I had a nightmare last night, gentle reader. Have you had these strange moments of sleep lately, clouded by thoughts of contagion or isolation?
The dream began innocently enough. I was picking out a rosé in the Silver Springs liquor store. I decided on an inexpensive bottle, and I looked around to make sure no one would see me choosing frugality over quality.
I strode to the check-out area, noting that no one was waiting in line. The salesperson swiped the wine across his sensor and asked for payment. I pulled out my debit card, and when I looked up, there were two people standing on either side of me.
Two people. Right beside me.
My stomach shivered. I looked left-right. Realized I had gone to a liquor store in the middle of a pandemic. What was I doing? How could I be so careless – for a cheap rosé, no less?
I tried to back away but there was a counter behind me. The person to my right took shape. A youngish woman, smiling, friendly. She looked at me as if wondering what was wrong. She had no idea.
“You’re too close,” I told her. “We’re all too close.”
She looked at me in silence, her look of concern deepening.
I woke up.
Here, gentle reader, is a new brand of nightmare. The horrific zenith is a woman standing next to you at a liquor store.
Meet the new fear of proximity. The closeness of human flesh has become more than an annoyance or irritation; it’s a sort of weapon. Our breath could contain the seed of a worry, enough to send us home in isolation, counting down from 14 so we can crack our doors open and step onto our front porches.
A few days ago, a friend of mine was talking about the historical roots of the pandemic. She mentioned the plague, and the European cities that locked themselves down in response to this sinister invasion of unknown origins. We’re not the first ones to go through this, she said.
For better or for worse, I decided to read up on the plague. There should be some comfort in knowing that we, as a species, have weathered such storms, and have (more or less) survived.
In Robert Greenspan’s Medicine: Perspectives in History and Art, I read that it wasn’t until the development of the microscope that people began to believe that tiny creatures actually lived inside our bodies, plotting an invasion against their host (I picture hundreds of crowned creatures, a cross between an ant and Sponge Bob Square Pants,
scuttling through the compartments of intestines, like the crew of a 1950s submarine, darting through sphincters, cruising through veins and squeezing through delicate bronchi into the narrowing bronchioles of the lungs, toiling dutifully at their infection, calling out to each other in ant-like voices, “fire in the hole!” and “roger that.”
But there is little humor in the real world of these crowned creatures. Each morning I read of infection rates, hospitalizations, critical care beds, long-term care disasters. This morning I saw a video published by The Atlantic, with clips from medical practitioners who spoke about their experiences treating COVID-19 patients.
You might be asking yourself, Why do you watch such things? Don’t you know it’s not good for your mental health to submerse yourself too long in the COVID ocean?
I do know this. But at the same time, I feel like I owe it to myself to know what’s happening on the front lines. I feel like I owe it to front-line workers to know what they’re going through.
So I watch. I mete out a reasonable dosage of news for myself each day.
Because I can.
The doctors and nurses in the Atlantic video have no such option to mete out a dosage of exposure. Or at least, they are unprepared to turn away from the work they perform. “We’ve all kind of resigned ourselves to – this is what we do,” says a radiologist from New York.
A pulmonologist from Michigan recalls her colleagues discussing plans for the future. This future involves making contingency plans, in case they become ill. “We’ve talked about who gets our pets,” she says, “which is a somewhat easier discussion than who gets your children.”
Will these sorts of discussions take place in Calgary in a few weeks? According to the latest modelling information from the Alberta government, the pandemic will hit its peak here in mid to late May. Which means we will have significant infection rates (keep in mind, gentle reader, that my doctorate degree is not in doctoring – I am interpreting these charts the best I can) until at least the end of June.
Which means we will be inside our homes – or yards – for weeks to come. About ten, if my math is correct. And of course we know that the models created by provincial authorities are not, in the words of Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, crystal balls. But they are the best information available, so we gaze into them each day, analyzing to the best of our ability.
We mete out the weeks of isolation. The time away from friends and family. In my case, my mother, who lives five minutes away, and my two sons – one in Olds and one in the southern tip of Calgary. They are all so close, but they might as well be in Timbuktu.
Today, Easter Sunday, is normally a turkey dinner day. By now, the turkey would be in the oven, and the temptation of stuffing would start to waft through the house. Cranberry sauce would be simmering on the stove.
Instead, a loaf of home-made (bread-maker) bread sits on the counter. A batch of banana muffins huddles in an old Christmas tin.
Instead of the family descending on us, filling the dining room table tonight, my husband and I will huddle around our laptop. We will launch our Zoom meeting, which I’ve titled “Fambly Easter – pandemic style!”
At seven o’clock, we will spend an hour or so (hopefully – assuming other holiday long-weekend Zoom sessions don’t crash the InterWebs) looking at each other’s faces, remembering holidays past, wishing we were crammed around our dining room table, stuffing ourselves with stuffing and cranberry sauce. We will likely compare notes on what we are actually having for dinner.
My mother will likely not have eaten yet – she is a night owl at heart – but she will probably dig into a frozen piece of meat loaf from M&M after our call. My husband and I will probably thaw a slab of veggie shepherd’s pie and wish we had some lettuce for a salad (our grocery order should arrive on Tuesday; it’s not worth braving Safeway just for lettuce).
What else will we talk about in our Easter Zoom?
Perhaps we’ll talk about the old days. We seem to do a lot of reminiscing just now; the other day we discussed the origins of family nicknames. Where did they come from? Who started them? Which relatives took them up and manipulated them?
Or, perhaps we’ll talk about Easters past – the egg hunts; the jewel-toned rounds of sugar, some of which we would discover weeks later beneath sofas and chairs, shrouded in dust bunnies. Perhaps we’ll talk about Easters of the future, scenarios in which we will look around the table and remember the year 2020, when we Zoomed through our Easter dinner. The year we lived inside our separate houses, gazing out at the mid-April snowfall and wondering if the end would ever come. The year we lived as if inside a submarine, immersed in some invisible but deeply felt medium, heavy enough to crush us if we ventured outside.
Perhaps, during our virtual Easter, I’ll mention some of the anecdotes I’ve come across in my informal research on pandemics. Is this too dark? Too absurd?
I could mention the cows in Évora, Portugal.
In 1490, King João took drastic measures to combat the second pandemic plague that had devastated his country. He released cattle throughout the streets of Évora, because cows were thought to absorb poisonous vapors. Can you imagine the streets of Calgary, filled with cattle?
Stephen Avenue Mall has nothing else to do right now – why not host a herd? Our bovine friends could stroll through town, crossing Olympic Plaza, stopping to nuzzle the Famous Five statues, then meander over to the new library, clamber up all the steps and enjoy the grace of the wooden arch above. They could trundle down to the Peace Bridge – it’s probably wide open right now – and enjoy the play of light against the red criss-crosses.
I assume these places still exist in my home town.
But to return to 15th-century Portugal and the city of Évora.
Cows were not the only instrument of public health. The king ordered that fires be lit throughout the city – even in private homes – and had workers whitewash every wall and street. Thus began the cleansing of harmful vapors. Does this sound at all familiar? This diligence in disinfection?
But 600 years ago, disinfection was based on a completely different set of rules. At this time, people believed in the miasma theory: they thought diseases like the plague were transmitted through corrupted air that could create an imbalance in the body’s humors (blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm). This corrupted air needed to be purified.
Perhaps an anecdote about bile and phlegm isn’t the best choice for Fambly Easter. But the stories are so fascinating… I could talk about 17th-century methods for checking the homes of plague patients, to see if the homes had been disinfected properly and were clear of poisonous vapors. Authorities would herd three sheep into the home, and, after a set time, they would wash the sheep’s wool, and then feed the resulting bathwater to a group of pigs. If the pigs died, the vapors were still present. The house was disinfected again.
I could also show my family pictures of 17th-century physicians (I could either share my screen or hold up the Greenspan book to the tiny black hole that is, supposedly, the camera inside my laptop). These physicians wore beak-like masks when they visited patients. They gowned up in coats covered in scented wax, breeches connected to their boots, hats and gloves made of goat leather. They carried a rod in case they needed to prod or poke their patient.
Why the beaked masks, you ask?
A National Geographic article tells us that the six-inch-long beak was filled with theriac, a blend of dozens of herbs and other more mysterious ingredients (think viper flesh powder, cinnamon and myrrh). The thinking was this: it would take quite some time for the poisonous air to filter through the herbs, and by the time it reached the physician’s nostrils, the plaguey parts of the air would be less toxic.
In fact, it wasn’t just physicians who were trying to filter poisonous air through strong-smelling substances. Everyday folk carried around sachets of herbs, flowers and spices and held them up to their faces if need be. Hollowed-out oranges filled with a vinegar-soaked sponge were popular (makes my eyes water just thinking about it), as were oranges studded with cloves, called pomanders.
Less common was the strategy of living with an odiferous goat.
Side bar: If my own personal hygiene continues in its current trajectory, I may have to hope that the odiferous goat plan was backed by solid evidence.
These stories of the plague remind me that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
It’s easy to see parallels between medieval strategies and today’s virus-battling techniques. The mask is obviously still a key part of prevention, although it has shrunk down to fit neatly over the face, and filters with cloth or paper, rather than herbs.
The obsession with clean air is certainly one that is still current. New research comes out on a weekly, if not daily, basis, warning of walking too close to others – particularly joggers and bikers who are panting out potentially “poisonous” globs of breath.
And the obsession with disinfecting fills our days. On CBC’s The National, the Q and A session on COVID-19 often centers on hygiene. The minutiae of cleanliness: how should I wash my oranges? Should I spray my cereal box with diluted bleach? Should I strip off my clothes when I come home from Superstore? When should I wash my hands if I’m putting on/taking off a mask? Which surfaces in my home should I clean with a Lysol wipe? Why can’t you just wash them with soap and water?
Maybe we aren’t that much different from our cattle-driving ancestors – we know the virus is out there, floating in the air, expelled from lips, stuck to doorknobs and counters. And we will go to great lengths to avoid it.
There may not be cattle roaming our streets, but there are empty shelves where Lysol wipes used to be. There may not be pomanders in our hands, but there are empty shelves where respiratory masks used to be.
In some medieval cities, the clothing, bedding, cushions and books of plague patients would be spread out in the open air to disinfect naturally. Which reminds me of disinfecting my own groceries. We leave non-perishable goods sitting out in the back-door hallway for a few days after a grocery trip. We wipe them down with Lysol as soon as they come home from the store, and then leave them in the open air, waiting for any lingering vapors to give up the ghost.
Are we so different, then, from our centuries-ago ancestors?
Yes, of course, you might say, we have sophisticated science to back up our strategies.
But still. Will future generations look back on our social distancing strategies, our disinfecting techniques, and guffaw? Will a hundred years turn our COVID-19 story into the stuff of amusing anecdotes for a 22nd-century gathering, shared over who-knows-what technology at a Fambly Easter dinner?
I don’t know. Like my medieval predecessors, I have only the knowledge available to me. The human body is still something of a mystery to the best of our scientists and physicians. As a lay person, it seems to me that the chances of us fully understanding the relationship of our bodies with the COVID-19 virus are slim at best. But I will leave that to the experts.
In the meantime, I must excuse myself. I have to set up an online bridge game with my mother, send out a reminder about the Fambly Easter Dinner – pandemic style! And I need to take a block of shepherd’s pie out of my freezer. Perhaps, if I feel creative, I will dig an orange out of the fridge, rummage in my spice drawer for cloves, and build my own pomander. I have a feeling that if I put a pomander on my bedside table, I will ward off the air that wraps itself around me at night time, pressing the seeds of insidious dreams into my crowded mind.
Yes, a pomander, tonight. For old-times’ sake.