Book Excerpt: Field Notes From A Pandemic

Ethan Lou, Field Notes From A Pandemic: A Journey Through A World Suspended. Signal/McClelland & Stewart, an imprint of Penguin Random House Canada, 2020.

By: /
January 25, 2021
EthanLou-Field Notes from a Pandemic (DualPhoto)
Book cover courtesy of Penguin Random House, headshot by Ke Yan.

With my landing back in Canada, I sort of felt like those astronauts who had spent more than two hundred days on the International Space Station only to return to Earth amid the worst days of the pandemic. They—two Americans and one Russian—had of course heard what was going on back on Earth, but seeing it in person was another thing entirely. It must all have seemed so strange and otherworldly. It certainly did for me. My experience of the pandemic’s lockdown and disruption had happened only after I left home. Thus, in that base, instinctual part of my brain, it had been a foreign phenomenon. I did know on a rational level what was going on in Canada, what was closed, what was open, and the new dos and don’ts in society. But looking at it all from a distance had definitely been, in the words of one of the astronauts, “hard to understand.” Seeing everything in person made it no easier.

“My experience of the pandemic’s lockdown and disruption had happened only after I left home. Thus, in that base, instinctual part of my brain, it had been a foreign phenomenon.”

After a week back in Toronto, a federal employee called to make sure I was, in fact, self-isolating for the required two-week period. She mispronounced my name in an oddly specific way, an error likely due to misreading my handwriting on the form I filled out upon arrival. An email later sent to me, with my named spelled exactly as she had pronounced it, confirmed my theory. That suggested the form was not cross-checked with electronic data or the border agency’s records of who comes and goes. Maybe I could have written Michael Mouse and nobody would have been any the wiser. Anyway, I told the bureaucrat I was doing what I was told, which was the truth, and she was satisfied. She had been pulled off her normal duties to make these calls, she told me. During normal times, she had a different government job. I didn’t ask what that was.

By then, the world already had more than 4 million infected and at least 300,000 dead. In Canada, it was some 70,000 infected and 5,000 dead. It got particularly bad in seniors’ homes, whose residents are particularly vulnerable and where many live in confined environments. At one point, one third of the virus deaths in the United States were linked to nursing homes. In Canada, nearly four in five deaths were associated with long-term care facilities. It got so bad, soldiers were called in to reinforce some of the homes, where it became clear how terribly underfunded and understaffed they were. A military report leaked to media detailed horrific conditions: residents left in soiled diapers or left crying for help for long periods, and around them, cockroaches, flies, and rotten food. Medical supplies, including catheters, were reused, and “significant fecal contamination in numerous patient rooms” was found. Even in the higher-end ones, it was only a little better. In Montreal, an orderly at a long-term care centre wrote in her journal, published in a newspaper: “Ms. S, an 87-year-old patient, keeps saying how much she wants to die, how much she is tired of loneliness and confinement, how her loss of autonomy is driving her crazy and how she no longer feels a reason to live. She cries and asks for a hug.” Ms. S died a few days later. In the orderly’s journal, no cause was stated, but none was needed.

The news about the death toll and horrific conditions in long-term care facilities hit home for obvious reasons, but it turns out my grandparents in China were okay. The seniors’ residence they were in appears to have successfully locked down their environment, probably right after we walked out the front doors. The good news was that they had even started to allow visits again, although limited and only by appointment, and eventually my grandmother had what she called a “very fortunate” day. She would finally get to see my Beijing uncle; my aunt, his elder sister; and my aunt’s daughter again. “Lots of elderly still haven’t seen their family, but they still hope for it every day,” she would write in the family WeChat group. “They have to depend on the residence’s staff for everything because 90 per cent of them do not have mobile phones.”

My aunt posted a photo of my grandfather. He was little changed. Already ridden by both dementia and his failing body, he had been confined in the pandemic in a way that really wasn’t any different from before. I wondered if he knew the chaos that had sprung around him, the lives lost and changed, the lockdown that had descended and left, and the upheaval that had come and would come again. I’m sure my grandmother talked to him, and that he could hear the newscasts she played and the small talk of the orderlies around and see that every- one was in face masks. My grandfather may not understand or retain much of anything, but I’ve come to believe there is a baser, more resilient part of his brain that took in the raw emotions of all of that, the sombreness of the television, the tension in the voices everywhere, and the cold emptiness of the room. I like to think he could feel the weight of the darkness, that he recognized it on some level, and that, in his own way, he resisted it. His toothless mouth agape in an almost hairless head, my grandfather had thus far weathered the pandemic largely unaffected, stubbornly and soundlessly, raging against the fates and the fading breath.