The WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11th, 2020, and the world entered lockdown. And now, three years later, I wanted to pause and reflect a little bit on how my life has changed since then. I’ve been working on a rough draft of this blogpost for several months, picking it up and putting it away again, and now seems like a good time to finally publish it.
I had a bit of heads-up, before COVID-19 was on most people’s radar, because I had been watching and preparing for an influenza pandemic. So, it was on January 24th, 2020 that I wrote my first blogpost about a virus which was circulating in and around the city of Wuhan, China. I wrote:
I’m a weird person. (But then, if you’ve been following this blog at all, we’ve already established that fact pretty firmly.) Throughout my life, I have had a somewhat lamentable tendency to go off on weird tangents.
And, back around 2006, my tangent was bird flu. I became obsessed with following and discussing the latest information about the H5N1 avian flu virus with other flu preppers (a.k.a. “flubies”), which for a time looked as though it would develop into a global pandemic. (I just checked, and I still remember my username and password from the FluTrackers.com discussion forum!)
Me and my fellow flubies were constantly worrying, analyzing, and obsessing over the latest case data and news reports.
At the time, I used my very rudimentary PhotoShop skills to create and share some funny pictures with my fellow “flubies” on the FluTrackers.com discussion forum, in an effort to inject some levity into what was a grave and potentially life-threatening global situation. I firmly believe that a sense of humour is a sense of perspective; if you can laugh about (or at) something, it necessarily means that you can look at it with a bit of external perspective. Thankfully, H5N1 bird flu turned out to be somewhat of a bust (although millions of chickens and other birds have been killed, and even as recently as last month, there have been reports of strains of H5N1 influenza jumping from birds to mammals, such as mink and seals).
However, as everybody knows, we were not so lucky this time around with COVID-19, and it was definitely not a laughing matter, either. The very next day, January 25th 2020, I posted my very first coronavirus update on the RyanSchultz.com blog. I felt very strongly, as a librarian who works at a university science library, that I should connect you to the best, most up-to-date sources of information, to help you make the best decisions. And, from time to time, I would hijack my blog to continue to provide the best information I could as the pandemic spread. Many of my blog readers were confused and upset by the sudden change in direction!
Because I have underlying health conditions which put me at a higher risk of a severe case of COVID-19 if I were to become infected, I am vaccinated (6 times now, including both bivalent boosters!), I still wear facemasks indoors in public spaces, and I still avoid leaving my apartment. I let my guard down rarely, and I have (to my knowledge) not been infected with COVID—but it’s been at a cost.
After three years of pandemic living, I am an extrovert-turned-introvert (or, perhaps more accurately, a social person turned anti-social). I find it ironic indeed that my passionate hobby and research area—virtual worlds, social VR, and virtual reality—allows me to connect with other people from the safety of my own home or office! The only times I leave my apartment are:
- going to work (my university still has an indoor facemask mandate in public and shared spaces, although I can take my mask off when I close my office door);
- going to doctor’s appointments (I talk to my psychiatrist via Zoom still, though);
- visiting my mother and stepfather in their lifelease condo across town; and
- picking up the groceries I ordered online via the Walmart website (I always schedule this for Sunday mornings between 7:00 a.m. and 8:00 a.m., to avoid other people!). In fact, I can count on one hand the number of times that I have actually set foot in a supermarket over the past three years.
Other than that, I stay at home, which has been the biggest change in my life. I used to be one of those people who would often go out to cafés and restaurants, either alone or with friends. Now, instead of going out to eat at restaurants, I cook for myself at home, and this is perhaps the most firmly established new habit that I picked up over the past three years. I am far from a chef, but I have simple tastes, and I now feel much more confident in the kitchen!
While I have met up with friends at outdoor restaurant patios during Winnipeg’s all-too-brief summer, I must confess that I still have not embraced indoor restaurant dining (a coworker, who had a similar rule, broke it only once, and came down with a case of COVID). Again, I can count on one hand the number of times that I have taken off my facemask to eat something indoors with other people: a catered brainstorming session with my coworkers; and the first face-to-face meeting of my arts and entertainment group in 3 years just last month, where we had a potluck.
Even my tastes in music seem to have changed because of the pandemic. Often under stress and struggling with both anxiety and insomnia, I would seek out ways to calm and recenter myself. One day in 2020, I was browsing in a virtual store in Second Life, where the store owner had set the parcel’s audio stream to something called Calm Radio. I was so taken with the peaceful music, and the soothing voice of the woman promoting the service, that I sprung for a subscription! (In fact, I am listening to the Spa station—one of dozens of expertly-curated stations on Calm Radio—as I type this.)
I realize that I can’t keep my guard up forever, of course. I am still living in a kind of limbo, a form of suspended animation, in many respects. And I find myself wondering when things are going to get back to “normal” (and even how to define what “normal” is). While other people have basically decided that the pandemic is over, the fact remains that millions of people have died from COVID-19 (well over one million Americans alone, a statistic which staggers me). Millions more people have been disabled with long COVID, some after only mild initial infections.
This is something that you can’t just shrug and move on from, no matter how much you want to get on with life and pretend nothing serious happened. I am absolutely terrified of getting the “brain fog” associated with long COVID, because I make a living with my brain! And I already have asthma; I certainly don’t want COVID to fuck up my lungs, either! The coronavirus has definitely made me think a lot about my quality of life.
The pandemic also forced me to think about my own mortality, and start preparing for my inevitable death. I have finalized my will with a lawyer my financial planner recommended to me, although I do still need to visit a funeral home to make arrangements for my cremation, and set up a spot at the cemetery, where my final ashes will rest. But when you know people who have passed away from COVID (like my best friend’s 92-year-old mother, last November), it is a powerful motivator to get things like this taken care of, before you need it. It’s just one less thing for your family to deal with when you do die.
Early hopes that a one-and-done (or two-and-done, etc.) vaccination, which would protect against all strains of COVID-19, have unfortunately failed to materialize, as the coronavirus continues to mutate, and people get reinfected. I suspect that we are going to be facing a situation with COVID much like the flu, where you get an annual or semiannual shot which is developed against whatever the predominant strains of the virus are. Scientists are also learning more about how a COVID-19 infection attacks the body (e.g. microclotting), which hopefully should lead to new and improved treatments and prevention measures.
Many of us are still dealing with the situation day by day, and the future seems uncertain. Things even feel a bit precarious to me at times, and I still sometimes struggle with anxiety, insomnia, and depression. There are days when I have problems with motivation, both at home and at work. I feel angry and discouraged that something as science-backed as COVID vaccination was turned into a polarizing political issue. A crisis that should have brought us together seems to have highlighted the divisiveness within society, and just how selfish some people can be. And, of course, many of the ripple effects from the pandemic (such as supply-chain problems) are still impacting us all.
Whether you choose to believe it or not, the pandemic is not over.