'Did I do the pandemic wrong?' Calgary writer's new book reflects on COVID-19 and ongoing healing

When you look back on the COVID-19 pandemic and remember your experience, do you ever think to yourself, "Was I doing it wrong?" Vivek Shraya did.

Vivek Shraya speaks on pandemic regret and healing from collective trauma of past 2 years

Vivek Shraya. (Vanessa Heins)

When you look back on the COVID-19 pandemic and remember your experience, do you ever think to yourself, "Was I doing it wrong?"

Looking back on the past two years, what would you have done differently?

That's the focus of Vivek Shraya's newest book called Next Time There's a Pandemic.

She is a Calgary-based artist, musician and writer, and spoke with The Homestretch on Friday about how we can reflect on the pandemic.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: Can you tell us about your own experience during the first part of the pandemic, when when things first started to shut down? 

A: I feel like I was one of the last people in the world to do a play right before the pandemic, where I was performing for 120 people a night for three weeks. It just felt so jarring for all of that to shut down and suddenly just be by myself with my partner.

I had a lot of other things cancelled and it sounds so horrible to talk about because in the face of global death, who cares about, you know, my silly little gigs? But it's my passion and my love. I had a new book coming out and a book tour, and the cancellations were just non-stop. So it really took a toll on my mental health. 

Q: When did you first have the thought, "Maybe I did this wrong"?

A: In May or June 2020, I went for a massage. My massage therapist and I started talking about our lockdown experiences and I said mine was pretty depressing and I felt isolated. And he's like, "Oh, I had such a great time. I was drinking coffee, I went for walks, I rode my bike every day."

I remember listening to him and thinking, oh, wait a second, did I do the pandemic wrong? Was that what I should have been doing — riding my bike and walking my dog and all that?

Since then, I've thought about how history repeats itself in different ways. It's been a lingering question of how would I approach this differently if and when it happens again? 

Q: What answers did you come up with? 

A: My partner and I live together and when the pandemic hit, my home office became his office. We live in a comfortable-sized apartment, and 95 per cent of the time it was amazing to have that close proximity. But five per cent of the time, it was kind of tough to have someone occupy my work space. In retrospect, we should have looked into a secondary office space much sooner.

The other thing I've thought a lot about is language. In the first year or so of the pandemic, people were always wishing each other, "Stay safe." That was a phrase I struggled with because it places the responsibility for safety on the individual, kind of like, "Good luck to you, hope you do okay over there!"

One of the things we've seen over and over again is that a lot of people don't have the privilege to just stay safe. If you're a frontline worker and you're working in a grocery store, your safety is limited by the job that you're doing to stay alive and to keep other people alive.

If we were to ever do it again, I'd want something that centres on collective care. Something I propose in the book is "Stay caring" or "Stay kind" — as a reminder that we need to be looking out for each other, not just ourselves. 

Q: Why do you think changing one's attitude and behaviour is so important in times like like a global pandemic? 

A: It's been an opportunity to think about the kinds of privileges I have. A lot of people, as we've seen in the pandemic, don't have those privileges, like working from home or isolating in particular ways.

I think the pandemic has actually offered an opportunity for us to be thinking about how we can be better citizens and how we can take care of each other more.

One of the things I find very difficult is that we all know after two years that wearing a mask is about not just protecting ourselves, but protecting others. It's interesting to me how many of us are okay with just saying, well, pandemic is over. We don't care about protecting others anymore.

This time is such a crucial time in our history and we will look back and think about how we treat each other. I don't think we'll get an A for how we did.

Q: You also write about the idea of guilt. What can you tell us about that? 

A: So many people I know are just drowning in guilt right now. When I turn on Netflix, I feel very guilty about not being productive. Why am I not, you know, out there going for a walk for the 15th time in –30 C? I've been so hard on myself.

We're all hard on ourselves. We have to remind ourselves, we are in a global plague. It's okay to slow down, or, it's okay to speed up. If you need to work right now, that's also okay. Whatever you need to do is okay.

I'm thinking about how we move away from this self-judgment and give ourselves space to just own the fact that we are in a very terrible time and we're all doing the best that we can. 

Q: The past two years have been so difficult and challenging for so many people. We've certainly heard about the ongoing mental health and physical issues being faced. How would you characterize this event that we've been through and and where we're at now? 

A: To borrow words that many people have used, I think what we're going through is collective trauma. We've gone through something very traumatic.

I feel oddly nostalgic now for 2020. It was this instant traumatic response and I was sort of running on adrenaline. I think of how much more "productive" I was, going on daily walks and all that. In 2022, it's like I have no energy for anything.

It's a really deep concern, thinking about how this is going to impact us collectively in the future. I think there's a lot of healing that we're all going to need to do over the next few years. 

With files from The Homestretch.