Amy Kaler By: Amy Kaler
Professor, Department of Sociology
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01 Jul 2020 : Curiosity cabinet

Bruce Chatwin's grandmother had a cabinet of curiosities, according to Chatwin biographer Nicholas Shakespeare, which fascinated the young Chatwin. The cabinet was a late-Victorian assemblage of minor exotica, bits of human artifact and the natural world, preserved under glass because they came from places that were far away, set apart from mundane life in Birmingham in the 1940s.

When clearing out my bathroom, I realized that I had unintentionally curated a sort of accidental curiosity cabinet on a pandemic theme. It consists of debris from previous global health emergencies, when I had feared that The Big One might be about to fall on us. This flotsam calls up a curiosity cabinet of pandemic futures foretold, each item calling up a moment years ago when I thought, "no need to panic - but this might get really bad".

I found a packet of five N95 respirator masks dating back to the SARS outbreak in 2003. In hindsight, this seems like a mini-crisis, a pandemic-lite, which claimed about 800 lives, less than that daily body count in the US during April and May. To purchase these masks, I went to a medical supply store and tried to explain that I didn't want standard surgical masks. The clerk hadn't heard of them - "N95" had not yet become a familiar term - but eventually found a dust-covered box labelled entirely in Chinese but bearing the 3M logo and the words "N95".

I found a box of blue latex surgical gloves from 2005, the year that I served on the medical ethics subcommittee of the city of Edmonton's pandemic preparedness committee, which had been set up in the wake of SARS.

As part of the subcommittee, I read histories of the 1918 influenza and discussed what principles should govern the allocation of ventilators and negative-pressure hospital rooms. It all seemed sombre and dystopian at the time, but just barely real enough for me to start thinking that it might be wise to avoid hospitals altogether if or when The Big One arrived. I was strongly impressed by the idea that if The Big One was big enough, people who were admitted to hospital might not be allowed to leave. This led me to think that I needed to be able to control infection and fever at home, that there might come a time when medical care was not safe.

A temperature-gun thermometer, also SARS-era.

A box of disposable medical masks, ubiquitous in 2020, dating from H1N1 in 2009.

A ten-day course of azithromycin, prescribed just-in-case as malaria therapy before a trip to Africa in 2008, is still in the bathroom cupboard, saved for a time when someone in my household might be really sick with a bacterial infection but going to the hospital would be out of the question.

A ten-day course of ciprofloxacin from an African trip a few years, later, ditto.

A bottle of isopropyl alcohol and a box of long sleeve-length rubber gloves from the first Ebola cases in north America circa 2014.

Packets of oral rehydration salts, dating from some time around the turn of the century, excavated and stashed in the cupboard because of Ebola.

And then we get into the current emergency. Several bottles of hydrogen peroxide and isopropyl from beautician supply stores, just before the "purchases limited" signs went up. Black latex gloves, same.

Several jars of aloe vera gel, which I read on the internet could be combined with the peroxide or the isopropyl to make hand sanitizer, at a time when it cost as much as caviar, assuming you could find it at all. I ordered the aloe vera online from an outfit which was trying to simulate The Body Shop in logo and lettering.

A box of disposable surgical masks, at the exorbitant cost of $50 for 50, which I heard about through a sort of social media samizdat and drove out to the deep southwest of the city to buy from a narrow shop in a strip mall with a hand-lettered sign in the window advertising same. I must have looked aghast at the price because the proprietor told me solemnly, "these are very valuable and you're going to be glad you've got them when you really need them". So far that has not happened.

Airplane-sized bottles of hand sanitizer and disinfectant gel, bought for trips over the years to places where the water was dubious, never used, scattered in various drawers and now consolidated into one supply.

Heavy-duty antipyretics including Tylenol-3s and codeine-laced paracetamols, prescribed and otherwise, hoarded against a day when someone in my household might spike a dangerously high fever at a time when hospitals were off limits.

Five KN95 masks ordered from China in March (the knockoff version of N95, and again labelled entirely in Chinese).

Ten more genuine N95s which arrived weeks after I had forgotten I'd ordered them, sourced from a small business in Vancouver that I sometimes bought clothes from, which had "a connection" in the Emirates.

I couldn't decide what to do with these curiosities. Reorganize them, stuff them back into the cupboard, lay them out in a glass-fronted cabinet with a hand-lettered placard labelled "Global health imagination"? They were evidence of the years during which I had known, or had suspected, that something really bad might be coming, knowledge that I had managed to suppress or set aside most of the time, except for the intermittent bursts of awareness of SARS or Ebola or MERS or H1N1 or multi-drug-resistant superbugs or Ebola again.

When I imagined the day that I might need to mix the rehydration salts, or break open the masks or uncap the long-expired antibiotic courses, I imagined it as portentous, somehow apocalyptic and dramatic and removed from everyday life. I did not imagine that it would be an ordinary day, or a succession of ordinary days, or that I would be occupying myself by cleaning out cupboards and making up stories about the contents, while The Big One moved forward, quietly and inexorably, all around me.

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