Last week, I stood in a local corner market. I needed fruit. Years ago, when my son was in a daycare, I’d frequently stop at the same store as I pushed him home in his stroller. The store has changed little since then. The produce is in the same spots, as are the overpriced boxes of cereal and the foreign cookies. The same woman works the till.
But the casual foot traffic has given way to more focused routes. The sweet treats are ignored now for more basic, necessary forms of sustenance. No kids are buying gum or soda. There are no babies in strollers. The woman behind the counter is now masked and gloved and works in total silence — the same person, just without personality. Above her head on the window is a hand-written sign on a strip of flower wrapping paper: “Social distancing! Stay strong! Stay safe!”
The virus did this — elevated the store’s purpose, but drained its spirit.
“Thank you for staying open,” a young woman ahead of me buying produce said to the cashier.
The cashier said nothing. Her silence sounded to me like resignation. Probably she welcomed the thank-you, but just as probably staying open wasn’t a choice. Maybe she wonders when the time will come when the thanks is no longer necessary. When operating a corner store is no longer a vital public service, when she’s not on the front lines of a crisis. She’s probably exhausted.
If so, she’s not alone.
Already — and increasingly — patience with the virus, and the lifestyle it has forced us to adopt, is running out. What began as a stunned but collective agreement to ensure mutual health and safety has shifted, and the airing of grievances has grown louder. It takes a lot to ask an entire society to not only change its ways, but to effectively halt them, on a dime — but it’s possible. It’s maintaining that’s the challenge. At first, we embraced our new shared purpose, but now our spirits are drained.
Video surfaces on my news feed as I scroll it idly in the waning hours of the day, absorbing the darkness. This clip is Dr. Phil: “45,000 people a year die from automobile accidents. 480,000 from cigarettes. 360,000 from swimming pools. But we don’t shut the country down for that.” This one is Dr. Oz: “The opening of schools may only cost us two-to-three percent in terms of total mortality.” This one is a protest against social distancing in Michigan. “You can’t buy paint. You can’t buy lawn fertilizer or grass seed or whatever,” a man complains. “It’s time for our state to be opened up! We’re tired of not being able to buy the things that we need, go to the hairdressers, get our hair done — “ a woman, holding a sign that says ‘Land of the Free’, explains as the video cuts.
Visiting the corner store. Buying fertilizer. Going to school. Smoking a cigarette. Driving a car. Getting your hair did. Drowning in a pool. These are — were — our freedoms, I guess.
Or maybe it’s simpler than that. Maybe these are just a handful of familiar things, the totems we grasp that tell us we’re still in reality, even if it feels like a nightmare. These are things we know, a list we cling to more and more the smaller it feels like it’s getting.
Because, all the while, the list of other things — the ones we don’t know — grows without ceasing. We can only guess. A lockdown until May? Or June? Or July? Physical distance until maybe 2022? We might solve this thing with a vaccine. Or maybe herd immunity? Or an existing drug? Or a different existing drug? Or maybe we just won’t? And we’ll probably have to test more people. We will have to trace them. Will we have to take a blood test? And how far are we already into this? How far do we still have to go? We just don’t really know. We didn’t plan for this. There still is no plan.
Maybe the backlash was inevitable, a predictable byproduct of being bored and overwhelmed, or at least bored with being overwhelmed. Yet, just as the virus has made our personal and societal direction unclear, similarly, our anger seems to not know where it’s going or where it should be pointed. Big government. Little government. Foreigners. Spring Breakers. Boomers. Neighbours. Joggers. Tech companies. Cell phone towers. China.
It feels like everything is worthy of our grievances, when really it’s likely that we’re mad about just one — the thing that is now all things: the virus.
We’re angry that the virus has arrived, has taken up residence here in our lives, squeezed itself into our brains, inserted itself into every conversation, and that it not only stands between each one of us but has evicted us from the spaces we once shared because it owns them now. And that it’s killing us.
But we can’t be angry at the virus itself, because it doesn’t care and it won’t listen and it can’t change. And maybe part of our anger is that we know we have little choice but to accommodate it for the duration — just like any good host.