It has been almost three months since I wrote a column for the local press. Between balancing my day job as a supply teacher and role as a city councillor; renovating then selling my financée’s house as we prepare for marriage; planning a wedding; and trying to keep up some connections with family and friends, my regular contribution for the Kingstonist fell to the wayside, obviously but unintentionally, as did working out, eating well, and taking time to stop and smell the roses, or, as the season would dictate, go snow-shoeing or cross-country skiing.
But almost everything changed last week. As news of the novel coronavirus began to spread nearly as fast as the thing itself, as public health began messaging on hand-washing and cough-covering, the global community experienced whiplash that shook us all to the core.
When the World Health Organization declared a planetary pandemic in COVID19, life became, at once, incredibly busy (with panic buying, hoarding, and a rush to get home from literally all ends of the earth) and eerily quiet (with new social distancing and quarantines in effect, and, for many, lay-offs and working from home).
On my end, things slowed down dramatically. To start, Meredith and I postponed our wedding reception and now plan to have a small gathering only of immediate family for the service, in line with the government’s ban on gatherings of more than 50 people and being sensitive to the current dangers of eating in large groups. I have also been self-isolating for almost a week as I push through a regular flu, heeding expert advice to wait until all symptoms disappear entirely and then add a day to that before re-engaging in regular schedules, or as regular as possible given our new realities. Skype and conference calls now predominate, yes. So does sitting down to meals at home, moments to read, to think, to watch TV. All of which feel like new realities in a normally busy schedule.
I have not spent this much continuous time in my house ever. It has provided a needed break: time to reflect on the past and the personal and practically constant hubbub of meetings, emails, phone calls, and social media. Being essentially alone has given me space to consider the paradoxes that underscore life as I’ve come to know it. More, I see that as the disease proliferates, so do the very best things about who we are as a species, modern, globalized, and relatively affluent. For me, the shadow of COVID19 has actually shone a light on the ways in which those of us who fall in those categories are both exceptionally blessed and tremendously fragile. The mix of the two point to the clarity and hope of this otherwise dire situation.
The fragility is perhaps the most obvious part of the equation. The unbridled greed in the form of profiteering off common goods such as toilet paper and Lysol wipes speaks to our darker natures at a microcosmic level. Macrocosmically, we see the same as multi-billion dollar corporations continue to unrealistically and punitively require workers to provide sick notes in these desperate times, some going as far as to not paying employees on temporary leave, despite the company’s profound net profits year over year.
The lack of pay also points to our problems, as many individuals and families are one paycheque away from missing a mortgage payment, making rent, or heating their homes. All at no fault of their own. Additionally, the pillaged empty shelves alluded to above speak not only to selfishness, but also to the fact most of us depend on a food system that is entirely unsustainable in terms of the resources required to maintain and deliver it, particularly in crisis. Few of us even grow our own vegetables any more.
Finally, it’s hard not to feel discouraged when we realize the only place of known sentient, resilient life in the universe could see that very vitality vastly diminished based on the transmission of a small pathogen barely a few months old. And likewise, that many hundreds of thousands of us, if not more, particularly the next generation tasked with carrying on the human project and promise, don’t listen to basic advice on how to avoid such cataclysm. We are a delicate species indeed.
Yet it is our sentience and resilience, and our lighter natures, which are equally, if not more, on display during COVID-19. Watching online, I have been so overwhelmed by the pure brilliance, creativity, and compassion of individuals during this emergency, it is hard to describe. From something as banal as memes of household items being used to imitate now cancelled sport, to socially responsible organizations changing their regular manufacturing practices to supply medical equipment, independent theatres paying their employees despite shuttered screens, and the coordination and cooperation of political parties to act with profound swiftness and significance to support workers, I am deeply heartened.
Then there’s the power of the planet: as boats and planes stop polluting the water and air due to a massive decline in tourism and travel, nature re-emerges beautifully, splendidly. The ozone heals and the climate breathes slightly freer than in the last 200 years. This is to say nothing of the day to day human actions residents take in checking in on neighbours, texting old friends, hanging out with their own kids and parents in small numbers, going on walks around the block, lending a hand to strangers (if only figuratively in this time of being apart and still together): “care-mongering” as a Kingston Facebook group has called it.
It is considering these two realities, of dark and light, which gives me hope. COVID-19 shows us how fragile, selfish, and problematic we’ve ordered our lives, personally and collectively. Nevertheless, in doing so, it shows what we have to change. People need living wages and a basic income guarantee so when there are similar, though providentially not as deadly disruptions, we don’t see such destitution. Workers need strong unions and associations to partner with employers of good will to ensure equitable and safe working conditions. Everyone needs to think seriously about their consumption and where and how they get what they eat, where they go, how they get there, and so much more.
The brilliant truth however is that our united efforts against this virus have begun the needed reform on those fronts. The darkness doesn’t win. It’s not just that though; in responding to COVID-19, we have seen the potential of our more altruistic and artistic selves, more brightness. Systemically, we have daily illustrations that democratic bodies can put aside partisanship and prioritize public health in the matter of hours, not months or years or decades. We, too, have seen municipal governments increase responsiveness and communication with residents at unprecedented levels, the vast majority of folks in turn complying with requests of City Halls the world over. Or how about the absolute showcase of science and evidence-based decision making, which can spill over in almost all realms going forward. We have witnessed continued acts of heroism in healthcare professionals, postal workers, grocers and other small businesses. Then there’s the social solidarity as we demand that large companies treat their workers with respect and that those same companies recognize workers as indispensable, fundamental human beings who make our economy thrive, not mere cogs in a revenue-generating wheel.
For the self, we have had to think about how much we put our comfort first, over others and the earth; we have had to ask ourselves what and who we prioritize; what companies are worthy of our investments of time and money. Closer to home, I know that from a week of near-solitude, I am resolved to declutter my life and intentionally build into relationships, to practice presence and gratitude in all circumstances. I also seriously plan to lessen my busyness, to write, spend time with those who matter most, and move more.
So, while I hope we find a vaccine for this coronavirus as soon as possible, and that all the measures in effect ultimately flatten the curve and save lives with equal speed, I also hope that we are not quick to forget the amazing lessons we’ve already clearly learned in this unique and difficult time: lessons for the betterment of ourselves and our communities, people and planet.
Robert Kiley is Kingston City Councillor for Trillium District and a high school teacher. He writes a monthly “behind the scenes” Op-Ed article for The Kingstonist. He tweets at @robert_kiley.