At the beginning of a pestilence and when it ends, there's always a propensity for rhetoric. In the first case, habits have not yet been lost; in the second, they're returning. It is in the thick of a calamity that one gets hardened to the truth - in other words, to silence.
--The Plague, Albert Camus (1947)
It’s my fourth day of avoiding people and I’m astonished, seeing the entire world shifting to a dystopian existence, with the coining of new phrases like, ‘social distancing’ and ‘social isolation’. I never imagined relating to characters in Albert Camus’, The Plague, a fictional account of the bubonic plague’s impact on society. While the bubonic plague was far more deadly than COVID-19, Camus’ story hits alarmingly close to home. Especially when it comes to officials’ hesitancy to act and make people aware of the potential fallout.
When news of this strange virus from China first emerged, I figured it was too far away to have any impact on me. I saw photos of hospitals being built in China specifically to treat this virus, and still didn’t consider it a threat. I read about the virus seeping through the Chinese border, and felt a pang of fear, which I soon quashed, telling myself the virus would run its course, like the flu, and be over long before it came anywhere near Canada.
My children, in their early twenties, recognised the crisis before I did, warning me to stop skiing, to stop writing in coffee shops, to stop socialising. I waved their concerns away and headed out to meet friends on the slopes. Meanwhile, the number of people with the virus increased globally. Cases began to appear in Canada. People started dying and Prime Minister Trudeau’s wife tested positive for COVID-19 and I started paying attention and here I am.
My new routine: instead of showering and getting dressed as soon as I wake up, then heading to a local coffee shop to write, I eat breakfast in my pajama pants and t-shirt, and sit down at my computer. Without deodorant, without a brush through my hair, without flossing my teeth. I wonder what I’ll look and smell like a week from now.
Instead of chatting to coffee shop staff and regulars about the latest Netflix shows to binge, I talk to my dog, Finnegan, ranting about the circumstances leading up to this pandemic, glad to see his Westie-tail wag as I go on, grateful he doesn’t argue with me, as I’m in no mood for a debate.
After a tedious morning of editing, it’s time to walk Finnegan, but even this is different than before. He spots a furry friend and pulls and barks excitedly. Normally, the other owner and I would exchange smiles and move closer, so our dogs could get a good sniff. But not today, not with normalcy a thing of the past. Now, the other owner and I exchange wary glances and lead our dogs in opposite directions, fearful of getting too close, afraid the other might have the virus.
I continue walking and see two men across the street. They wave at one another and begin to move closer, then stop, as if they’re on the edges of a precipice. They both step backwards, increasing the space between them, and are quickly engaged in an animated discussion. Handshakes and hugs, universal signs of friendliness, have been replaced by one-metre intervals of fear.
As Finnegan and I return home, I remind myself that this is temporary, that so many people are worse off, that I will be able to go back to my old routine. Yet, when ‘ordinary’ life does resume, without social isolation, store, restaurant, school, and public place closures, I won’t be able to forget how the world changed in just a few weeks. Because we will be facing the worst recession in decades. Because the coronavirus will remain with us, invisible and ready to strike when we least expect it, when we are complacent. Life will never be the same as it was, now that COVID-19 has surfaced, just as Dr. Rieux, in The Plague, knows viruses can lie dormant for years.