Have you heard the good news?
Out and about in Ottawa
I was running some errands. It’s almost my son’s birthday , so I made up some invitations in Canva and went to get them printed at Staples, then the storm hit and Staples had the print order delayed. I wanted to buy some new strawberry plants. You know—little normal tasks.
So I got the party invitations sorted, found some strawberry plants, was feeling pretty good when one of the cart-retriever-guys at the grocery store (I’m sure there’s an actual name for this job) got my attention.
“Have you heard the good news?”
My mind was on the party, on making sure we submitted the paperwork in time to get the permit to rent to park, on the plants and whether I could squeeze another one in. It was on normalcy. It was nowhere near COVID; I hadn’t thought about COVID in a few days at least.
“About what?” I asked. I don’t really like being stopped and spoken to randomly, because usually it isn’t for any pleasant reason. But the cart-retriever-guy was smiling, he was working, I thought it must actually be, well, good news.
“We’re under 1000 cases today!”
Back in 2020 I, like most everyone else, tracked case counts obsessively. Every day I’d check the r/ontario subreddit for the daily summary, watching values rise and rise and sometimes fall and fall. I was happy in the summer of 2020 when cases were low and tsk-tsk’d at the state of Florida when they were averaging, I recall, twenty thousand cases a day.
I’ve learned a lot since then. Namely, that case counts don’t actually matter very much; what matters is hospitalizations. I’ve learned that when the media is spoon-feeding me a diet of obsession—about anything—it’s better to look away. I’ve learned, quite crucially, that I am simply not in control of much. The city can put its head in the sand, the province can go mental, the country can have grave-sounding conversations about whether they want to tolerate people like me. I’ll keep planting my tomatoes and killing my cucumbers.
I still check the case numbers occasionally, but really just to confirm that we’re still following the seasonal waves, and to see what is happening with the triple-vaxxed. Those numbers are mildly interesting. I don’t follow actual, daily, case numbers anymore: I haven’t in well over a year. So when the friendly cart-retriever-guy smiled at me and told me the good news, I’m ashamed to say my response was: “Cases of what?” (He probably thought I was mental.)
“COVID! Under 1000. And yesterday was zero.”
“Oh, that… is good!”
I had to try and drum up enthusiasm, because I don’t like to rain on anyone’s parade, but…
But… I’ve been thinking about this guy for the last day or so, off and on, about the mask he wore pulled down under his chin, about how excited he was that he was sharing this news with random shoppers in a grocery store parking lot. This man has probably not realized that cases don’t matter. He probably has not realized that the mask he wears pulled down on his chin is pandemic theatre. He was genuinely, bona fide, happy to share that maybe this whole thing might be over soon.
What does that feel like? To maintain that level of fear, concern, worry for friends and family for two years? What media could support such a thing; what government? That man was brainwashed. He has been so propagandized that I don’t know if he is still the same person, or will ever be again. Living in that state of focus and fear for two years cannot not change a person.
We’ve each lost something. Each of us: him, me, you reading this. I’ve lost all trust or faith in governments and media that I ever had. He’s probably lost the same, but in society: after all, some of us are anti-vaxxers/COVID denialists/conspiracy theorists, who won’t take this global pandemic seriously. We’ve each been changed.
My desktop background picture, which I’m looking at as I write this, is of Parliament Hill during the convoy. A yellow sign says, simply, “STOP MANDATES”. Another: “NO MORE CBC LIES!”. Another: “STOP VACCINE PASSPORTS”. It’s easy to forget, or maybe difficult to remember, the fear of last January. The cold. The looming mandates, the firings, the threats from the prime minister. In the warmth of spring, with my son’s birthday party on my mind and the mint complementing my strawberries, it is so distant.
But that fear has changed me, as it changed the cart-retriever-guy. We each place the locus of that fear somewhere else: a virus, society, government, foreign NGOs, whatever. But we’ve been marked, perhaps indelibly, by it.
I don’t really have to wonder how it must feel to sustain that sort of fear because I have: perhaps not at a virus, but about other things. Shanghai, for one. The persistent, unending fear that I will lose control over my own body, over the resources I need to keep my family well and alive—it keeps me up at night. And I am not in control.
“Oh, that’s good news,” I replied lamely. He beamed at me.
“Who knows, maybe it’ll be all over by July,” he replied, which ended our strange, awkward little conversation as I headed back to my car, strawberry plants (and party invitations) in hand.
If I take nothing else from this, I want to remember: the frightened people on the other side of the COVID debate, they are not against me. They are, genuinely, frightened. They are not in control of the airborne virus; they wish to put it under their control with masks, or vaccines, or distancing/school shutdowns/quarantines/intervention of the day.
They need that control as much as I need it. That kind of fear cannot be reasoned with. It cannot be talked down with statistics or papers, no matter how peer-reviewed. It can only be borne.
It certainly won’t be over by July. No matter how this current attack on our collective psyches finally dies out, we’ll be bearing this fear for a long, long time to come.