When my partner and I went on lockdown on March 13, I had just come back from a work trip to Toronto one week earlier. I was attending a large conference hosted by the Canadian food service industry. Thousands of participants were in attendance, including large numbers of food producers, restaurants, and bars. The conference showcased a food service sector that was innovative and growing successfully in Canada. It is surreal to believe how things changed within a week, with emerging reports of COVID infections among people attending conferences in Toronto and with the news that Sophie Trudeau, our PM’s spouse, tested positive for COVID, following her travel to London, UK. At that time, I do not remember if we were first asked by the Government to work from home or if it was a collective decision from staff, but what was clear was that there was mutual consensus among people that we ought to stay home to stop the spread of the virus. There were less than 200 cases in the entire nation, so I had hopes that we could overcome the virus quickly. I had also worked from home numerous times before and lived under lockdown at least twice during war time in Lebanon (in 2006 and 2008), so I felt ready to stay home to eradicate this virus.
Fear and Self-Doubt
Two to three weeks, I thought, would be sufficient to stop the spread and show a decrease in new COVID infections. After all, we did not have more than 200 cases in Canada and our leadership and people were determined to win this battle. But a totally different scenario played out. In those first three weeks, the total number of cases grew astronomically. In Canada, it grew by 62 times, while globally the number of cases increased from 145,000 to more than a million cases. Feelings of resignation supplanted credulous optimism, as we realized that stay-at-home would be the new normal. We needed to adjust to the new reality and find a way to continue to be productive, while sentiments of fear from uncertainty and self-doubt lurked at the back of my mind. Many things that we took for granted were no longer so. Even focusing on work was becoming harder as typical interactions were replaced by audio and video calls, workspaces confined to my couch or bed in my one-bedroom apartment, and work kept shifting from one priority to the next. Feelings of self-doubt emerged when it was becoming hard to pay attention at work for eight hours straight. As economic and social figures trickled in, fears about the future grew. Millions of people were losing their jobs. The food service industry, which I was working with prior to the crisis, completely shut down and one in five food establishments might never open again. In developing countries, poverty numbers were expected to double. Could this crisis undo years of development efforts to eliminate poverty and hunger?
Love and Gratitude
When fear of uncertainty grows, we tend to fall back and hold firmly to our foundations, what makes us who we are, and what we can depend on. For me, I took strength in three key pillars of my life. As a first step, my job, which provides me with both financial security and a sense of purpose. I am very grateful to have not lost my job during this period. Secondly, I turned to my loved ones, my family and my partner. Weekly phone calls to family became daily check-ins; friends who I thought were far away in Brazil, Europe, or the United States were as close to me as my friends in Ottawa. With my partner, we understood that physical proximity was not equal to emotional connection and intimacy. Being confined together in the same physical space all the time takes mutual effort and understanding. Interestingly, it was important to create a sense of space for each of us to feel comfortable and to come back to each other. Finally, one can take great strength from oneself, from our own experiences and from a deeper understanding of our emotions, fears, ambitions, goals, etc. The crisis is an opportunity to learn about oneself and to grow in resilience.
As time passed, I followed from my bedroom window the changes in nature. The white snow melted, strong winds whistled through the leafless trees, grey clouds brought rain and then gave away to a bright sun. The breeze got warmer, trees got covered in green, and flowers blossomed. As I looked at a beautiful bird perched on my balcony and two fuzzy squirrels running after each other (possibly in search of love), I felt a sense of hope and optimism emanating from nature. This crisis was a wake-up call of how we as humans have failed to create a more sustainable earth. After all, COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease–a disease passed from animals to humans–and is thus a reminder of the risks created by our agricultural and environmental practices. But this crisis has also shown that we have made great strides in terms of medical knowledge, environmental awareness, and international cooperation, never seen during past crises; and so I am hopeful that we will come out stronger.
By Mohamed Yassine