Kelly Grant is a national health reporter at The Globe and Mail.
Once upon a time, in a pre-pandemic past I barely remember, I made resolutions every January.
Oftentimes, they were less resolutions than plans. Plans to travel. Plans to try one new thing every month with my sons. Plans to volunteer more. Like a lot of A-type women, planning is how I cope. It lets me trick myself into thinking I have control over my life.
There’s nothing like a pandemic to shatter that pleasant fiction. I am not in control and neither are you. The virus rules all our lives now – even if, like my family, you recently spent 20 days in isolation, recovered from Omicron and are unlikely to be infected again any time soon.
So if we can’t plan, how do we cope? I’ve settled on a philosophy that has (mostly) kept me sane. I plan, but on the shortest timeline possible. And every plan has to be easy and cheap to cancel.
I think that means this godforsaken virus has forced me to live more in the moment.
As a health reporter for The Globe and Mail, I covered the virus non-stop for the first 18 months of the pandemic. I interviewed every expert and frontline health worker kind enough to make time for me. I cried with people who had lost parents, grandparents, partners and friends to COVID-19.
Because I had seen up close what the virus could do, I took seriously the public-health rules that were supposed to control it. My husband, three sons and I didn’t see anyone indoors until my husband and I were two weeks past our second doses of the vaccine.
We still wrestled in the summer and fall with what to do with our boys, who at 10, 8 and 6 were too young to be vaccinated. I wondered if we shouldn’t keep our family semi-locked down just a little longer, despite the damage it was doing to our boys.
We decided against that for reasons that came from a place of deep pessimism about the trajectory of the pandemic. Every expert I interviewed told me that if the virus was allowed to keep spreading unchecked anywhere in the world, new variants would arise, some of them dangerous.
Although I started a new reporting assignment in the fall and haven’t been as steeped in daily COVID-19 news, I had already internalized the idea that, while COVID-19 would eventually recede, we had years of pandemic living ahead of us.
We didn’t want to squander the golden time between waves. As long as case counts in Toronto stayed low, we decided to let our boys live something approximating a normal life, with sleepovers and sports and hugs from double-vaccinated grandparents. It made sense to me because I didn’t believe the low-risk times would last.
Sure enough, on the day my sons received their first doses of the vaccine, reports of the variant that would be named Omicron began metastasizing across my Twitter feed.
Twenty days later, as the kids and I were sitting down for dinner on Dec. 15, my husband appeared at the top of the stairs in a mask. I knew right away what it meant. There was an outbreak in his fully vaccinated men’s hockey league and he was sick. We soon learned he was positive for a case of COVID-19 caused by the Omicron variant.
We snapped into action, messaging everyone in our orbit. The boys’ teachers. The WhatsApp chat groups for their classes. The four minor hockey teams my husband coaches. Our case forced dozens of families into 10 days of quarantine. I felt sick about the disruption we caused.
But soon a sensation I didn’t expect settled into my chest. I was relieved. I felt like I could finally set down the stack of plates I had been spinning for two years. Although we tried to isolate from my husband, I figured we would all be infected. Then it would be over. Giving in felt cathartic, like letting a wave wash over me after trying to hold back the sea with my bare hands.
The truth is, I had long believed that the public-health measures imposed to control COVID-19 – particularly school closures – were likelier than the virus itself to hurt our family. We are fortunate to be healthy. We trusted the vaccines would protect us from serious illness and death.
But following the rules was never about us. It was always about trying to prevent the virus from reaching the unvaccinated or elderly or immunocompromised. It was about slowing the spread to essential workers who, unlike us, didn’t have the privilege of working from home. It was about doing our part to keep hospitals from being overwhelmed.
We could accept risks for ourselves, but it felt wrong to impose them on others. That was the conundrum, the trap, of COVID-19.
Now here was a way out. If we all got sick while in quarantine, we could re-emerge knowing that our very breath wouldn’t make strangers deathly ill – at least until the next variant came along.
So we hunkered down. For the first week, the rest of us stayed negative. Then, on Christmas Eve – the 10th and final day of my husband’s isolation period – we got the results of our 6-year-old’s second PCR test. He was positive.
The rest of our results rolled in on Christmas Day. Our eldest was positive. It would be another week before my middle son tested positive. All three were completely asymptomatic.
As for me, I never tested positive, despite having symptoms shortly after my husband tested positive. Eventually, a physician deemed me a presumed positive, saying it was more likely the tests had missed my infection than it was that Omicron had passed me by.
I have no idea what to make of this. Maybe my two doses of vaccine protected me. Maybe my asymptomatic sons were particularly inefficient vectors. The doctor who declared me a presumed positive is probably right. I don’t know. I only know it makes me feel humbled, like we still know less about this virus than we care to admit.
So where does this leave me now, at the dawn of our third pandemic year? Because I’m not certain I was infected, I still don’t feel like I can reliably make plans of any kind.
On the other hand, it is a relief to know that my husband and sons are able to go out into the world again without having to worry much about infecting others, at least in the short term.
Since I can’t make plans, I’ll have to settle for resolutions. No matter what the virus does, I can resolve to be grateful for our healthy boys, for the kindness of friends who helped us during quarantine, for the unwavering dedication of Canada’s health care workers.
I can cope by resolving to live well in the moment. COVID-19 leaves us no other choice.
What else we’re thinking about:
One traditional resolution I have decided to make this year is to read more fiction. Reading is one pleasure COVID-19 can’t take from us. The last thing I thought I’d want to read about right now is the pandemic, but the Soviet-born novelist and satirist Gary Shteyngart proved me wrong with his new book, Our Country Friends. Set in the early months of the pandemic, the book revolves around a group of old friends who hunker down together at the country property of a failing Russian writer. Don’t be put off by the COVID-19 backdrop. I can’t remember the last time a book me laugh and cry so much, and in equal measure.
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