given that the virus originated in China, a lot of anti-Chinese racism seems to be springing up as a result (a fact not helped by certain people referring to it as “the Chinese virus”). None of this surprises me at all, but it does illustrate, in my mind, how a global crisis like this brings out the worst in people as well as their best.
  • Also…on a slightly grim note, given that the people who will be the worst affected by COVID-19 are people with health complications, and people over the age of 50, I wonder over how worldwide demographics will change once the crisis is over, particularly in regards to age.

It goes without saying that this is a historically significant time that we’re all living in. While I have no doubt that I and everyone I care about will get through it alright (after all, my grandparents endured far worse, going through the Great Depression, a world war, and, in the case of my maternal grandparents, a civil war and an immigration to Canada). I can only wonder at what the world will look like when it is over, however, and what will have changed permanently as a result.

And now for another week of staving of boredom…and act that, like everything else, I’m sure will become routine after a while.

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