OPINION | COVID-19: The future is here, now we must be resilient, nimble and smart

"I have faith in social cohesion, but the line between human civility and baseness is a thin one' — Aritha Van Herk, author and historian, on the sacrifices and challenges to come.

Every one of us, politician or privateer, rich or poor, has a role in this dogfight

A downtown street is empty as Calgarians self-isolate. The sky is brighter than it has been for years, and hares hop with careless aplomb. (Jim Brown/CBC)

This column is an opinion from Calgary author Aritha van Herk.

Reset or surrender?

Orators may be tempted to cite Churchill's famous speech, made in 1940 before most of us were born, his "blood, toil, tears and sweat" exhortation to fight the enemy. More apropos now may be his prediction to prepare "for hard and heavy tidings."

For here we are. The reset that everyone glibly thought might happen in some distant future is happening now, and we can't even be sure what it means, how long it will last, or what the outcome will be. 

The sky is brighter than it has been for years, and because the cruise ships have stopped, the canals of Venice are so clear that schools of fish are visible, and the cormorants have returned. 

On my Calgary crescent, the hares hop with careless aplomb; fewer cars passing make them bold. The birds, too, flock eagerly, audible because traffic has calmed.

But our impatience is rising, and with it danger. 

Pollyanna messages

We're six feet away, but closer to shouting range, and understandably touchy about distance. Rancour lurks just under the surface of our "management." While difficulties reputably make us strong — and we reach back to the metaphor of the Calgary Flood only too often — they also make us irritable and unpredictable. 

As one of my friends said, "If I hear one more person say, 'In a way this is a gift,' I may hurl. And I am talking projectile." Funny as that line is, she has a point. 

An aerial view of the Calgary flood of 2013. While difficulties reputably make us strong, they also make us irritable and unpredictable. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

Social media's tags say it all. "Today's word is luminous."  "When you get lemons, make lemonade." "Guides to calming meditation." "Desktop scrabble." "The joys of mindfulness." "We will get through this together." 

Pollyanna messages and tweets and Facebook posts proliferate, with their happy faces and wow emojis, the least eloquent form of communication possible. 

Far be it from me to offer stylistic advice, but at a time when we are desperate to stop a communicable virus, it would be wonderful if we communicated well, with clarity and originality.   

The sacrifice

Human beings are a strange species, and even altruism can be suspect. Although duty and prudence certainly influence behaviour, their kinship is often flavoured by self-interest, and not as heroic as we might imagine.

We are now required to consider others more than ourselves. Can we do that? Can we sustain that commitment? 

As Mayor Nenshi has said, "Don't think about your care with interaction as protecting yourself. Think about that care as protecting your vulnerable 90-year-old grandmother." 

We must sacrifice some liberties that we have taken for granted, and those with economic advantage are being asked to support the more vulnerable in our society. 

Is this good? Yes. 

But is it easy? Ah, there's the rub. 

Residents and staff wave to family and friends who came out to show support for those at the McKenzie Towne Long Term Care Home in Calgary during an outbreak of COVID-19 in the spring. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

I have faith in social cohesion, but the line between human civility and baseness is a thin one; and we fool ourselves if we think ourselves incapable of crossing it. At a time like this, fraudsters proliferate, meanness multiplies and self-interest seems to understand only severe chastisement.

We'll only see the extent to which we are willing to accommodate massive changes to our secure story after a few months — or even years — of this new normal. 

Our disbelief and unease are reflected in the number of times members of the press ask the prime minister, the premier, the mayor, "How long?" to which, of course, there is no answer, no crystal ball, no prognosis. 

This situation will not be resolved soon, not in a week, or a month, or possibly even a year. Uncertainty is our timeline. 

If, in the spring of 2021, we can welcome being outdoors as heedlessly as we have in the past, we will be lucky. How we manage to embrace this detention will measure our strength and our flexibility. And the future is here: now is when we are called on to be resilient, nimble and smart. 

So, let's measure the changes.

The home-front battle

We are going to lose a disproportionate number of our elders, grandparents, great-aunts and uncles. 

Ironically, they are the ones who remember the last time the country faced a serious emergency, World War II, and what it meant to give up security, comfort, and easy access to goods.

They remember rationing, housing shortages and scrap metal collection. But that was a war, and the home front was relatively secure. 

A Second World War poster urges Canadians to save scrap. We are going to lose a disproportionate number of our elders. Ironically, they are the ones who remember the last time the country faced a serious emergency. (Library and Archives Canada, Acc)

We, on the other hand, have always had more than enough of what we need and want — when we think we need it, to the extent that we are consumer-intemperate. The notion of using what we have, or reusing and recycling effectively, for all our fine sloganeering, now needs to be applied and practised.

This battle is here, on our home fronts. And every one of us, politician or privateer, rich or poor, has a role in this dogfight. 

Rules. While the health and distancing guidelines are clear, not everyone obeys them. 

It is astonishing how many people think these rules do not apply to them (the homecoming snowbirds who stop at the grocery store because they feel fine), and thus become the unwitting or uncaring transmitters of the virus.

Value. We are certainly learning to value our medical professionals, and all those who work in the health-care system. 

But we are also facing the revelatory fact that grocery store workers and delivery services, cleaners and sanitation engineers are "essential," and warrant more respect and better pay than they have been granted in the past. This will be the real reset in the future; perhaps we can remember to remember their value when life gets back to "normal."

Support. Another aspect is our increased appreciation for the arts.

What do we do when we're bored? Listen to music, read books, watch movies and shows, in short, rely on all those elements of culture that we have treated as "frills." Without them, we would be seriously despondent, even sluggish.

Musicians from the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra and the Edmonton Symphony give a pandemic-inspired virtual performance of Elgar's Nimrod Variation IX:

The arts, as artists have been telling us for years, are essential to the well-being and the spirit of a community. Without the arts, we're bored and aimless, and nothing is teaching us this fact more than this pandemic. 

But we expect these gifts to cost little, we persist in the notion that those who provide us with stories and images, music and words, don't need support. We need to understand that artists are part of an invisible army working at one or two jobs in order to serve as their own patrons, in order to make the art that now offers us some measure of relief. 

So instead of downloading books or music for free, it's time to buy a book or two, pay for some songs, and think about the artists whose income is completely gutted. 

On the other hand, the new focus on the arts as a downtime distraction has its dubious side. Suddenly everybody has decided to make a recording or a podcast or to write a book, to channel their "inner artist." 

As if creativity is a "project" for when some extra time is available. 

Before radio and television and internet streaming, homespun entertainment was leavened by knowledge of and respect for the arts and literacy, an awareness that art and entertainment are not interchangeable. 

My pique makes it obvious that we need to call on moderation and good humour. Disrespect and overreaction embolden ill behaviour. In normal times, that can be managed, but now, we need all the forces of compassion and consideration we can muster.

A better way to live

Will there be some silver lining to this trial?

Yes, if we dare to ask the questions we've been avoiding.

Historically, we emerged from the many economic busts we suffered, from the 2013 flood, and from our own sense of vulnerability. We've been potluck, barn-raising, community service volunteers before. We trusted one another, we relied on one another, and we helped one another, beyond self-interest.

Stephen Avenue in Calgary is practically deserted these days. All we’re asked to do is stay inside, wash our hands and support those who are less fortunate. (Jim Brown/CBC)

Our myth of self-reliance needs a reset. This scourge confirms that we must discover a better way to live, to measure what is valuable, and to remember the future. 

Which means that we must remember the past, a past we seem to have forgotten. 

In the past, people desperately needed other people, and neighbours helped neighbours through what were genuinely challenging times. Starvation and cold and poverty and isolation were tangible hardships. 

All we're asked to do is stay inside, wash our hands and support those who are less fortunate. 

So this is a time for questions. A time for lessons. A time for patience.

The best hope we can sustain is that we will gain an even more powerful sense of community, an even stronger belief in the contagion of kindness, a reset of priorities to welcome the urgency of working together for better.

In 1939, on the eve of the Second World War, without even knowing what loomed, Bertolt Brecht wrote:

In the dark times

Will there also be singing?

Yes, there will also be singing

About the dark times.

But only if we can eclipse these dark times by paying attention now.

This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Aritha van Herk

Calgary author

Aritha van Herk is a born and raised Albertan who teaches in the department of English at the University of Calgary. Author of numerous novels, journal articles and several works of criticism, she has lectured widely throughout Canada and Europe. She is a member of the Alberta Order of Excellence.


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