Pandemic Diary: November 19th, 2020

Today is officially Day 249 since I began working from home for the University of Manitoba Libraries due to the coronavirus pandemic. I am still on holidays this week; I “go back to work” on Monday (while remaining in self-isolation in my apartment).

Today, the Manitoba government added further restrictions to those already put in place on November 10th, when a province-wide, code-red pandemic lockdown was announced. The new rules ban any gatherings at private residences and restrict retail sales to essential items only.

What is considered essential? Well, according to the “enhanced restrictions” document released by the Manitoba government today, essential items are:

 food, beverages and food preparation products;
 personal care products such as soap and dental care products;
 health-related products such as prescription drugs and vitamins;
 mobility or assistive devices;
 baby and child-care accessories such as diapers and formula;
 household cleaning products, safety devices, batteries and lightbulbs;
 outdoor winter apparel such as jackets and boots;
 personal protective equipment for the workplace;
 pet food and supplies;
 postage stamps;
 cellphones and cellphone accessories;
 parts and supplies for all types of motor vehicles and watercraft;
 major household appliances;
 hunting, fishing and trapping supplies;
 tools and hardware;
 materials for home maintenance, repair or construction; and
 property maintenance products such as shovels.

Non-essential items refers to any good and products not set out in the orders. This includes jewelry, flowers, perfume, consumer electronics, sporting equipment, books and toys.

Also, the document takes great care to note that “liquor and cannabis stores may continue to open and sell products” (you don’t want to have to deal with people going through withdrawal on top of everything else that’s going on, I guess!). And it looks very much like there will be no Black Friday sales in Manitoba next weekend.

CTV News reports:

New restrictions in Manitoba will limit the number of people allowed to gather in private homes to further halt the spread of COVID-19.

The enhanced orders, announced on Thursday by Premier Brian Pallister and chief public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin, will take effect on Friday, Nov. 20th.

The orders come one week after strict public health measures were put in place to get Manitobans to reduce their contacts. Roussin has made repeated pleas for Manitobans to stay at home and has warned of stretched hospital capacity in the province.

“Despite that, we saw people gathering at rallies, we saw crowded parking lots at big box stores, we saw people continue to go out for non-essential items — so we are left with no choice but to announce further measures to protect Manitobans to limit the spread of this virus,” said Roussin.

Under the new orders, gatherings at private residences, including homes, cottages, and other vacation properties, are restricted, and nobody is permitted aside from the people who live there. There are some exceptions to allow for child-care, health-care and home-care services, tutoring services, construction, repairs, and emergency response services.

The new orders also prohibit people from gathering in groups of more than five people at any indoor or outdoor public space. This includes the common areas of a multi-unit residence with the exception of a health-care facility or critical business that adheres to public health measures.

The new rules also allow for people who live alone (such as me) to have one person from outside their household visit their home. If I were pressed to choose, that person would probably be my best friend John, but we communicate regularly using Face Time on our iPhones, and I am satisfied with that.

Yesterday, I went and did my grocery shopping on the Walmart website, and first thing this morning, I donned an N95 facemask, got in my car, and drove to the grocery pick-up parking spaces at the rear of the my neighbourhood Walmart store, where someone wearing a mask wheeled out a cart with bins, and loaded up the back of my car, and I drove away. Thankfully, the Shopping Cart Gods smiled upon me, and there was a wayward shopping cart in the vicinity of my apartment, which made for only two trips ferrying my groceries between my car and my home. I am now stocked up on enough food to last me at least two months. I have also just had all my prescription medications renewed for another three months and delivered from my local pharmacy to my doorstep.

I have zero plans to set foot outside my apartment, unless it is to throw out the garbage or to go for masked, socially-distanced walks in my neighbourhood. As I barely leave my apartment as it was, the latest restrictions will not affect me very much. It does mean that I not be able to visit my mother and stepfather in their seniors life-lease condo, but I did pay a visit to see them the day before the Nov. 10th restrictions came into effect, and it was good to see them (again, socially distanced).

My mother wants me to commit to coming over for supper on Christmas Day, which she considers an iron-clad tradition, but I only told her that we would have to wait and see what happens between now and then. The way things have been going lately, I will not be surprised in the slightest if I spend Christmas alone in my apartment. At our face-to-face last week, we discussed Christmas presents. Mom usually gives me gift cards, but she worries that she will land up buying me gift cards for stores that will go belly-up because of the pandemic. We agreed that cash would be an appropriate gift instead, which relieves my mother of at least that one worry.

At the moment, as I write this, I am sitting in a Zoom meeting, my microphone and video muted, listening to my faculty union executive report on the results of the most recent round of bargaining with my employer, the University of Manitoba. This virtual meeting will be followed by a ratification vote over the next 24 hours by the 1,200 union members: professors, instructors, and librarians (again, this will be conducted securely, remotely, and online). So the results of the ratification vote will not be known until late Friday evening. There exists the possibility that I will be out on strike come Monday.

I am learning—trying to learn— to become more comfortable with all the uncertainty swirling around me, and I am working, every day, all day, to make sure that I do not allow my circumstances to drag me back down into the bottomless black pit of clinical depression. Some days I feel as if I am drowning.

So I take naps, and go for walks, and sit cross-legged in obliging patches of warm sunshine on my bedroom carpet. I go hide out in Second Life, or Sinespace, or Sansar, and find places to visit, and people to talk to. I take my antidepressant and anti-anxiety prescriptions, and I talk with my psychiatrist on the phone, and chat with other safe, supportive people, both in real life and in my many virtual worlds. I binge watch shows on Netflix. I read books. I cook. I clean. When I cannot sleep, I brew a pot of black coffee, get up and sit in front of my computer, and I blog.

I do whatever it takes to get me through the day, one day at a time. That’s really all I can do, all that anybody can reasonably ask me to do.

Tomorrow will be Day 250 since I started working from home, and it will be a day much like today, with its uncertainties, fears, and worries. I will get through it.

COVID Feel Good: A Free Self-Help Virtual Reality App to Treat the Psychological Stress Caused by the Coronavirus Pandemic

The homepage of the COVID Feel Good website

A new, free virtual reality app aims to help those struggling with pandemic-related stress to get their symptoms under control. VRScout reports:

There’s no question about it. The current COVID-19 pandemic has us going through a roller coaster of feelings right now. Not only have we been cut off from normal social gatherings such as family gatherings, concerts and after work hangouts, but it’s preventing us from traveling, putting a damper on many holiday travel plans. 

Thankfully, we have now have access to an extensive array of VR technology that allows us to escape our dreary reality. A recently published research paper shows that using VR to hang out with friends through socialVR platforms, go to concerts, play games, or “visit” other parts of the world actually has a positive impact on your level of happiness.

Italian researchers worked with 400 participants over a three month period as part of this in depth study. Users were encouraged to view 360 photos and videos of other countries, visit virtual gardens and beaches, spend time with other VR users in platforms such as VRChat or Mozilla Hubs, and isolate themselves in a virtual location referred to as the “Secret Garden” to reflect privately.  

Here’s a link to the research paper mentioned in the VRScout article, written by Dr. Giuseppe Riva, a professor of general psychology at Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan, Italy, and titled How Cyberpsychology and Virtual Reality Can Help Us to Overcome the Psychological Burden of Coronavirus (which was published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, volume 23, issue 5, 2020).

The paper states:

To help our readers to discover the well-being potential of VR, we suggest the use of a freely available VR tool: ‘‘The Secret Garden.’’ It is a 10-minute 3D 360-degree video (4K resolution supported) that can be found here (https://www.covidfeelgood.com/), designed to combat stress and counter the disappearance of places and communities generated by the coronavirus.

Recently developed in Lombardy, the Italian region at the center of Italy’s coronavirus outbreak by a group of Italian psychologists (https://become-hub.com/en/), it has been designed keeping in mind that providing psychological relief to so many (Lombardy population is >8 million inhabitants) over such a large geographical area would be complex. In fact, to experience it, any smartphone or tablet/PC will work. However, to fully experience the psychological benefits of being in a digital place, a cardboard headset is also necessary, including those sold for 15–30 USD in different digital marketplaces.

Here’s a three-minute YouTube that outlines the process and the app:

The app comes with a detailed, 19-page protocol; instructions are available in a variety of languages, including English:


To start the self-help experience you need:

For more info about the rationale of using VR and the science behind the protocol, you can check the different links provided.


The app is unfortunately only available via cellphone-based VR, not the Oculus Quest or any other VR headsets. For further information, please refer to the COVID Feel Good website.

This project is yet another example of how virtual reality can be used as a way to treat people who are struggling with mental health issues. an area where more and more research is being conducted every day at universities around the world. If you are interested in Dr. Riva’s work, he has also written the following research article:

Riva, G., Mantovani, F., & Wiederhold, B. K. (2020). Positive technology and COVID-19. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 23(9), 581–587.

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

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: April 19th, 2020 (Please Do Not Worry About Me)

This morning, I am reading a story from the Minneapolis/St. Paul Star Tribune newspaper, about an Ironman triathlete in his thirties (clearly healthy by any standard, and fitter than most people) who very nearly died from COVID-19.

Coronavirus survivor Ben O’Donnell (source)

If this is not a warning that the young and healthy are not immune to COVID-19, I don’t know what is. And, as someone who is not-so-young and definitely-not-so-healthy, it is worrisome. I cannot get this virus. I will not get this virus, even if I have to self-isolate in my apartment until there is a vaccine (which is estimated to take 12 to 18 months, if things move at hyperspeed).

Many of you who are reading this blog have reached out to me to express your concern. I want to assure everybody that I am coping as best I can under the circumstances. Yes, it means that some days I will not lie and say that everything is fine, because frankly, some days are rough.

But I will continue to do the best I can to take care of myself, and reach out for help when appropriate. I check in with my psychiatrist who prescribes my anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medications biweekly, and I have now entered into a second counselling relationship with a friend of a trusted friend, who has experience with peer counselling in a healthcare setting and has worked as a volunteer at a crisis hotline.

If things get bad (and by “bad”, I mean that my chronic clinical depression makes a serious and long-lasting resurgence), then I will do what needs to be done, go back on sick leave from work, and focus on getting better again. I know the drill; I’ve had it happen to me before and I will get through this. The last time I went on sick leave for depression, I was away for two-and-a-half years, but I fought my way back (with the help of virtual reality, which I firmly believe got my neurons firing properly again) and I have every intention of fighting just as hard if the blackness and bleakness descends upon me again.

Back then, I wrote:

I’ve been under a doctor’s treatment for depression since my mid-twenties, and I probably would have benefitted from seeking treatment even sooner than that. At times, my episodes of depression have been so severe that I have had to go on extended sick leaves from work. I’ve even been hospitalized twice when I was at my very worst. I have had to work very hard to crawl back from the edge of the black pit of despair, more than once in my life.

I first got my Oculus Rift headset back in January 2017, when I was on sick leave for depression from my job, and my life was feeling pretty bleak. Shortly afterwards, I also got the Oculus Touch hand controllers to be able to handle objects in VR.

I have no scientific proof, but I do believe that using that VR headset regularly—creating art using TiltBrush and Oculus Medium, using apps like Guided Meditation VR and Nature Treks VR, and interacting with other avatars and exploring new experiences in High Fidelity and the then-closed Sansar beta—was indeed a beneficial factor in my most recent recovery from depression. The best way I can describe it was that VR got my neurons firing again!

Some would no doubt argue that too much use of a VR headset is isolating, which I can understand if you are only playing solo games, or spending innumerable hours immersed in VR. However, in many games, and especially in most social VR spaces, you are often interacting with other people, which would counteract the isolation aspect somewhat. I also strongly recommend taking the time to build up your tolerance to VR, starting from sessions as short as 10-15 minutes, and building up slowly from that. I am a little concerned when I hear about people who boast logging 5, 6, 7, 8, or even more hours at one stretch in VR. Everything in moderation is the key here.

And when you’re too depressed to set foot outside your front door, it can sometimes be easier to slip on a VR headset to visit people and places! No need to get dressed up, or to put on your “happy face” to face the world. There have often been times in the past when I have felt extremely anxious, and I was able to load up the Nature Treks VR app in my Oculus Rift and relax on a calm, sandy beach lined with swaying palm trees, listening to the pounding surf, or just put myself within a mountain-ringed meadow of wildflowers, watching birds and butterflies. Much cheaper than an actual flight to a vacation spot! And you can revisit any time you like, with very little fuss.

I do find it ironic that the empty space I cleared in my bedroom to use my wireless Oculus Quest VR headset is now piled with canned goods and other pandemic preps! However, I still have my trusty original Oculus Rift VR headset, which I still use almost daily. In fact, I even brought home the Oculus Rift and Touch from my work computer (purchased for my suspended research project), sitting in its original box in the middle of my messy living room, and I can honestly say that I have an emergency back-up unit in case any part of my current Oculus Rift/Touch setup fails on me! (The cable attaching the Rift to my high-end gaming computer seems to be the thing that gives out first, according to various user reports.)

When I went to pick up my upholstered office chair last week to soothe my raggedy ass (link is quite safe for work), I also took home my work PC’s ergonomic keyboard and wireless mouse, in case either of those on my personal computer goes kaput on me while in self-isolation, Yes, I have worn through a couple of keyboards and mice in my day. At the moment, I have literally rubbed off the letters on some of the keys on my Microsoft ergonomic keyboard! Good thing I am (almost) a touch typist.

One final note. And I am going to put this is boldface type to make it extra clear:

I use this blog to vent.

In other words, this is an outlet for me. If I am having a bad day, you will most certainly hear about it. This does not mean that I am in any imminent danger of self-harm. It just means that I am complaining about things that are going wrong and how I am feeling, just the same as I would complain to my best friend or my Mom or my shrink about having a bad day.

Some people (in those oh-so-far-away pre-pandemic days) would go to the gym or to the bar and complain to their workout friends or their drinking buddies. I complain to my internet community: to my Discord server, to other Discord servers I belong to (and believe me, I keep bumping up against that 100-Discord-community limit all the time!), to the Second Life community forums (everybody knows Vanity Fair is Ryan Schultz, honey!), to my social networks like Twitter and Reddit…you name it. I have outlets, and I know how to use them. I’m sure you do too, if you think about it.

If what I share here on this blog concerns and worries you, and if you choose to reach out to me to check that I’m doing okay, God bless you for your thoughtfulness and kindness. But please, be assured that I know what I have to do to take care of myself. It’s been learned through 56 years of trial and error, sometimes the hard way, but I have learned.

So please don’t worry overmuch about me if I do vent here. It’s just steam and a whistle from a kettle, and the water has been boiling at quite a pace this past month.

Photo by John-Mark Smith on Unsplash

Stay safe and stay healthy!