The Pandemic Has Brought Out The Worst—But Also The Best

Compassion, kindness and community: there are lessons to carry forward from this unprecedented moment in time (none of which involve hoarding).

The Vancouver Coastal Health ER team holding signs encouraging people to stay home

The emergency department team at Vancouver Coastal Health. (Photo: Vancouver Coastal Health / Facebook)

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, every day–and its roller coaster news cycle—can feel like a week.

Just a few days ago, many people were hoping that they might still be able to travel for March Break. Now, Canadians abroad are scrambling to return home as quickly as possible, as our country shuts its borders to nearly everyone. Schools and daycares are closed around the country, and businesses are either shuttering for the time being or scrambling to set up virtual workspaces for their employees who are working from home.

Nobody knows how long this will last, but experts suggest it could be many months. Until then, this somewhat dystopian reality we’ve wound up in is our new normal. Empty streets. Full homes. Cluttered minds. And not only are there ever-worsening health and economic forecasts to digest, but some of humanity’s most disgusting, selfish behaviour is on display: Meet the guy who bought up thousands of bottles of hand sanitizer to sell at inflated prices on Amazon, or the toilet paper hoarders fighting each other in the aisles over something they can’t even eat.

This pandemic is absolutely bringing out the worst in some of us. But it’s also bringing out the best in many others. In our darkest times, the late Mister Rogers advised us to always “look for the helpers,” and the good news is, we don’t have to look too far. All around us, people are making personal sacrifices to get society through this. And if the rest of us follow their example, perhaps we can build something meaningful and long-lasting out of a challenging situation.

There are the obvious heroes, of course. Medical staff are readying themselves for what could be the healthcare crisis of the century. Retired doctors, nurses and nurse practitioners are coming out of retirement to assist. Also working long hours are those involved in supplying food and medicine to Canadian households, from farmers to factory workers, truckers to grocery store employees.

While many of us are practicing social distancing and self-isolation, there are countless workers who can’t: emergency responders, public transit and taxi drivers, energy sector workers, sanitation workers, airport staff and retail employees. Many are putting their own health or the health of loved ones on the line to keep our communities running. They, along with many other frontline workers, deserve our thanks and respect.

As an author who does a lot of in-person events, my calendar went from nearly full to completely barren within a week. Sadly, this is a common theme right now; artists of all kinds, from actors to writers to dancers, have had to cancel events for the foreseeable future – often at great financial cost. But that isn’t stopping many of them sharing their talents with the world. Musicians like Jann Arden and The Dropkick Murphys have hosted online performances to lift our spirits. Authors are uploading videos of book readings and doing live Q&A streams to keep our minds busy and our hearts full. If you can’t get to the event, the event is coming to you.

Many schools are closed, but lots of teachers are still working. Some are offering free videos so children can keep learning at home. It’s a chance to bring some fresh perspectives to your dining room table: On Facebook, a group of educators called Think Indigenous are teaching grade school lessons on storytelling, stress management, social studies and science free of charge.

Compassion is growing by the day. Grassroots fundraisers are popping up for those who’ve lost their jobs or are on the verge of losing their businesses. Gift certificates are being purchased at hair salons or restaurants to be used at a later date to keep entrepreneurs afloat. Pharmacies and groceries have implemented “seniors’ hours” so that the elderly, disabled, immunocompromised and other high-risk groups can shop more safely.

Everywhere we look, there are new suggestions for how we can support our fellow Canadians–because, as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has emphasized several times, we’re all in this together.

Perhaps this expanding goodwill is because of a shift in how we’re interacting. With so many people telecommuting from their living rooms and kitchen counters, we’re blurring the lines between work and home on a scale we haven’t seen before. Toddlers are running around in the background while multitasking parents video conference with coworkers, a pile of dishes in the sink. Nobody minds.

In fact, we seem to be relieved that the veil is finally lifting. This is what life is like–the messy human reality we can no longer leave behind when boarding the morning train to the office. This humanity is what will keep us connected during these unprecedented times.

When things were normal, many of us operated on autopilot–living, but perhaps not fully appreciating the lives we had. Now, as we stare down this crisis, we’re being forced to take stock of what’s important. We’re checking on neighbours and offering to pick up supplies for older relatives. We’re signing our emails “stay well” and “keep healthy,” which feels more meaningful than the usual “take care.” Instead of passing by neighbours on the sidewalk, we’re stopping to chat–from two metres away, of course. Community has never felt more important.

Social distancing requires finding creative ways to stay in touch with friends and loved ones. My own family has succeeded in taking a few walks–an unimaginable activity not long ago with three teenagers.  It’s one of the few things we can safely do outside the home, but it’s also a chance to build memories that will stay with us long after COVID-19 is gone. Our extended family is planning a virtual Easter meal, where we hang out via webcam at our respective dining room tables. I will never take another holiday meal for granted.

No one knows how long this virus will plague us. It’s a moving target, but it will, eventually, be under control. I hope that we take a few lessons from this moment in time with us, none of which involve hoarding.

As a society and as individuals, we have a responsibility to lift everyone up during this critical time. Our most vulnerable have become even more so. Those who are elderly, isolated or homeless, those who live with food scarcity, or are on fixed incomes, or have pre-existing health conditions–they all need our support more than ever. Let’s rise to the challenge.

We are more than the homes we live in and the job titles we hold. We are more than our political leanings and education we have. Who we are hinges on our willingness to be part of something bigger, rather than simply being in it for ourselves.

If you’re riding this pandemic out on a mountain of toilet paper, you are not a hero in this story. History will not remember you. We will remember those who showed kindness, who stuck their necks out, who chose to help in whatever way they could when we needed them to–whether on the frontlines of healthcare or by reading a children’s book on YouTube.

Look for the helpers. They’re everywhere. And if one of them is you, we thank you.