A year ago today things already felt unsettled. News of COVID-19 was spreading. The early January news feed about outbreaks in China had now been surpassed by the growing health disaster in Italy. Indications were clear this was no longer simply a regional concern, it was going global.
In late January I returned from what I now know to be my last pre-pandemic conference. The international arrival terminal at YVR was a strange place to be. I could tell by how people were acting - way more face masks, even one man with a big water bottle cut to sit like a space helmet on his head - that things were changing.
By March social media was filled with heated arguments about wearing masks or how the flue was/was not worse. I had stopped using public transit and avoiding going into shops unless absolutely necessary. In my classes students were asking me if I thought UBC would shut down. At that point I said "I don't think so, but who knows." By the end of the week UBC's President had sent a message to the community that classes were moving online and all on campus activities were to shut down.
I wrote about some of the shift online (also here) entailed, I also took issue with some of the ways the university dealt with anthropological research and some thoughts on responsible anthropology in the pandemic. As the year has continued on I've noticed a lot of expressions about harm and disruption, but also opportunities for people to recenter and find better live balances.
The impact of the pandemic has been experienced differentially. This should not be a surprise. Crises typically reverberate along cleavages of societal weakness and fractures of inequality. The pandemic has been no different. The industrial manufacturing sector (including heavy industry and construction) has done okay. It's the service sector that has been hit the hardest, especially the social components (bars, cafes, clubs, and theatres). On the university campuses some categories of workers continued with modest alterations in intensity (construction, maintenance, landscaping, etc). Some categories of workers continued under remote work provisions (white collar, clerical, and instructional). On campus, as in the wider society, workers in our service sector (in the food and housing divisions) faced major layoffs. Once can plot out the likelihood of losing one's job at UBC based upon one's salary pre-pandemic. The lower one's pay, the higher the likelihood of having been laid off of terminated. Hundreds of workers in the student housing and food services sector at UBC were put out of work by the pandemic.
I've seen a lot of virtual complaints about how tough academics have been finding the pandemic. Yeah, it's not like it was pre-pandemic. For most profs with regular jobs and regular pay things have been disrupted, but not destroyed. The first shift to emergency remote teaching was tough for most of us. It was an adjustment. Then the year of teaching online all the time - that took making adjustments. No picnic, that's true. But I have a point of comparison in my household, a partner who is a public school teacher. It gives me pause when I start to list my complaints when I then think of the work that they are doing and the seriously significant difference in degree between their work load and my own as a university faculty member. To be honest, it is humbling.
My partner found themselves tossed into full remote online teaching of the standard high school course load (7 class of 30 students each) immediately after spring break last year. They didn't know this would be the case until some way through spring break (though the writing was on the wall, so to speak). Meanwhile, my two seminar classes were already moving toward the close and it only involved some modest modification plus the willingness to be magnanimous to my students. There just was no comparison between my situation and my partner's.
Like many people my age I have responsibilities for parents and offspring. Caring for one's adult parent comes with many complications. Things have worked well this past year for my father. I feel fortunate he is not a resident of a long term care facility as I seriously have doubts he would have survived the year. Our kids are old enough to look after themselves, but as my father says we still worry for them just the same.
Our household has been fortunate (economically) during this period. For that we are all grateful. There have of course been increased stressors in our lives, but they may well have been here pandemic or not. There are pandemic changes - perhaps the biggest have been on my partner with their work in a public high school. Next could be mine with my research and conference travel cancelled for a year. Our other two household members have had fewer pandemic changes - just the standard nowhere to go outside the house except work or household tasks or exercise.
One can't discount the prevalence of stress caused by uncertainty: this is something we all share. One of our biggest worries we have is, like everyone, becoming infected with the virus. Our biggest point of contact is my partner's worksite, which the government constantly tells us is safe. Yet, the notices of school-based exposures arrive on a regular basis. We worry that each cough or sniffle or slightly off feeling might be the onset of an infection. To our knowledge we have skirted the virus, but that doesn't settle our minds at all. The fact my 91 year old father is scheduled tomorrow to get his first vaccine reduces one source of worry, still the concerns lurk.
The passing of a year of pandemic hasn't really changed much existentially - we live, we grow older, things change, things stay the same. It has created a space where for some of us things have slowed down, kept us closer to home, opened up new opportunities to grow. For others the world has closed in on them making life harder to bear. I want to focus on the strengths that have grown and sprouted over this past year -it's a way to find one's way beyond the stressors.