Pandemic Diary: October 28th, 2020

Today is Day 227 of my working from my home in self-isolation for my university library system. I am nearing the end of a three-month period where I have been frantically working days, evenings, and weekends to meet several project deadlines, and I can almost see the finish line of November 1st, 2020. I am cranky, utterly exhausted, and most definitely not in a Hallowe’en trick-or-treater mood.

Here are the latest provincial stats, and they are not encouraging. Pandemic fatigue has settled in, people are getting sloppy, and COVID-19 infections are rising sharply:

While these numbers may appear small compared to the absolute clusterfuck-dumpster-fires taking place just south of the border in North and South Dakota, for a province of only 1.3 million inhabitants (mostly in and around the Winnipeg area), this is not good news. The Winnipeg Free Press reports that our hospital system is bring pushed to the brink:

Record high hospitalizations are ringing alarm bells for health care professionals. With outbreaks in three units at St. Boniface Hospital and two units at Victoria General Hospital, physicians and nurses are worried about the rising strain on the health care system.

In a Facebook post Saturday, a medical microbiologist at St. Boniface Hospital wrote that, “Without a turnaround, we are within days of being at the limit of ICU capacity.”

“Resources are getting strained. ICUs are full. We are on the brink. This is what happens when we let our guard down, have too many contacts, relax and go out with too many people,” Dr. Phillipe Lagacé-Wiens wrote.

Jason Kindrachuk, a virologist at the University of Manitoba, noted health care professionals have been warning of a rapidly approaching crisis point for a while.

“Not only are we seeing increases in case numbers, we’re seeing increases in hospitalizations, we’re seeing increases in people being admitted to intensive care units, we’re seeing increased fatalities,” he said Sunday.

Today, the first death from COVID-19 was reported at Victoria Hospital, a stone’s throw from where I live, in an outbreak of 19 staff and 19 patients at the facility,

Parkview Place personal care home in downtown Winnipeg (where my grandmother and grandfather lived) has 29 staff and 92 residents who have become infected with COVID-19. Seventeen residents have died, and angry families are demanding answers. I can only thank God that my grandfather and beloved grandmother died in the 2000’s, well before this outbreak.

On Monday, I went to my local pharmacy to get my flu shot. It was the first time since March 16th that I have been part of a large group of people (mostly seniors, all masked, and all trying to keep 2 metres apart, an increasingly impossible task as people kept arriving).

A hastily-assembled makeshift flu clinic had been set up in the electronics department, but it was clear the pharmacists and assistants were overwhelmed with the demand. Shouting matches broke out between a few of the people waiting for flu shots and the staff, when it was announced that those who had booked appointments earlier in the day would be processed before the “first come, first served” crowd who had gathered. “If you don’t like it, LEAVE!” shouted one stressed-out pharmacist at a particularly angry and accusative old woman, who had not stopped complaining from the moment she arrived.

It was a unsettling, dispiriting, and dehumanizing experience, being treated like an assembly on some machine line, perched on a chair for 30 seconds for a jab in the upper arm, with the chair then being thoroughly wiped down with disinfectant and ready for the next person (I believe the proper term for this is “hygiene theatre“).

As I walked out the pharmacy, I saw my best friend John, masked and standing in a long line of sombre people, all approximately 2 metres apart. The lineup started at the entrance and snaked back and forth between the cars in the pharmacy parking lot. I told him that there were probably 60 or 70 people ahead of him, and that he would probably be waiting at least an hour for his flu shot, if not longer. It was a shitshow.

After I came home, I carefully removed and threw out my N95 mask, washed my hands and my glasses thoroughly, popped three Lorazepam and lay down for a long nap to try and forget the whole unpleasant experience. If this is what getting the flu shot is going to be like, what it is going to be like when there’s an actual COVID-19 vaccine that has to be distributed?

I have one final lecture to deliver tomorrow for my class—delivered remotely and online via Cisco Webex—and then I am going to collapse, after three months working non-stop overtime. I have been sleeping 10, 12, even 14 hours at a stretch lately, and I am still exhausted.

My apartment is a Red Cross disaster area, with dust bunnies, dirty dishes, and canned goods and Clorox wipes piled high in the corners of my apartment. The office chair I had to bring in from work has worn a big hole in the carpeting in front of my home computer workstation, where I sit and work most of the day. (So much for my damage deposit.)

I have had exactly one person touch me in SEVEN. FUCKING. MONTHS, and when it happened (my best friend John touched my arm to make a point in conversation over a summertime dinner on an outdoor restaurant patio), I almost leaped out of my skin. I can’t even remember the last time somebody hugged me.

This pandemic is beating the absolute shit out of me, and the end is still nowhere near in sight. I’m trying to find a positive note to end this blogpost on, and you know what? I can’t. Not today.

Pandemic Diary, October 13th, 2020: Binge Watching the Zombie Apocalypse

Today is officially Day 212 of my working from home in self-isolation for my university library system. I am having a very bad day today, having slept poorly last night, after a Thanksgiving long weekend where I did not nearly get as much work done as I had hoped.

I rarely leave my apartment, and I am suffering from a bad case of acedia: listlessness, distraction, a lack of motivation, and wanting to avoid the task at hand. The only problem is, I have firm deadlines on several work projects which I must meet before the end of the month, so I keep pushing forward anyway.

My primary form of entertainment consists of binge-watching TV shows and movies on Netflix, mostly on my iPad while lying on the sofa or sitting at the kitchen table, and sometimes on the desktop monitor of my personal computer. (In addition to Netfix, I also have relatively inexpensive streaming subscriptions to both OUTtvGo and WOW Presents Plus for their LGBTQ fare. Sometimes I think RuPaul’s Drag Race and its spinoffs are the only thing that is keeping me sane during this pandemic.)

My tastes have recently veered towards the zombie apocalypse, a category of entertainment I would never have touched with a twenty-foot barge pole before the pandemic. I am amazed at just how much zombie content Netflix has!

The blacker my mood, the more I want to watch something bleak and gory, with a high body count. I rarely watch them from beginning to end. Depending on how I feel, I might skip ahead to avoid the more suspenseful or grislier sections, or even skip right to the end of the movie (or, for a zombie TV show, watch the pilot, then watch the final episode to see if it’s actually worth watching all the ones in between or not). There are no rules on how to watch the zombie apocalypse!

Here are three of my recommendations, all recent releases:

Black Summer on Netflix

Black Summer is a grim TV series, set in an unnamed American city five to six weeks after the start of a zombie apocalypse. A group of survivors tries to make their way to a downtown stadium, where a woman hopes to be reunited with her daughter, whom she was separated from during a chaotic military evacuation.

As terrifying as a zombie attack might be, what some of the survivors are doing to each other during the resulting breakdown of society is even more horrifying. I admire the way the creator makes us care about the characters, developing each of them in some detail—even the ones who are unexpectedly and brutally killed off before the end of the season. (2019 TV series, one season, Netflix)

To The Lake, a Russian show in Netflix

To The Lake throws together a disparate, fractious group of survivors, who are trying to escape Moscow and its suburbs to reach a remote northern lake in the middle of a Russian winter, during a terrifying, rapidly-spreading epidemic. Although the infected are never referred to as zombies, this is essentially a zombie apocalypse.

The character development in To The Lake is skillfully done, with good use of pre-epidemic flashbacks. As they travel north over many days, meeting and overcoming obstacles and dangers and encountering both unexpected friends and dangerous foes, we come to care for these people as they fight to reach their destination. Once again, not everybody makes it to the end of the first season. (2020 TV series, one season, Netflix)

Cargo: a Zombie movie set in the Australian Outback

Cargo is a zombie apocalypse movie set in the Australian Outback, where a man searches desperately for someone who will care for his infant daughter before he succumbs to his infection within 48 hours and becomes a zombie himself.

This movie is about as different from your standard zombie movie as you could get, both in its setting and its characters, which include several Aborigines. Yes, there is violence, but there are also heart-warming and even downright whimsical scenes. You will be cheering by the end of this one! (2018 movie, Netflix)

So, that’s all from me for today. Stay healthy and stay sane!

P.S. Yes, things are still going sideways here in Manitoba. A record 124 new cases of COVID-19 were reported today, 95 of them in the Winnipeg area. As of today, we are second only behind Quebec for the highest number of active cases per 100,000 people:

Active COVID-19 Cases Per 100,000 People by Province and Territory (Source: CBC)

Pandemic Diary, October 11th, 2020: Things Are Starting to Go Sideways

I know, I said that I would stop blogging until November 1st, but I really need to vent.

I called my mother, who is now in her eighties, on Friday to tell her that I would not be able to come this see her and her husband this long weekend (Monday is Canadian Thanksgiving; we have ours a month earlier than the Americans because by late November, Canada is pretty much already covered in snow). “Things are starting to go sideways” she said. I agreed.

I have driven across the city of Winnipeg to their life lease seniors complex every few weeks, to chat with them face-to-face while practicing rigorous social distancing. They have an enclosed balcony on the main floor, by which they let me in (so I do not have to traverse the common areas in the building) and I sit in their balcony while they sit in the living room, and we talk.

I have not joined them for one of Mom’s homecooked dinners since this coronavirus pandemic started. And a normal Thanksgiving dinner is out of the question.

As you can see, things are starting to go sideways here in Manitoba:

While my province was spared the worst of the first wave of COVID-19, we will not be spared in this second wave of cases. Yesterday, we hit an all-time record of 97 new cases of COVID-19 in the province, and 1,049 active cases, with a 3% test positivity rate:

The vast majority of new cases over the past few weeks has been in my city of Winnipeg.* So, instead of spending a convivial Thanksgiving dinner with my mother and stepfather, I am stuck working away in isolation in my apartment, suffering from a bad case of acedia which I am trying to push through, and desperate to meet some firm deadlines for a some work projects for my university library system.

My grandparents’ personal care home, Parkview Place in downtown Winnipeg, has reported at least 34 cases of COVID-19 among the residents and staff, with at least 5 seniors dying from the coronavirus. I told my mother that I am grateful that my grandparents both died fifteen years ago, and did not live to see this day. She agreed.

Things are starting to go sideways, and I am angry, anxious, depressed, and afraid.

And yes, I had said that I wouldn’t be blogging until November 1st. You know what? Fuck that. I am going to use this blog to vent my frustration to the world at what is happening to me, and what is happening to all of us. And if that means I have to scrawl a Pandemic Diary blogpost every single fucking day, to get some of that anger, anxiety, depression, and fear out of my system, so that I can focus on my work for the day, then so be it.

*I know, you might think this is absolutely nothing compared to hotspots like Florida, which reported 5,570 new cases today, but we only have 1.3 million people in the entire province, three-quarters of whom live in and near Winnipeg, where COVID-19 cases are surging. Trust me, this is a big deal here, especially after we largely escaped the first wave of COVID-19. And the numbers of SARS-CoV-2 infections are spiking in other provinces, such as Ontario next door, where they have imposed new restrictions in three areas. The U.S. states immediately south of Manitoba, North Dakota and South Dakota, have also seen a huge spike in cases. Thank God there’s a closed international border between that particular clusterfuck and us here.

Acedia During the Coronavirus Pandemic: A 5th-Century Term for a 21st-Century Problem

Acedia, engraving by Hieronymus Wierix, 16th century (source)

As regular readers of my blog well know by now, I have a tendency to go off on tangents. Today is most definitely a tangent, but it is a topical one in this time of pandemic, so I hope you will indulge me.

Today is officially Day 205 of my working from home in self-isolation for my university library system. This morning, in my biweekly telephone chat with my psychiatrist (we suspended face-to-face sessions at the start of the pandemic), she mentioned a podcast that she had listened to, and a word which I had never heard before: acedia (pronounced ‘uh-see-dee-uh’ in English, sometimes “uh-kee-dee-uh”).

Father Harrison Ayre, a priest in the Diocese of Victoria, British Columbia, who was interviewed in a recent article from the Catholic Saskatoon News, says that acedia “manifests itself specifically in listlessness, distraction, and wanting to avoid the task at hand…Paradoxically, it could look either like sitting around and doing nothing, or busying oneself with anything and everything but the task at hand.” Sure sounds a lot like me, trying to be productive while working from home!

Acedia was first identified by 5th century monk and theologian John Cassian. According to an article on the topic published in The Conversation, by Jonathan L. Zecher, a research fellow at Australian Catholic University:

Etymologically, acedia joins the negative prefix a- to the Greek noun kēdos, which means “care, concern, or grief”. It sounds like apathy, but Cassian’s description shows that acedia is much more daunting and complex than that.

Cassian and other early Christians called acedia “the noonday demon”, and sometimes described it as a “train of thought”. But they did not think it affected city-dwellers or even monks in communities.

Rather, acedia arose directly out the spatial and social constrictions that a solitary monastic life necessitates. These conditions generate a strange combination of listlessness, undirected anxiety, and inability to concentrate. Together these make up the paradoxical emotion of acedia.

“Spatial and social constrictions” are also a rather apt and concise description of governmental and societal responses to the coronavirus pandemic. Social distancing limits physical contact, and quarantines and lockdowns constrict physical space and movement. Working from home day after day, and rarely leaving that home, means a distinct lack of external stimulation. In other words, the 21st-century coronavirus pandemic conditions we face ironically approximate those of 5th-century solitary desert monks. The article goes on to state:

Reviving the language of acedia is important to our experience in two ways. First, it distinguishes the complex of emotions brought on by enforced isolation, constant uncertainty and the barrage of bad news from clinical terms like “depression” or “anxiety”…

Learning to express new or previously unrecognized constellations of feelings, sensations, and thoughts, builds an emotional repertoire, which assists in emotional regulation. Naming and expressing experiences allows us to claim some agency in dealing with them.

As we, like Cassian’s desert monks, struggle through our own “long, dark teatime of the soul”, we can name this experience, which is now part of our emotional repertoire.

So I did a little librarian sleuthing (something I’m quite good at), and eventually, I found the podcast which my psychiatrist had mentioned this morning.

It is an episode of The Table, a podcast hosted by Evan Rosa, and produced by Biola University’s Center for Christian Thought, which is titled Fighting the Noonday Demon: Kathleen Norris on Acedia, Boredom, and Desert Spirituality. Here is an excerpt from that fascinating podcast, which was recorded two years before the pandemic hit, and which I recommend you listen to in full (even if you’re an atheist like me):

What are those original 8 deadly vices? The list Cassian translated into Latin from Evagrius was: Gluttony, Lust, Avarice or Greed, Superbia or Pride, Despair or Sadness, Anger or Wrath, Vainglory, and Acedia.

These 8 deadly terrible thoughts became the 7 deadly sins in the 6th century, when Pope Gregory the Great wanted to consolidate and develop the list in order to respond to the spiritual needs and pathologies of Christians at that time. So, vainglory and superbia are combined into pride. Envy is added to the list. But we want to hone in on just one that was removed and forgotten: Acedia. Despair or sadness and Acedia were often confused, thought irrelevant to life outside the monastery, and used interchangeably; so they were combined and renamed as Sloth.

Dante Alighieri thought of each of these deadly sins as corruptions or deprivations or negations of love. Four of them deal explicitly with the corruption of the mind—vainglory, sorrow, pride, and acedia—which is perhaps what makes it possible to see these exercises as psychology, which exists, at least in part, to heal corruptions of the mind, or mental illness.

So what’s the point of this listing of vices and the examination of temptations? Evagrius himself was worried about too much theorizing about temptation and sin, because of the way it can introduce bad thoughts to otherwise innocent minds. I’m sure there are many reasons, and I won’t list them all, but giving temptations and vices a name has a way of helping us respond. The 8 vices are presented as spirits or “demons” in Cassian’s Institutes. There is a meaning found in naming the enemy or attacker, or diagnosing an illness. Until you know what plagues you, it can be hard to formulate a resistance or treatment plan…

When Gregory the Great consolidated the list, it was seen as a good thing—it allowed Christians of that time to focus on the most problematic of temptations and try to root them out. But as a result, Acedia was taken off the list and hidden away. It didn’t seem to apply beyond the solitary, individual lives of monks, who were constantly tempted to abandon their cell, abandon their monastery and simply give up on the life they were called to.

In this podcast, Evan Rosa interviews theological author Kathleen Norris, who wrote a 2008 book titled Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life, and who makes a distinction between depression (a concept which we are familiar with) and acedia (which has become a all-but-forgotten concept in modern society):

The Greek word acedia just means not caring. It’s come to mean as seriously not caring to the extent that you no longer care that you care. I described it as a spiritual morphing. If you really give in to it, it becomes this numbing effect on your life.

Just knowing the name of what it is, it’s not depression, it’s not just sadness. It’s not just boredom and restlessness, but all those things are part of it. Just knowing the name of it, and when it strikes it, seems to come out of nowhere.

If I’m depressed I usually know why. That something really bad has happened. Of course, I’m a little bit depressed. I’ll work through that. If someone has died, or a bad thing has happened, with acedia it can come out of nowhere. At least now I recognize it and I say, “Oh, you again. OK, well, I’m not going to give in.”

Depression is an illness, whereas acedia is a temptation. Because it’s a temptation, it can be resisted. You can struggle against it and win, whereas, if you’re seriously depressed, you probably need medication. You need a psychiatrist, or a psychologist to work with you on it.

With acedia, it is a temptation. You can resist it, once you know what it is, and you recognize it.

So, how that we have identified acedia, how do we cope with it? In a separate interview with the National Catholic Reporter, Kathleen Norris offers some suggestions:

So how do hundreds of millions of newly minted, if reluctant, “monks” cope with the experience?

…it helps to establish a daily routine. Monastic living is established with a routine, for a good reason. Times are set aside for morning prayer, mealtimes, afternoon prayer and work. It’s like a scaffolding, akin to the way buildings are kept together, much like our spiritual and emotional lives, she said.

Her other bits of advice: Take a shower and wash your hair every day. Little items of grooming, when neglected, can create a “feeling of ‘Why bother?’ ” Take a walk, keeping in mind social distance concerns. There’s nothing wrong with simple pleasures as well. “I provide myself with enough chocolate to keep going,” said Norris.

Researching and writing this blogpost has helped me feel better today, and I hope what I have learned helps you too. (Makes mental note to add chocolate to my next Walmart grocery pickup.)

Stay sane and stay healthy!