Amy Kaler By: Amy Kaler
Professor, Department of Sociology
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15 Apr 2020 : Lockdown Day

On March 15 I had just come back from a four-day meeting in Ottawa. I spent most of those four days in a meeting room with academics from across Canada and a few from Europe. Over the course of the meeting, seeping into the conference rooms, the news of the virus got worse and worse, and furtive checking of phones during sessions increased. At coffee breaks, we traded news of what we had heard, over snacks which moved from communal fruit plates to individually-wrapped pastries with tongs - the first signs of social distancing. The man sitting next to me muttered that if the schools were going to be closed in Ontario he was going to pack up his kids and send them off to his mother in St Vincent, where she could keep them occupied in their rural home-place rather than in germy Toronto. 

The anxiety humming under the business of the meeting reminded me of the evening of the 2016 American elections, which I spent in the audience of a youth sporting event, giving no more than half my attention to what was happening on the competition floor and the rest gradually accreting to my phone and the green-and-black text screen, lighting up with announcements that another state had fallen. I couldn't believe it was happening, but it was happening. The meeting in Ottawa, with the burgeoning pandemic as shadow-side, had the same quality of the mundane and the catastrophic jostling each other in my awareness. 

I went up to my hotel room during one of the breaks and pressed the elevator button with my elbow, wondering whether I would remember that action as the first time I altered my behavior because of the virus. I tried not to think about the surface of the elevator button.

On the day I left Ottawa, I was booked on an evening flight, which meant I had almost a full day to myself. I like walking and I like Ottawa, so under normal circumstances this would have been a good thing. But this time, as I started to notice the first "closed" signs appearing on shops, and the first masked pedestrians, and the first conscious and careful maintenance of personal space in public thoroughfares, I became aware that impatience, yearning, and worry was building up inside me, pulling me like a compass towards the airport. I wanted to be there right away, four or five or six hours before the flight left, and I wanted to be through security, past the document check, down the gangway, and onto the plane. I wanted to be absolutely certain that I was on my way back to Edmonton - back home - and that I would be there by nightfall. 

I imagined crowds pushing to get the last seats on the last plane out of here, and airport destination boards lighting up with cancellations. I worried that it might be possible to close the borders of a province and seal off Alberta. These fears did not make sense - I had a confirmed reservation, there were no indications that anything was being cancelled, and even if I somehow did not get on that flight, the worst that could happen was that I would spend another few days in Ottawa before getting a flight westward. I had had unexpected travel setbacks before but had always gotten home in one piece, and this was only a matter of getting from Ottawa to Edmonton. But the fear that I wouldn't make in home in time (in time for what?) slowly grew.

I finally gave in and got a taxi to the airport much sooner than I needed to. The taxi driver, from North Africa, had heard that people were starting to descend on Costco and bulk supermarkets and buying up tinned fish and toilet paper. He laughed about this, noting that in his home country anyone with means always put several weeks of food aside in case of unrest and disruption - it was only the poor or improvident who had to panic-buy when rumors of crisis started gathering. According to him, if no one was hoarding bottled water, things couldn't be that bad yet.

At the airport, the Air Canada lounge was sour with anxiety, like everywhere else. Parliament had just been suspended, and my flight was the first one out of Ottawa to western Canada. Cranky and nervous members of parliament were on their way home, loading up on the free drinks in the lounge, and once in the air, badgering the flight attendant for more drinks and complaining about the selection of vodka. I saw my own member of parliament, the only opposition member from Alberta, working quietly on her laptop. We knew each other slightly, because I had volunteered for her campaign six months ago, and greeted each other. I asked if she needed a ride home from the airport when we got to Edmonton. I felt that I should make some sort of gesture of solidarity, in acknowledgment of our strange circumstances, without knowing exactly why.

We got on the plane, it went up, and it came down in Edmonton four hours later. Towing my carry-on bag behind me, I walked though an almost-empty terminal towards the ground transportation exit. I wondered if everywhere was going to look like this from now on - shuttered, stilled, and inhabited only by people moving purposefully to their destination.

That word, “purposeful”, kept echoing in my mind over the next few days. I knew that in the information environment/social bubble that I inhabit, that of well-educated middle-class liberal-leaning Canadians, I was going to hear a lot about making the most of the pandemic and what we could learn from it. Meaning, purpose! I have been socialized into looking for these things always. I didn’t want to just let the pandemic wash over me while I waited for it to go away, but I also had a visceral aversion to contributing to the tide of “think pieces”, political manifestos, and authoritative accounts of what the pandemic is teaching us about the world. There are many writers who are better at that than I am. I didn’t, and still don’t, know what the pandemic means. I only know what it is like, and what it is like to be me in the middle of it. 

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