sanity covid

Staying sane and humane during the COVID-19 pandemic

Being safe, being informed and keeping your spirits up is a struggle in surreal times.

It’s been a surreal couple of weeks as the situation with COVID-19 has evolved very quickly and unpredictably and is now classified as a full-on pandemic. Rapidly updated and often-conflicting government information, conspiracy theories, partisan points, COVID-related memes and community help groups are all sharing space online as people struggle to both be informed and keep their spirits up.

Now that we’ve all been forced into voluntary isolation and become familiar with terms like “social distancing,” Doomsday movies like Contagion don’t feel all that much like sci-fi anymore. Images of people fighting for the last six-pack of two-ply toilet paper and bottle of Purell sanitizer last week, reminiscent of scenes from The Walking Dead coming to life — minus the zombies — solidified those feelings.

The line between remaining informed with the most accurate and up-to-date information and entering paranoia-stricken sharing of everything and anything that appears to predict people’s worst fears has not always been a clear one. It’s hard staying focused and it’s easy to see that people’s nerves are jarred.

Our weaknesses and our failings — collectively and individually — have been laid bare and exposed for all to see. Watching the governmental ineptitude south of the border play out makes it painfully clear that a country without universal healthcare is a liability not only to its citizens but countries around it. I worry about sharing the largest unprotected border with the U.S. and how it will affect us. I worry about asymptomatic Americans who, without free healthcare and access to a social safety net, will be left untested and undetected, and an unprepared healthcare system unable to tackle a pandemic of this magnitude. Closer to home, I also question whether this crisis won’t make us reassess how we view workers’ rights, universal basic income and other ways to protect the most vulnerable.

COVID-19 has also exposed individual human failings. Watching people try to profit off others’ fears and panic, trying to gouge them by buying hand sanitizers and then re-selling them at inflated prices online, has been grotesque to see. Watching people unwilling to understand that social distancing means you don’t get to party with your friends, go out to eat at local restaurants or participate in St. Patrick’s Day events has also been extremely irritating. Medical experts have made it very clear that avoiding social gatherings in crowded places is imperative if we are to flatten the curve and give people with immunocompromised systems a fighting chance to survive this.

But, as in all times of crisis, plenty of people have also risen to the occasion. When Quebec Premier Legault put out a call for retired healthcare professionals willing to help during the crisis, 7,000 people answered yes. I’ve seen folks offering to go shopping for their elderly neighbours, donating blood, gathering food for shelters and food banks, COVID-19 Mutual Aid Mobilisation Facebook groups, where administrators try to connect people requesting help with volunteers who want to help (a complete list by borough and other helpful ideas can be found on this Twitter thread), young high-school and CEGEP students (MTL Babysitting) offering to babysit and help families in need. Understanding that not everyone can afford full-time babysitting, these young teens are asking to be paid only what is manageable (even if that’s nothing) to give parents who are scrambling with the current school closures a helping hand. The kids have always been alright.

Another Facebook group, Quarantine Kitchens, has been sharing helpful and easy-to-make recipes for people cooped up at home, while parents are sharing their home-schooling tips with each other and simultaneously realizing that whatever teachers are getting paid is nowhere near enough. Every little bit helps to ease the hardships, anxiety and cabin fever many of us are experiencing, while separated from our daily routine and elderly loved ones we can’t currently see.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever been as frustrated by people or as moved by their goodness all at the same time,” tweeted one of my (very smart) friends. She’s right. It’s been a real jumble of mixed emotions navigating that fine line between prudence and paranoia, and I’m certainly not exempt from it.

I’m proud to say that I didn’t succumb to any panic-shopping — mainly because I don’t like shopping in crowded supermarkets under the best of circumstances, and because I am my mother’s daughter and have stockpiled enough food in my kitchen cabinets to ride both a pandemic, a snowstorm and a zombie apocalypse.

But I haven’t been totally immune to the panic. Suddenly, every surface, every door handle, every elevator button, every barbell, every pen I’m biting into as I think, every STM turnstile, every $5 bill, every wine glass became a vector of disease. Realistically, we now know that that could very much be the case, but what an angst-riddled way to live. I can’t imagine being able to sustain it for too long. It’s already exhausted me.

I’ve caught myself reacting in ways I really don’t like. Riding the 105 in NDG last week, a young woman was seated next to me who started sniffling. Even though I’ve read the symptoms of COVID-19 and a runny nose is an unlikely sign of infection, I found myself ever-so-slightly leaning away from her. With doctors telling us that people infected can walk around not exhibiting symptoms for weeks, I don’t expect people to be less panicky as the weeks progress.

A few days ago, I was standing in line to pay for my groceries with a man behind me who had absolutely no concept of space. Even in pre-Coronavirus times I don’t like people hovering over my head and will deliberately ask you to pass me on the street if you’re walking too closely behind me because it stresses me out. Imagine that behaviour when we’ve been told to keep a safe distance from each other! No matter how many times I inched forward to create some sort of protective bubble, the man kept inching closer. I heard him cough. I could feel my aggravation rising.

“This is how you end up on YouTube being filmed by someone as the angry, crazy lady lashing out at someone,” I thought. I quickly paid for my groceries and left, trying to decide if I was overreacting or he was underreacting given the current circumstances.

It’s been a hard adjustment, and everyone is coping with these trying times very differently, depending on their personality, lifestyle, age bracket, social income, information savviness, closeness to people who are at risk and sense of humour. It’s a real mixed bag and in my own personal circle I see people who have voluntarily entered full-on quarantine, and those who are choosing to carry on with their travels and brunch plans like nothing’s going on.

On top of all this, and in a frustrating reversal of roles, I’ve been dealing with the stress of trying to curtail (via telephone) the activities of my 74-year-old mother who initially refused to understand the severity of what was happening, despite the fact that she is immunocompromised. God help us all from elderly Greek ladies who think its their personal duty to scour the grocery aisles every morning for daily specials on 5-pound bags of potatoes and 20 pounds of feta cheese.

Premier Legault turned out to be my unlikely ally when he issued a decree that all seniors over 70 stay home. Government-mandated isolation was the only thing that finally worked with my stubborn mom.

Working as a freelancer from home for a good chunk of my time has meant that my daily work routine hasn’t changed all that much. I’m used to solitary work and I, in fact, enjoy it. But my social life has taken a serious hit and temporarily putting a stop to my gym workouts has been hard to handle. Both these things have always been what I needed to offset the sedentary and solitary life of a freelance writer and are now unavailable to me. Adding to the stress, a substantial number of my contracts have been cancelled and I, and many others who don’t have the safety net of permanency, are worried about what’s to come. To say that this will take a serious toll on many of us financially would not be an exaggeration.

My coping mechanisms so far seem to be a lot of writing (no surprise there), reading (my plan to stockpile a dozen books from the public library was quickly foiled when the mayor decided to suddenly shut them all down), cooking, taking very long walks and, for some inexplicable reason, purchasing lots of sourdough bread and fresh flowers. I suppose when the sky is falling, one needs carbs and beauty to carry on.

Do what works for you, friends. If you need a couple of extra 12-packs of toilet paper hanging around your house to feel in control, who am I to begrudge you? If you need to stockpile books and cook non-stop and freeze 25 meals in a weekend, do what you must. If you need to share all the stupid memes, share away! If you need to go for a long two-hour walk to clear your head, breathe fresh air and escape your kids or partner, I won’t judge you. If you feel like binge-watching Love Is Blind or Sex Education on Netflix, instead of writing the next great Canadian novel, that’s fine, too. These are strange and uncertain times and the weight of the unknown is crushing us all. Do what you can to cope.

My moment of random Zen yesterday was watching a tiny human in a huge, bright red snowsuit navigate her first hesitant steps under the attentive gaze of her parents on the Lachine Canal path. She was okay for a bit, until her big head (all toddlers have oversized heads in comparison to their little bodies) threw her off balance and she tipped over. She was about to wail, until she noticed a doggie nearby and then all was well. Life goes on, and it’s still beautiful amidst all this madness.

Lastly, but most importantly, I know it sounds like such a tired cliché, but try to be kind and reach out to those with less. Don’t be a shitty person and hoard when we truly aren’t running low on anything. Don’t try to profit at times like these. Don’t expose people needlessly because you’re young and healthy, feel invincible and aren’t “afraid” of anything. It isn’t about you, it’s about those at risk. Don’t be a racist jerk and single people out because this virus sure as hell isn’t. Italy is on track to soon record far more cases and, unfortunately, deaths than China has.

Try to think beyond yourself and the needs of your immediate loved ones. Not everyone has a safety net, family or friends nearby who can support them. Not everyone has a phone call coming in asking them if they have what they need and if they’re doing okay – both physically and psychologically. As the COVID-19 cases start rising (and doctors have predicted that they will before they wane), we need to stay on course and support one another. You can social-distance and still find ways to reach out to those around you. This pandemic will affect us locally and globally probably in ways we haven’t yet fathomed. The next couple of weeks will be crucial. Stay sane. Stay humane. ■

Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.

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