The world shifted. It started in January, in the Chinese city of Wuhan. A large industrial centre that few Westerners gave a moment’s thought to even once in their lives, it quickly grew to illustrate what a twenty-first century apocalypse looked like.
Large-scale social control, brutal, bloodless organization of human beings by masked authorities acting in the best interests of a frightened populace. Rumours of bats, wet markets, and ancient nutrition practices born of necessity and held aloft by tradition collided with conspiracy theories, politics, and the virus’s inexorable slither across China’s borders.
The eerily sudden upending of normal social life that the rest of the world had watched unfold in China quickly became reality for many other countries. In February, Italy moved to shut down its industrial north. The rest of the world gasped. Et tu, Italy? Still, it seemed too strange, too sudden and improbable to be real. And yet, we would all be searching for the meaning inside the plague soon enough.
Within weeks, North American governments were issuing strong suggestions ranging from, in the beginning, not to congregate in large groups, to shutting schools, limiting seating in restaurants, shutting restaurants and businesses and finally, requiring citizens to stay in their homes and only venture out for exercise or to purchase essential items like groceries and pharmaceutical products.
Our collective acceptance of strict limits on our freedom came upon us slowly, from across the world, and then suddenly. What had seemed like a foreign style of total control became domestic, and we accepted our domestication with alacrity — a quick, unnatural evolution in a surreal style.
From defenders of freedom and choice we developed a new moral dimension almost overnight. Our streets went quiet. We took daily walks, single file, along nearly empty sidewalks, gawking at shuttered stores and restaurants, dodging other pedestrians in an effort not to breathe the air they exhaled, or catch aerosolized droplets pregnant with virus. We stayed away from other people to save them from ourselves.
In Montreal where I live, it has been almost a month since our governments tasked us with staying at home to stop the spread and flatten the curve. No need for quotation marks. Those terms are part of our shared lexicon now, and probably forever. Many people I know leapt into action befitting the new circumstances. Communicating helpful tips on their Facebook pages, exhorting citizens to follow the guidelines, highlighting the plight of the lonely, the poor and the sick.
Much was made of the heroic creativity of Shakespeare and Isaac Newton during their respective quarantines. Perhaps a good dose of social isolation was what we’d needed all along, and hadn’t know it. There were ways to make the most of our new circumstances: we could learn new skills, reflect on our life goals, make art, make music, make face masks, clean out our pantries and cook, cook, cook.
For those of us who spend most of our lives at home under normal circumstances, writing or doing freelance work, there was a relieved sense that we weren’t losing that much. That our lives had prepared us for this and that we were uniquely suited to a world in which nobody had anywhere to go. But as the days and then the weeks wore on, we grew ever more uncomfortably aware of how much we depended on bumping into friends in the street, at shops and restaurants.
Claustrophobia and dread set in quickly. The inability to choose solitude when it suited us and social life when it was called for felt suffocating. At first, the pressure to isolate came from epidemiologists and our peers. Later, the authorities would begin muscling us into our smallest spaces.
Grocery shopping became fraught. Shelves were emptied of basic items like toilet paper and flour (suddenly everyone was a baker), and we had to wait in line, six feet apart, to experience the thrill of consumption. We were frustrated consumers, at once excited to have our base impulse to spend money restricted, frightened at our sudden lack of discretionary income, and eager to purchase something — anything — and make it count. (Baking, again.)
For me, who watched Wuhan from the beginning, the last several months have felt like the beginning of the strange new world whose outlines I’ve been trying to discern for a long time. I knew it was there. I knew there were tectonic shifts coming. I just didn’t know the new reality would arrive on the back of that most returning of problems, a plague.
Humanity has been confronted with plagues since the beginning of time. They are the ugly tendrils of the natural world, horrible, pronged, venomous lashes that leap out of the bubbling stew of molecular activity to burrow themselves in our skin, our hair, our mouths, throats and lungs. They lash us and flay us and then fall back into the void. We emerge from our musty, boarded up homes and hovels, bury our dead, howling at the stupidity and injustices and mistakes that doomed our societies, and then we rebuild.
It will happen this time, too, even though we weren’t prepared for devastation on this scale. Our societies have been looking forward, for the most part, to the technological advances promised by our successes of the last century. We have accomplished so much in the way of communication, eradication of disease, adding years of life to virtually all the people on earth through better nutrition and more stable political situations.
Sure, the rise of populism, nativism and sneak attacks on our information systems have made us all uneasy. But we still have extraordinary university research, entire cities jammed with brilliant, creative minds bent on freeing us from the time-consuming, labour-intensive and boring work of the past. We were promised longevity, space travel, perhaps even a universal basic income. So pampered were we, so clear and certain that the best life was the longest life that we were doing things like caloric restriction, starving ourselves for sixteen hours a day and then packing our bodies with high-protein food to be burned by the high-impact, meaningful accomplishments of the rest of our waking hours. We learned to meditate. We branded ourselves, we girded ourselves for a brand new world built and lived online.
We bickered about marginal cultural issues. We brooded, and flounced in and out of our social media timelines. We fetishized irony. Perfected it, really. What greater psychological prank could a human person play on life itself than to pretend it didn’t matter? That nothing mattered? We were super-human, and we were impervious. We were animals, flexing our muscles, and we were better than animals.
And then that giant butterfly flapped its wings in China, unleashing a cyclone that swept the whole world. We dragged ourselves into our caves and piled leaves and brush in front, burrowing deep and then deeper into the inescapable fact of ourselves. We were alone. Nature didn’t care about us anymore than we had been caring about nature.
Social media was a godsend (imagine the plagues that came before this era, when celebrities didn’t come right into your living room to cheer you up with their guitar playing and makeup-less faces, and you had to sit in the dark and the quiet, waiting for the bell to toll). But social media is a simulacrum that doesn’t make up for the quiet thrill of in-person connection. You don’t get nourished by social media — you only become stimulated.
We have been fighting political battles for years, more or less revolving around the same axes that have informed our ideologies since the French Revolution. There was right, getting better at working the bellows of emotional outrage, the left, reactive and disconsolate, and the centre, prim and increasingly impatient. We’ve all been preparing for elections, in our own way. We write op-eds, we shun our enemies on Twitter, we march and we vote.
How will we do politics going forward? We know too much about disease, now. We know too much about our own vulnerabilities, and those of our enemies. And our enemies are us: frightened mortals given to doubt and motivated prognostication. How will we vote? On April 7, the conservative-leaning Supreme Court of Wisconsin insisted voting should be held in-person, despite the danger to the public, proving once again the cruel logic of power.
But we are inside the eye of the storm, still. When the worst of it is passed and we have a chance to pick up the detritus and rebuild, what will our world look like? Who will hold onto power, and who will be forced to pay for the many mistakes that were made? Faced with the truth that nature wasn’t invented by Disney, nor that it is the balm and great healer of the noble savages of Extinction Rebellion, will a nervous citizenry know to seize the reins of the new world order?
In Montreal, the sun has come out. The streets are packed with couples: husbands and wives, mothers and sons, roommates. Our quarantined people are hungry for warmth and light. Police cars patrol slowly, counting, watching, wary. Sirens wail in the night, and you wonder who is gasping for breath now, whose mother or father, whose friend. Who is panting through the last hours of their life?
We love our figures of authority now. We recognize the irony, but we can’t help ourselves. We tune into the plain-spoken, decisive, powerful doctors and politicians on our screens, parsing their words for hope, direction and loving care. We are all united in our isolation, holding out our gloved hands for help.
The true nature of the shift will reveal itself in time, but there are some signposts. All across the Western world left-right wrangling over budgets has been largely paused as leaders decide together just how much money they can give to citizens in need. Printing money to give to voters is the new pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps. A mass experiment in UBI is underway, and that is a new thing.
Working from home rather than commuting to corporate offices, already underway in some industries, will likely become more common. Companies will question why they ever bothered to pay for corporate offices nobody really likes. The urban-rural divide that has been cleaving the smart and the ambitious from their home-towns and regions may grow less sharp as workers retreat from expensive cities and share their wealth and their ideas locally.
The virus has shown us that we are still answerable to the natural world. It has humbled us, reminding us that we are not gods. This is a good thing; gods are figments of the imagination, human beings have their feet on the ground. In Montreal, spring has arrived. Crocuses have pushed up through the warming dirt. Tulips and irises are unfurling their leaves. We can’t gather in groups in the parks, but we can see the world turning green again.
In Wuhan, people are no longer confined to their homes. They can move about, see their families and friends. They wear masks now, waiting for the vaccine that will save us all from this plague, but they can smile again. The storm still hasn’t passed over the rest of us, but it will. Let’s not forget what we learned from it.