Pandemic Diary: May 21st, 2020

Well, according to the calendar, I am now in day 67 of my self-imposed isolation in my apartment, working from home for my employer, the University of Manitoba Libraries. I have not set foot in a supermarket since March 16th, and I have not set foot in a pharmacy since January 30th, choosing instead to have my groceries and prescription medications delivered when I come close to running out. Aside from a few short trips to my office at the university to pick up some papers, my office chair, my Oculus Rift VR headset (as an emergency backup), and my keyboard and wireless mouse (also as backups), I have stayed at home and helped flatten the curve.

I consider myself fortunate to live in a province (Manitoba) where, to date, we have only had 290 cases of COVID-19 so far, in sharp contrast to the provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, and Quebec, and the sea of red that is the United States:

We here in Manitoba have truly benefited from the fact that we live in a relatively geographically isolated area of North America, while the coronavirus pandemic hit other parts of the world first, giving our provincial and city governments valuable time to prepare and implement strict social distancing restrictions. While Canada’s chief public health officer has admitted that they should have closed the borders sooner, Canada is in a much better position overall than many other countries, particularly the United States, Russia, and Brazil, which have seen a surge in cases due to haphazard or even non-existent government responses to the crisis.

I have already explained, via this blog, that I have several underlying health conditions at the age of 56: I am significantly overweight, and I have hypertension, type II diabetes, and asthma. All four conditions (which, of course, are interrelated) put me at much higher risk for a severe, possibly even fatal, case of COVID-19 if I should become infected with this novel coronavirus. And it means that I will probably be among the last group of University of Manitoba Libraries employees to return to the campus. I could be in self-imposed lockdown until there is a vaccine.

I have made peace with this fact, and I have now settled into a kind of routine in working from home, becoming more comfortable with virtual staff meetings held in Webex and Microsoft Teams (our university seems to have largely abandoned its use of Zoom).

The librarians of the Sciences and Technology Library are currently hard at work developing a for-credit university course in information literacy for undergraduate science students, which is to start in September 2020. The University of Manitoba has announced that all its classes in the fall term will be taught remotely, and the head of our libraries system has told us that she does not expect us to return to our physical library offices before January of 2021. The science librarians had been originally planning to deliver our information literacy course in-person and in the classroom, but we are now pivoting to package and deliver the course remotely using Webex.

As part of my little one-man crusade to destigmatize mental illness, I have been honest and up-front with my blog readers about my own struggles with depression and anxiety during the pandemic. In addition to taking antidepressant and anti-anxiety prescription medication, I also have biweekly sessions via telephone with my psychiatrist. On the whole, while I still have some bad days, I am doing pretty well.

You might be interested to learn that, in addition to the above-mentioned supports, I have also entered into a peer mentor/support relationship with a friend of a trusted friend, who has experience as a peer counselor in a healthcare setting and has worked as a volunteer at a telephone crisis hotline in the past. We actually meet up every couple of weeks or so in my Linden Home in Second Life!

I log in as my avatar, she logs in as her avatar, and we have a conversation using voice chat. This is an opportunity to get things off my chest and gain another person’s perspective on my mental health issues, and where I can even talk how I sometimes use Second Life to cope with my self-isolation, without having to provide the kind of contextual, background explanation I would need to make to a real-world counselor! I can also ping her via Discord anytime I feel I need to vent in a safe, supported space.

This person is currently considering setting up a peer listening/support service in Second Life, and I am a sort of guinea pig for her, a test to see how well that would work. She’s also pretty new to Second Life, still working her way up the steep learning curve and getting her bearings, and I have shared many of the things I have learned from my 14 years of experience in SL with her—like the concepts of alts, furries, Gorean role-play, and the absolutely critical importance of ankle lock 😉 .

So, how are you holding up during the pandemic? Feel free to join the RyanSchultz.com Discord server, where we have a fairly active #coronavirus-chat channel, or just leave a comment to this blogpost. I’d love to know how you are doing!

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How I Will Be Keeping Busy During the Coronavirus Pandemic

So (you might be wondering), how will I keep myself occupied during the coronavirus pandemic?

So glad you asked 😉

I have prepared for a pandemic as best I could. I have stocked up on food and toiletries, soap and hand sanitizer, and I have three months’ worth of all my prescriptions, plus a supply of over-the-counter medications.

I only expect to have to leave my apartment for appointments with my psychiatrist over the next few weeks (and perhaps the occasional visit to my mother and stepfather for supper, and to my best friend John’s house). There will be no other outings unless I have a damn good reason!

As you might already know, I have received permission from my employer, the University of Manitoba Libraries, to work from home, starting on Monday, March 16th. I do expect that, during my regular workday hours, I will be taking many shifts at my university library’s virtual reference service, answering users’ questions via live chat. We still don’t know how a pandemic will impact the usage of that service.

I have actually been manning our virtual reference service all day today (Sunday, March 15th), just to get a better sense of how busy we will be at off-hours (so far, three questions since 7:00 a.m. this morning). As a hermit who already lives on the internet, I do assure you this is hardly a additional burden. 😉  I also will be keeping a window open to my work email, which will be the primary way I communicate with my coworkers (along with my personal cell phone).

The many evenings that I used to spend hanging out in the chat rooms at the now-folded site gay.com—often having as many as four conversations at once—have thoroughly trained me for this work! 😉 and trust me, I am quite fast on the keyboard.

Of course, I will still be blogging my little heart out, sprinkling my coverage of social VR, virtual worlds, and the metaverse, with blogposts about SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 (you can find all of them here).

As well, I have received all the raw footage from the unfinished episodes of the Metaverse Newscast, and I intend to use that footage to learn how to edit digital video using Adobe Premiere Pro and Lynda.com! I’ve got a lot to learn.

As somebody who regularly went out to restaurants to eat, I now intend to try my hand at a little more more cooking and baking, having stocked up on the basic ingredients. I have stocked up on flour, sugar, and yeast, and I intend to try and bake my first bread, since I will probably run out of fresh bread fairly quickly! (Wish me luck.)

I also have tons of books I have bought over the years and never got around to reading. The Japanese actually have a word for this: tsundoku (積ん読).

In addition, I intend to convert my stationary exercise cycle from its current use as a glorified clothes hanger, dragging it from my bedroom to the living room and setting it up in front of my television set, so I can exercise while I follow the news channels (CNN, CBC, and CTV).

Also, I am an infamously relaxed housekeeper (“slob” is such an ugly word)…so I have stocked up cleaning supplies and I intend to thoroughly clean my apartment! It’s way, way, waaay overdue!

This may or may not be an actual picture of my apartment… 😉
(image by levelord from Pixabay)

So, as you can see, I have lots to keep me occupied.

How about you? What will you be doing as you practice social distancing, and stay at home rather than go out? Please feel free to leave a comment on this blogpost, thanks!

I leave you with this thought-provoking YouTube video—quarantined Italians sending messages to themselves ten days ago:

We must all listen to these Italians. STAY HOME IF YOU CAN.

Editorial: Three Different Community Responses to a Coronavirus Pandemic

Panic Shopping: Australian shoppers fighting over rolls of toilet paper (source)

My distress, anxiety, depression, and anger over the coronavirus pandemic have not subsided since I received permission from my employer to work from home. My initial sense of relief proved to be very short-lived. I now worry that I might be tipping over into full-blown agoraphobia—afraid to leave the house for anything.

Even though we only have 4 confirmed cases of COVID-19 here in Winnipeg, I have postponed, then cancelled, my regular Friday night supper with my long-suffering, unflappable best friend John, and I have also cancelled my Sunday evening dinner with my mother and stepfather. In all cases, they understand and are sympathetic. As John said on the phone to me today, “You’re just Ryan.”—almost exactly what my supervisor at work told me earlier this week. (To steal a line from Games of Thrones: It is known.)

I do have a rather lamentable tendency to panic, overreact, and infect other people with my anxiety and depression. (I apologized to two coworkers yesterday for stepping out of bounds in my eagerness to warn people about the risks.) The problem is, of course, that we as a society have never faced such an unprecedented global public health situation like this before, so everybody is guessing at what the normal response should be. We are going to see a lot of people stressing out (and acting out) over this, I am afraid. Here is my constantly-updated list of mental health resources during a coronavirus pandemic.

Microbiologist Dr. Siouxsie Wiles (whom I am following on Twitter) has released a series of helpful animated GIFs which illustrate important concepts that the public need to grasp about this COVID-19 pandemic. I shared one of her GIFs in this March 10th blogpost, and below is a second, new one:

Basically, this picture shows three different community responses to a pandemic:

  • No collective response, which leads to a spike of cases that quickly overwhelms healthcare systems (as we saw in Hubei province in China, and now in Italy, where they are making life-and-death triage decisions for intensive care beds and ventilators);
  • A strong collective response, which “flattens the curve” to keep the total number of cases at any one time to within hospital capacities (this is the ideal response);
  • A strong, but only short-term, collective response, which only postpones the deadly spike of cases over time.

The situation in Italy is currently grim, and it should as a stern warning for other countries; we are not immune to a sharp spike in cases happening here, especially if there is community resistance to quarantines and the imposition of social distancing policies.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has just announced the border restrictions that among the toughest in the world, in a country that so far only has seen only six confirmed cases of COVID-19:

Countries around the world continued Saturday to enact strict measures such as border closures and flight cancellations to combat the spread of the novel COVID-19 coronavirus.

That includes New Zealand, whose Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced Saturday the government will implement a policy under which all travelers, even New Zealanders, must self-isolate upon their arrival in the country for 14 days starting Sunday at midnight.

Ardern said New Zealand, along with Israel and several Pacific Island nations, “will have the widest ranging and toughest border restrictions of any country in the world,” adding that she’s not making any apologies in this “unprecedented time.” All cruise ships will be banned from coming to New Zealand until June 30, as well. There are only six confirmed cases and no deaths attributed to COVID-19 in New Zealand so far.

Contrast this timely, science-based approach with the actions of the Donald Trump administration, which apparently tried to overrule Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommendations that seniors avoid airline flights and that they should remain at home as much as possible.

Donald Trump’s rambling, pompous, error-filled, and shambolic public pronouncements about the coronavirus crisis have done no favours to the U.S. populace. It’s very clear that Trump cares more about protecting industries such as cruiselines, airlines, and hotels, than he does about the U.S. citizens he was elected to protect.

The longer that the U.S. practices such poor risk communication to the public, the worse the overall reaction will be. Notice the levels of panic shopping now taking place all across the world? That’s a direct result of people being lulled into a false sense of security, suddenly triggered into panic mode. The “it’s just the flu” bros are waking up en masse, and ransacking grocery stores and pharmacies.

Like I said, welcome to the new normal.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

P.S. Please don’t worry about me; I am still seeing my psychiatrist regularly, and I am practicing good self-care at home, including taking breaks from the relentless news media coverage. To quote Gloria Gaynor: I will survive!

Editorial: Welcome to the New Normal

Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

I don’t know about you, but things have been happening so fast that it’s making my head spin.

Today, both the provinces of Alberta and Quebec announced the essential shut down of all their post-secondary educational institutions, with a wholesale move away from in-person classes and exams to online equivalents. Originally, my employer, the University of Manitoba, was going to try and keep classrooms open to students, but late this afternoon the university president sent out an email:

Yesterday I communicated our commitment to taking measures to protect the health and safety of our campuses and our wider community. Our top priority is doing our part to help contain the transmission of COVID-19.

In that same spirit, today I am announcing that there will be no classes on Monday, March 16 and Tuesday, March 17. The University campuses will remain open on those days, but there will no classes.

This two-day pause allows the University to prepare to move classes to alternative modes of instruction.

To be clear, as of Wednesday, March 18 there will NO IN-PERSON CLASSES, with rare exceptions that will be communicated directly to those affected. All in-person undergraduate and research-stream Master’s and Doctoral instruction will end March 13. Instruction will be provided by other means that may include existing online platforms. This will continue through the end of the term on April 7.

Our staff are working hard to keep as much of the University operational as possible. The University remains open and we are continuing to provide students with as many essential services as possible under the circumstances. Please keep referring to umanitoba.ca for information and updates.

Among those essential services are the university libraries, which will try to remain in operation as long as possible.

Effective Monday, March 16th, I (along with other Libraries staff who are at a higher risk of having a severe case of COVID-19 if they become infected with the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus) will be working from home.

I am so truly grateful that my employer has given me the option to stay home. My stress levels have just been going through the roof, and this week I was rapidly heading off into loose-cannon territory, with both my anxiety and depression spiraling out of control. I was on the verge of getting a sick note from my psychiatrist, and taking sick time.

Hopefully, now that I know I can essentially barricade myself in my apartment, surrounded with all my pandemic preps, I can finally breathe a sigh of relief, and try to relax and heal a bit.

My heart goes out to all my coworkers whom I am leaving behind, who are going to try and cover as best they can, and keep the libraries open for as long as they can. Today we were all busy shutting down every second workstation and study carrel in our libraries, putting up signs and removing chairs in order to enforce social distancing. (No sitting next to each other anymore!) We’ve also shut down several “high-touch” automated services, such as our 24/7 reserve kiosks and our iPad-based self-checkout terminals. We’re going back to the old ways of doing things!

In addition, the province of Manitoba has now followed Ontario and many other jurisdictions in announcing that, effective Monday March 23rd, all K-12 schools in Manitoba will be closed for 3 weeks as a proactive measure. This will obviously pull even more University of Manitoba Libraries workers away from their jobs as they are forced to stay home and care for their children.

We are in unprecedented times, and venturing into uncharted territory. Like I said, everything is happening so fast that it makes me dizzy. I’m sure most of you are feeling the same way.