A few months ago, I started to feel uneasy living on my own. While I’m not a very public journalist, as a Muslim woman alive in the world daring to have opinions, I get my share of threats. One particular situation I faced late last year led to nightmares of break-ins and a heightened awareness that anyone on the sidewalk could see into my main-floor apartment in a duplex in Toronto’s west end. So I jumped at the chance to rent a friend’s loft in a secure condo building when she decided to shack up with her partner, and just over two weeks ago, I made the move.
Condos feel safe to me. And to many others. To not be at the whim of a landlord who lives upstairs or exposed to every passerby at street level. They’re concrete fortresses that grant security through fobs and buzzer codes, and official-looking men at front desks. The long hallways of identical doorways, replicated floor after floor, provide a blanket of anonymity that gives me comfort.
A lot has changed in two weeks. Amid escalating panic about a virus we didn’t even have a proper name for two months ago, I found out Monday morning a resident in my building tested positive for COVID-19. The condo board sent out an email assuring the rest of us that the case was mild (as if that stops it from spreading), extra cleaning was being done, and the resident will continue to isolate until they are medically cleared to join society again. Living in a building with a bunch of strangers all of a sudden didn’t seem so safe.
I’m a lifelong, anxiety-ridden hypochondriac. But when COVID-19 literally landed at my doorstep, ending a seven-day period that started with chatter about working from home and ended with border closures, it prompted relief instead of triggering a spiral.
For weeks, I’d been weighing hypotheticals about how to deal with the risk of contracting coronavirus when it found its way to Canada — not because I was worried about my own health, but because of the vulnerable people in my life (and not in my life) its spread endangers. I teach at a college and am at two campuses every week, would I contract it there? I live very downtown, surely the virus must already be hanging out at my favourite coffee shop. What if I was a carrier with no symptoms (like Idris!) and passed it on to someone elderly or immunocompromised, like my parents?
My mind whirred in a constant cycle of “what-ifs” because I had to make so many decisions based on incomplete information. On Sunday, I made the hard choice not to pick up my 74-year-old dad from the airport on his way home from Karachi because I’d been feeling the teeniest bit off with aches and a runny nose for a few days. I felt terrible about it — I hadn’t seen him since the beginning of February. Dad called when he landed thinking he’d see me at home, and I had to tell him I wasn’t sure when we’d see each other again.
Then on Monday, the note about the case in my building came, confirming I’d made the right choice. It gave me the sense of certainty I needed to not be totally paralyzed by decision-making. It made taking precautions, like cancelling a Canadian Journalists of Colour networking event that was supposed to happen this week, clear-cut. It also made communicating the motivation behind my actions much easier for those who might think I'm being way too cautious (something I’m accused of often as someone with anxiety).
I don’t have to worry about making certain decisions anymore — I just have to stay home. I can’t see my parents. I can’t go to campus to grab papers I’ve left behind. I can’t have the dude who came to install a new dishwasher on Friday come finish the job. I also don’t have to worry about whether I’ve been exposed to COVID-19 after hearing him wheeze for an hour as he worked, muttering to himself that he should have stayed in bed that morning — I just assume I’ve been exposed now.
While anxiety seems like an unexpected superpower in these times — you know, plotting out every worst-case scenario — everyone is forced to imagine how quickly things might change in a week, or even a day. A photographer friend was supposed to shoot a wedding in Jamaica, leaving for four days on Monday. By Saturday, after Justin Trudeau’s directive to avoid non-essential travel, she still hadn’t cancelled on the couple, who seemed resolute to go forward with their plans. I told her the borders would likely close soon, but she struggled to make a decision — she’d feel guilty for bailing and she’d take a financial hit. Once I saw Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne tweet that Canadians abroad should come home via commercial flights “while they remain available,” I knew it would make the decision for her — clear directives from the government are harder to ignore. And for those unconvinced, Trudeau repeated that message Monday, underlining it with an appropriately dramatic pause, looking straight into the camera to deliver some stern dad-talk: “Let me be clear — if you're abroad, it's time to come home.”
I never thought I’d be comforted by anything Doug Ford could offer up, but hearing the Ontario Premier declare a state of emergency Tuesday morning was an immense relief. I’m heartbroken for business owners impacted by the pandemic, but grateful we have public officials who recognize we must shut down social gatherings, bars, and restaurants to protect those who will be most impacted by COVID-19.
Certainty helps. Hard and fast rules help make the big decisions about staying in the country and help you focus on all the other choices you have to make because every day there are new problems to be solved, new questions to be answered. A friend who also lives alone came to have dinner with me the other night. Is it okay for us to keep seeing each other every few days if we are both staying home otherwise? When do I start the two-week clock to actual freedom? (Presumably when my neighbour with the virus has been cleared, but will I be informed?) Can I still go out to grab groceries? Is it ethical to order delivery into my building? These are not urgent enough dilemmas to clog already overwhelmed public health hotlines but when I’m stuck, I just ask myself this: How would I act knowing I’m carrying COVID-19? The answer much of the time is the same: Stay home.
There’s one more thing I’m certain about — that this is temporary. That I will once again feel the same sense of safety at home that I did when I moved in two weeks ago. That I will be able to leave the house one day without asking myself 15 times whether it’s absolutely necessary. That as long as we — at the very least — stay home, we will get through this.
COVID-19 has been declared a global pandemic. Go to the Public Health Agency of Canada website for the latest information on symptoms, prevention, and other resources.