A pandemic event of no fixed duration

October 30th, 2020 by Emma Durand-Wood

Years ago, during a particularly long, cold March, I wrote a post called “A Winter Event of No Fixed Duration“, in which I tried to embrace our inability to know how long winters will last.

This week I find myself thinking about our current “pandemic event of no fixed duration”. I sensed in March, when things happened so quickly, that we would not be going back to normal within weeks or months. I bit my tongue when people expressed hope that the kids would be back in school before June. For a while, I thought maybe we’d have things under control by Christmas 2020. Now I know we’ll be lucky for a normal-ish Christmas 2021.

It’s the not knowing how long that’s hard. My mum and siblings live in Alberta and BC. I have no idea when we might get to see each other. If I’d been told at Christmas 2019, “ok, you’re not going to see your family for two entire years”, it would suck, but by now I’d be thinking, okay, we’re almost halfway done. Instead it’s just, I have no idea.

I alternate between feeling extremely low, like I’m moving through molasses, and like that reaction is a selfish, privileged one that I should snap out of.

In my head, I compose thoughtful letters and emails to friends and family who’d love to get a letter. And lengthy, reflective essays for posterity. I debate firing up the ol’ LiveJournal or posting here more often.

Instead I pour a glass of wine and pick up a cozy mystery, which I have learned is an actual genre, and escape to a world where people can pack into shabby chic bistros and host boisterous dinner parties where the killer may or may not be among them. (OH THE IRONY)

My mind is exhausted from the never-ending calculations of morals and risk and reward and trying to apply public health principles to real life.

In the early days it was figuring out the answer to “should I bake with this flour? because what if I run out and can’t get any more?”

And “should I spend a little extra money supporting local business, or should I be saving in case one of us loses a job?”

And “can I hold my newborn nephew in good conscience”?

Now it’s “Should I be spending money on local small businesses and breweries and restaurants that I really want to survive the pandemic? Or should I donate the money I would normally spend on wants to organizations that will provide the less fortunate with their needs?”

And “Am I bad parent if my number one priority is for the kids to be able to keep going to school?”

Despite our rising case numbers, I’d just started feeling like I could let out the breath I held for all of September. School is going ok. The kids are used to masks and everything. They are amazingly resilient. Yes, there are cases in schools but it doesn’t seem to be spreading at school. I think they are safe on the bus and in class. They are so much happier there than they are cooped up at home, bickering nonstop and driving me up the wall.

But then in the span of 24 hours I found out that two friends are in isolation because a close contact tested positive. I don’t have any friends or family or acquaintances who’ve tested positive yet, but the degrees of separation are decreasing. It’s getting much closer to home. And with winter on the way it feels like the walls are closing in. I find myself having regular mini teary breakdowns. My pledge to get more sleep so that I’m better able to cope with the stress lasted exactly three nights.

24 hours later and another two people I know personally, including a close family member, are in isolation for potential exposure. All of them because of school.

They’ve just announced the ICU at St B is over-capacity. Doctors are sounding alarm bells.

This week feels like that week in March when everything changed so quickly and drastically, almost hour to hour, and it was impossible to focus on anything.

The words in the earlier part of this post, which I wrote two days ago, seem like an underreaction. It seems likely we’re on the verge of code red and now I’m second guessing whether school is a good idea.

The “lockdown”, if you can call it that, we had this spring was an emotional trial for me. On Twitter people were talking about what series they were binging, all the sourdough they were baking, what hobbies and skills they were taking up with all their spare time. Or how lonely and isolated they felt, longing for human connection and hugs.

I felt the opposite. Intensely envious of anyone who was busy running out of things to watch on Netflix while I was juggling work and devices and school video classes and running out of toner and paper for all the worksheets, while defusing yet another sibling spat and trying to figure out how and when I might be able to get groceries next, watching our TP stash dwindle, and honestly wondering we should maybe start rationing food and supplies a little bit.

And simultaneously, as an introvert, feeling like I was drowning in people and noise and contact but still feeling like a bad friend and family member if I didn’t make time to check in with my loved ones who may actually be feeling lonely/isolated/overwhelmed/scared to see how they were doing. The days felt unbearably long. The novelty of video chats wore off in about a week (it’s always nice to see people’s faces, but does ANYONE truly enjoy an awkward group Zoom??) We stopped setting alarm clocks. From the moment I got out of bed in the morning, I was counting down to bedtime.

People would ask, how are you managing? And honestly, the answer I usually gave was, “it’s hard, but we are so lucky compared to so many others, that we are actually fine.” In the big picture, we really were. But still.

As we waited for the case numbers that never really came, and the days got longer and the trees began to bud, we had things to look forward to. Nice weather. School wrapping up for the summer. Bikes. Beer on the porch. And then even in-school classes starting in September. Some activities re-starting. Routine.

But now it feels like there’s nothing to look forward to. In retrospect I wish we’d travelled to see family this summer. And now we know it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better.

I try to remind myself of all the ways we are still so lucky, through privilege and chance.

I try to focus on the little things that will bring joy to us and to others over the coming months. Pleasurable things to distract and delight. Christmas music and baking. Sledding and seeing a fresh layer of sparkling snow on the naked elm canopy. The fun and satisfaction of finding the perfect gifts for each person on my list. I do this while trying to quiet the voice in the back of my head that scolds me for indulging in these luxuries while people are worried sick about their loved ones, sitting ducks in care homes, and dread the prospect of bringing the virus home from their healthcare job and infected their families.

I try to use my long-standing mental trick for easing nerves or anxiety about an upcoming event or situation: by reminding myself that “by this time tomorrow/next week/next month, it’ll be over”. The problem is, there is no end date for this.

When things first started getting crazy in March, I surprised myself by immediately adopting a “no fixed duration” mindset. I knew it would be easier to do that than to get my hopes up only to have them dashed. Somehow, I knew that in order to cope, I had to have zero expectation of how long it would last – whether it was months or even years. And in some ways I think has helped.

But that was a lot easier to do six months ago. I was about to say that six months in, I know what life in a pandemic feels like and what I’m in store for, but it occurs to me that I really don’t. It’s clear now that we didn’t even really have a first wave here in Manitoba. Horrors may well await.

And now today (it’s taken me days to write this post) we are indeed in code red, a state of semi-lockdown for at least two weeks. Obviously it’s what needs to happen, but it might already be too little too late.

And while I shake my head wondering what on earth the government was doing with that 6-month headstart on pandemic planning, I am asking the same thing of myself. How did I fail to make my own plans to endure more of this pandemic event of no fixed duration? As we head into winter, no less. I don’t know.

By this time some day, it’ll all be over. Or it won’t really be. We’ll have to get there to find out.

As ever,

One Response to “A pandemic event of no fixed duration”

  1. Rt says:

    There is no hope, nothing to look forward to. You can plan, but in a moment things can change. Everything feels like walking on eggshells.
    Youve conveyed it perfectly

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