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Weekend reads: The week the world broke
For the third anniversary of the pandemic, I share writing from 2020 and 2021. And meditate on our isolation, what it gave rise to - and how we come together again
When you have grown up in a safe and stable country, it takes time to grasp that things have fallen apart. You never expected to see wide-scale system shutdowns. You are not prepared for mass suffering. The abrupt loss of daily routines, work, social life, casual interactions on the street — it’s not something that occurred to you as being possible. So your brain has trouble processing. It tells you things: This will pass. This isn’t as bad as it looks. And then other people tell you the same.
But there comes a point at which, if you are alive and awake and breathing, you can no longer deny that something has gone wrong. You have watched the storm clouds gather on the horizon. You have watched them roll in. And now it is raining.
The day the world broke, March 13, 2020, I was in my newsroom in Toronto. I was on the early shift for our morning radio show, and we had the mayor on. I rode the elevator down to the lobby and watched his SUV pull up in front of the station. The pandemic had been declared a few days earlier, and school closures announced after that, so I was careful to press the automatic door button for him, not offer a handshake, and sign him in to our security logbook so that he didn’t have to touch the pen. In the elevator, I chatted with him and his aide, and then escorted them to the green room. After the mayor’s segment, on the way back down to the lobby, we joked nervously about news reports of toilet paper hoarding.
By nightfall, new quarantine rules were in place, and the mayor himself had gone into isolation on account of a recent trip to the UK.
The following day, still not quite comprehending, I rode an abandoned subway to meet a friend for lunch. We sat in an empty taqueria, served by an anxious man in a mask and surgical gloves, my friend and I careful not to touch the table, the wall, the chairs, each other.
In the coming days, a state of emergency was declared and the city locked down.
I was then in a large house near the University of Toronto, staying with a friend and his wife, plus several of their friends. In the basement was a young family. The mother was pregnant with her second child.
My friend was in Greece, on a writing retreat in a small village. At night, the housemates gathered around the kitchen island with the radio on. As the Prime Minister warned Canadians abroad to come home, we counted down the hours until our writer could board his flight. News of the horrors unfolding in emergency rooms in Italy filled the airwaves, our healthcare system bracing for a surge in cases.
My friends had offered to put me up while I was looking for an apartment, after a move back to Toronto from the West Coast. Now, in the wake of the coronavirus, apartment-hunting was rendered impossible.
Every day, in different rooms of their house, I logged on to my laptop and dialled in to story meetings for my newsroom. Meanwhile, flights were cancelled, borders sealed, Canadians stranded. The radio show I worked on went almost entirely remote. Once an eclectic current affairs program, it now covered one story and one story only.
And me, I became a disaster journalist. Over the phone, I interviewed doctors who intubated patients, and epidemiologists poring over modelling data. I spoke with the heads of health care networks and long-term care facilities, and public health officials and school board trustees. I talked to truck drivers hauling goods across the now-restricted U.S. border, cooking meals in their cabs to avoid interactions, and CEOs of food banks so overwhelmed by need, they drove the warehouse forklifts themselves.
Those were the easy calls. On the hard ones, listening to people who were so ill that they had to stop talking to cough and cough, or so grief-stricken over family members in the ICU that they wept, or workers so troubled by the conditions in nursing homes that they had difficulty finding words, I had to mute my phone so my subjects would not hear me cry.
After these calls, the only thing I could do was walk the streets of my neighbourhood and let the harsh winds jolt me back into my body.
I could not eat. I could not read. I could not speak to friends on the phone. All I could do was work and walk. Walk and work.
A year later, in the cold, damp spring of 2021, everyone in Toronto was again confined to their homes, waiting.
Waiting for the weather to break. Waiting for the vaccine to roll out. Waiting for the stay-at-home order to lift. Waiting for naked faces and coffee shop conversation and casual touch, some small semblance of normal life, to return to us.
If you happened to be in the media, as I was, you talked to people while you waited. And you heard things. And the things you heard had a tendency to permeate your skin, sifting through your body and settling somewhere in your stomach or your soul. And then you would have to walk and walk in order to make these things feel at home in your being. Thinking, all the while, about the people who had said them, their jagged breaths or long silences or quiet sighs. What they might be thinking, feeling. What it might mean for us all.
That spring, and, in fact, the many months leading up to it, people all spoke of the same things. And much of what people said sounded much the same.
If you listened long enough, though, and with a certain kind of attention, people would begin to ask questions. Questions they knew they were not supposed to ask.
It felt daring, listening, almost dizzying. And that is when I knew I had grown unaccustomed to the sensation of speaking freely.
These questions soon became constant companions. When I left my apartment for a walk, they were steps behind me, a shadow I could not shake. I went to bed thinking about them and woke up hearing them whispered in my ear. They circled me when I was cooking, nudging my elbow as I stirred a soup or sauce. When I sat down with my notebook, they steered my pen, forming sentences I could not say aloud.
Out in the world, the list of questions considered off-limits grew, and then grew again.
You were not supposed to ask, for instance, if the lockdown Toronto had been in for many months was warranted, or if perhaps there was another way we could go about this. You were not supposed to ask why suddenly, for the first time ever, there was complete scientific consensus on everything. You were not supposed to ask if it was plausible that the virus had leaked from a lab. Or what hospitalization data looked like parsed for age, or obesity. You were not supposed to ask how super spreader events could be explained by droplet transmission when patients had been socially distanced. Or why we were all still told to sanitize our hands when it had been established that the virus did not really spread on surfaces. You were not supposed to ask if public health messaging was making us too fearful.
You could not ask, either, about the role that poverty and precarious work played in who did, and did not, get sick. Or why billionaires had been allowed to profit so spectacularly from the crisis. Or what was causing the gun violence in cities like mine. Or why the opioid epidemic was barely registering, despite, in some places, killing more people than the virus. Or why social media giants were now in charge of what could and could not be said. Or even why real estate was booming when so many people were out of work.
As a professional question-asker, this made my job difficult.
Seemingly overnight, the qualities that had made me a journalist — an allergy to groupthink, skepticism of dominant narratives, deep curiosity about people’s lives and experiences, a habit of reading widely and across ideological lines — now made me ill-suited to the times.
So I watched as the storm gathered force. Story after story spewed outrage online. People became more angry, more divided, more censorious. Moral panics erupted. Social media spats of all descriptions raged on. Journalists were expunged from mainstream media. Trust plummeted. People everywhere picked teams. The rhetoric ratcheted up, time and time again. Everything became suspect, every book and article scrutinized, every song and podcast. Every recipe, even.
Things fell apart; the centre could not hold.
Our physical confinement gave birth to a new intellectual confinement. The air felt heavy and close, and on some days, stifling.
We all laughed less, took shallow breaths, and studied the ever-evolving lexicon on Twitter, eyes trained to tripwires. We spoke our minds only to the closest of friends, numbed ourselves with Netflix and hoped this phase would pass.
But then one day I found I couldn’t wait anymore. The questions could no longer be pushed down. And so I started asking them.
Revisiting all of this now, in the spring of 2023, is disquieting. I am unsettled by the rawness of what I wrote, so many months ago. These passages are snapshots of another time, one that I would prefer not to linger on.
But I suspect that we all have stories like these, lurking in our psyches. Testaments to our shock and grief and confusion. Stories of how it settled over us like a fog.
My hope is that we all have stories now, too, of how we began to break free. How we began living again. How we came to understand just how very much we need people.
Working on this Substack this past 15 months, it has become clear to me that the big issues of our time — from the opioid crisis to violence and political polarization — are all, at root, issues of social isolation.
The bedrock principle for our efforts to address these crises must, then, be human connection. A belief in the power of human connection. Faith that we humans can, and will, transcend our current circumstances. That we can, and will, come together to solve the pressing problems we face.
That faith is exactly what you readers have given back to me, one thoughtful comment and email at a time. And, on this cold, quiet Sunday morning in Toronto, I am grateful.
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