Lessons From The Unexpected

The following is an unpublished Bolt article originally submitted in March 2019, written shortly
after the end of in-person classes, by a member of the Class of 2020. A post-script follows the
original article text.



So this is how it ends. A pandemic. A punctuated semester. A weekend away from
school that will never end for graduating students. Yes, classes continue, or not, for a small few
witnessing a string of class cancellations, and the semester will eventually end. Yes, many of us
will return next year, a little worse for the wear perhaps, but returning for another year. Yes,
graduating students will graduate, perhaps not with a walk across a stage in May, but we will
graduate. The world goes on, and there are far more pressing issues to complain about than a
response needed to bend the path of a pandemic. Yet for many, myself included, this change
suddenly shattered our world. The sudden transition, over a weekend, from business as normal
to an uneasy new normal, mediated only by glowing screens and those in our immediate
bubble.
This is a new chapter humanity has never faced before. The first mass pandemic of the
Instagram era. We’ve had pandemics before, but few compare to this. The plagues are distant
memories, a throwback to an age when people threw excrement into the streets and lived with
rats. Even the oldest faculty members did not live through the Spanish Flu outbreak in 1918. For
many of us, this is our first international-level crisis with a direct impact on our everyday life. It’s
been 75 years since Canadians last received their draft letters, donned uniforms, and headed
overseas to fight. Most of us didn’t see the wall come down. Most of us didn’t see the towers
tumble. Most of us were too young to lose our jobs in 2009. Most of us look back on the Gulf
Wars as being the start of forever wars. Most of us do not feel impacted by those events, but we
will never forget these days.
In any case, these are all events witnessed through a screen or in-print, they couldn’t
reach us up here in Edmonton. This can, and is already here, and that makes a difference.
Living in the “end of history”, the shadow of nuclear backed deterrence long faded, existential
questions seemed settled. We won, the fall of the wall and the liberalization of China testified to
this. Any challenges since then were road bumps on our path of a perpetually growing economy
and improving quality of life. Mobile technology proliferated. We started, abandoned, and started new social networks. Humanity was destined, if not for the stars, at least the brighter star of Mars. Perhaps, looking back years from now, this will be seen in the same vein. A mere
speedbump, a combination of the Great Depression and Spanish Flu that we quickly bested
through collective action, with some lingering economic consequences. Yet the impact of these
days, weeks, and potentially months, will remain with us for the rest of our lives.
What does this leave for us, fighting an invisible enemy not fought across the world by a
select few in the darkness, but by all of us by avoiding the people around us? The world will go
on, thankfully, the mortality rate attests to that. Our collective wallets will be lighter, our
governments more indebted. Some of us may lose loved ones, our aunts, uncles, Opas and
Omas, to this, a difficult to process loss that defies the words used to describe both the loss and
emotions. Nonetheless, the world will keep marching on, towards some perpetually unobtainable “Next Level” or “Glory Days” that it will never reach. Hopefully we’ll learn to heed
warnings from professionals, and our politicians will be faster to respond, but human nature
tends to revert towards the mean, and for all the “Never Forgets” we may say, we are
remarkably good at forgetting and witnessing history repeat itself, one preventable death at a
time. Instead, we remember what we could have stopped, forever repeating history. For future
generations this will be another Spanish flu, conveniently almost exactly 100 years later for
those inevitable multiple choice questions, except in colour, streamed in real time in a brief
panicked moment in time. Perhaps we will stockpile supplies we wish we would have earlier,
forever fighting the last war, only to be caught flat-footed and maskless for whatever we face
next. Perhaps we will learn that arresting whistleblowers tends to only make martyrs, but the
desire to make problems go away is as old as humanity itself. While hoping for some
widespread learning moment would be superb it would represent a deviation from the norm. Our
politicians are already bickering over stimulus packages. People are needlessly hoarding. Some
continue to act as if this is all a long holiday, perhaps in denial, perhaps in shock. In the end,
(human) nature always wins.
This leaves us with the sole place we can pull some meaning from this exponential
tragedy. Thanks to the virus, we have plenty of time to reflect, even more so after the semester
ends. The easy path is one of sorrow, not only for those who are struck by the virus, but for
friendships suddenly interrupted, cancelled trips, internships, derailed career plans, cancelled
jobs and interviews. I won’t judge what you choose to mourn. If the most devastating part of this pandemic was losing your dream post-graduation vacation who am I, and who are we, to judge your grief as inappropriate next to someone who loses a loved one? Everyone needs some time and space to process this in their own way, followed by support from those around them. This is ultimately the one, individual and universal, lesson that we should from this whole time. We must slow down, live in the present, and support each other through these times, via glowing screens or across the room if need be. What makes us human is the humans around us.
When I originally planned my articles for this semester this, final article for an end of
semester issue, was supposed to be one of reflection on a final semester at Concordia and the
importance of making connections with those around you. Now, with my final day as an direct
entry undergraduate student being an otherwise uneventful Friday in March, I can see why this
message rings even more true. I’ll never attend another club meeting, in-person council
meeting, or end of semester Faculty Mixer here again. This isn’t meant to elicit sympathy, far
from it, I’ve been quite fortunate that, at present, this is the extent of the virus’s impact on my
life. Once the dust settles I’ll trudge off to another school, join new clubs, hopefully pursue more
student politics in a different arena, and make new friends. Yet these will never replace the lost
times here in the present, or the friendships forged here. As I look back, eleven days removed
from campus, and appreciate all the lighthearted moments, late night projects with friends,
difficult to please English instructors with high standards, and seemingly pivotal tests that really didn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, I think of the words of an older supervisor, nearing the end of his working career, after I described the week I had and my future career plans one Saturday afternoon while on break. “Slow down and live in the present”. These are truly words to live by. Live in the here and now, not one degree in the future, and don’t be afraid to make connections, you don’t know when life could change in an instant, minute, or day. Who could have predicted, last year, that this semester would end this way? Yes, the warning signs were there, the obscure papers now dusted off and shared as a harbinger of doom, but we never
imagined that it could actually happen. We’re living in the end of history, consumed with social
media, politics, and our own lives, myself included. Yet it happened, and serves as a reminder
of the importance to remember, and plan for the future, but to live in the present. We should still
look forward, to inspire us, to give some meaning and perspective to our current troubles and
annoyances, and being excessively focused on living in the present has its own set of pitfalls,
many quite serious. That being said, in the end what matters are the people around us, not the
letters after our names, or the numbers on our transcript, and not the numbers in our bank
accounts. These are part of who we are, and not horrible things to try to add to or make bigger,
but they don’t define who we are.
Hopefully this moment fades fast, a figment of our frenzied recollection. Many of us have
never experienced anything as world changing as this, myself included, and it is in these times,
more than ever, that we should reach out to those around us. Call a friend. Reach out to those
around you, as much as social isolation may make your household life more difficult. And once
this all fades away and we emerge from our collective isolation, blinking in the bright light, we’ll
all learn to slow down, live in the present, and form connections.


Postscript:
Reviewing this article a year later brings forth mixed emotions.
There is much to be thankful for in the past year, from seemingly impossible vaccine
development as SARS-CoV-2 spike protein antibodies are beginning to circulate in my
bloodstream a mere 13 months after writing this article, to the unfounded prophecies of doom
and gloom that prevailed early on.
Yet at the same time, the impact of this past year will not fade away soon, be it lost loved
ones, permanent disability, or the lifelong negative impacts of disrupted life courses. I personally know two people who had COVID-19, and died. Long COVID remains an unforeseen, poorly-understood, entity. COVID-19 has consequences.
Dulled by daily reports and seas of graphs it’s easy to forget that every death has the
potential to be a tragedy to someone who was loved, loved, and is no longer here with us.
ICU beds are occupied by people, not numbers, no matter how sedated they are or how
supportive their care is, and they are treated by people, who have been struggling with the
workload for over a year now. Every ventilator is connected to a person who requires an
Intensivist physician, Residents & Fellow physicians, ICU nurses, Respiratory therapists, and
many, many, others to stay alive.

Out in the community many others struggle with the weight of a lost year, lost jobs, failed
businesses, and a sense of doom and fatigue that truly is airborne.
If I have learned one thing from this and from the past year it’s to live in the present and
not the future. A year later, I remember precious little from my undergraduate degree, it will look
nice on the office wall one day, another fancy piece of paper testifying to something, but I do
remember the moments with friends, the events I attended, and the lessons learned along the
way. We can all count the months or days until the next milestone, or we can enjoy time spent
with friends which could be spent working or studying.

Written by: Donovan

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