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COVID is not exactly lovelier, the second time around; it is, however, a new chapter in the ever-expanding Annals of Human Life During COVID, writes Ian Brown.Illustration by Salini Perera

So, like 12,000 other Canadians in the past fortnight, and like many, many more in the fortnights ahead, I caught COVID again.

My last bout was with the Delta variant, in December. Then, about a month ago, four days after attending a wedding without a mask – the first public event I had attended without a mask in about two years – I noticed a sharp sting in my throat when I swallowed.

I tested negative, but stayed home from work. The next morning, my prefrontal cortex felt as if it was being gently overinflated with an inert gas while my chest seemed to have been inhabited by a family of small claustrophobic raccoons. These effects were punctuated by spritzes of perspiration so intense I thought I might be going through menopause.

But I was still testing negative. My spirits rose eagerly; it was just a cold. My wife and I conducted our rapid tests together outdoors, sharing the rectangular tube rack on the picnic table in our backyard. It gave the procedure a jaunty, al fresco feel as I jammed the wands into my sino-orbital cavities.

Twelve hours later, I began to feel better. My chest reopened, the schvitzing abated. My throat felt a little less like a runnel for diluted hydrochloric acid. Of course it was then that I tested positive. This is the counterintuitive way of COVID.

Thus began another bout of isolation in our basement apartment. A week of privacy: I can’t say I was entirely displeased. I imported a few shirts and some books and some yogurt. A handful of plums. My wife cooked my meals and left them on the back steps. This is now standard operating procedure at our place in the event of infection.

Omicron variant BA.5 has gained the upper hand all over the world: Cases have tripled in Europe, where hospitalizations are doubling, and numbers in North America appear to be peaking. By now, however, for most of us, a stint of isolation is no more unusual than taking the car to the dealer to see about that rattling noise.

What Canadians need to know about COVID right now, from BA.5 to boosters

COVID is not exactly lovelier, the second time around; it is, however, a new chapter in the ever-expanding Annals of Human Life During COVID. I am happy to contribute this entry. I am 68, twice-vaccinated and double-boosted, “maximally protected,” as Joe Biden’s doctor described the COVID-beset President the other day.

My first go-round, with the remnants of the Delta variant last December, I barely noticed a symptom. This time, my symptoms a) were symptoms, b) abated more slowly, and c) returned in brief microbursts, in two minute blasts, until they finally subsided altogether. Vaccinations saved me from being seriously ill or in hospital. The main battleground in this brand-new reinfective stage is here at home, or wherever you plan to pass your forced confinement.

Some general observations: COVID redux feels more pro forma than the original hit, as if it were an afterthought or had suddenly become a freelance experience. The vast anti-COVID machine – the omnipresent health and government agencies that urged us to get tested and report our results and track our contacts and stay inside and wear a mask and get vaccinated and boosted – is no longer anywhere in sight.

Andrew Morris, a doctor I know who studies infectious diseases at the University of Toronto and sits on Ontario’s Science Table advisory board – itself on hiatus these days, in part to prevent its members from exhausting themselves – wonders whether this is the right way to approach a pandemic that is nowhere near over.

“For good or bad,” Dr. Morris said the other day on the telephone, “mostly bad, but not all bad, governments around the world, especially in OECD countries, have said they’re not going to follow this disease closely any more. It’s not good for the economy, it’s not good for the mental health of the public. And it’s very costly to do. And it’s disruptive. And so, because of that, they’re all saying, let’s back off.”

We’re on our own this time around.

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The instructions on the Toronto and the Ontario COVID information sites told me to isolate for five days. After five days I still had a sore throat. On Day 6, I tested positive again.

I called my doctor. His name is Abe. He is an excellent doctor, a deft diagnostician, decisive without being a panicker.

Still, he said right off the bat, “five days is a bit lax for isolating.”

“That’s what the rules say on the city COVID website!” I said, slightly defensively. It isn’t my fault that the government’s rules are inadequate, but that doesn’t make you feel any less guilty for not wanting to follow them. That – and this may be a personal glitch – is another feature of repeat COVID: You can barely bring yourself to obey the guidelines.

“Yeah, it’s a compromise offered to the business community, to keep the economy going,” Abe said. “I think seven days is safer.” He recommended I isolate for seven days, and wear a mask non-stop until the end of Day 10. Grocery stores were okay with a mask on; dinner parties were not. “Twenty per cent of patients still test positive on Day 10, but you’re unlikely to be shedding after Day 7.”

(His scorn for the five-day isolation rule is widespread among medical professionals. “A better strategy,” Dr. Morris said, “would be to have two negative rapid antigen tests, or a negative PCR test, or end it at 10 days. I think a majority of people who understand the data would agree.”)

Still, the crisp clarity of my doctor’s instructions felt like a godsend. Therapeutic treatments have improved, and better vaccines that protect us from both infection and transmission alike are reportedly on their way this fall.

But the habits of two years of pandemic life are hard to shrug off. There is new evidence to suggest that new variants will reinfect us more often, and evidence to suggest symptoms will get milder with each reinfection. There is also evidence to suggest that is not the case among older men over 60, who may get sicker.

There is, for everyone, the slim but lingering statistical possibility that you will be unlucky this time, that this could be a bad bout, that you might be more compromised than you were the previous time you had it. The fatigue caused by the new variant – a universal symptom, to judge by the reports of everyone I spoke to who has had it – is already legendary: a deep and instant tiredness that, when it came on, I was powerless to resist, that insisted I put my book down right now. The power naps that followed were like spells cast by an evil queen.

Dr. Morris said he believes fatigue may be a symptom of long COVID; on the other hand, it may simply be part of what he refers to as “the postinfectious condition.” Some studies suggest long COVID nabs 20 per cent of people who contract the virus.

Whether long COVID will afflict you is one mystery; how it will afflict you if it afflicts you, in what special, individual way, is another. Will you be one of the unlucky people who experience it as a chronic meningitis-like headache? As a recurring intestinal civil war? And will that be long COVID, or simply the usual aftermath of a viral infection? Doctors still can’t say for sure.

This is because while the pandemic is abating, our grasp of the virus’s everyday reach is loosening. “There are very few cases that are ending up in the ICU,” Dr. Morris told me. “But we’re seeing a lot more people who are the walking wounded: they’re not sick enough for a hospital, but they’re sick. We just don’t know how many people are really feeling crappy. For instance, everyone knows that we have this massive labour shortage in multiple industries, but nobody really knows how much of that is contributed to by COVID-related illness.”

Even a mild bout of COVID is an existential challenge. Plans have to change if you catch it; the future wobbles, is harder to pin down. Recrimination follows infection: Where did you make your mistake, drop the ball, forget your mask? Susan Sontag objected to using illness as a metaphor, to describing tuberculosis as the defining illness of the 19th century and cancer as the emblematic disease of the 20th.

Still, I wonder, as I sit here in my basement, doing my time, serving my sentence: What would she have made of COVID, the disease we marshalled an entire medical bureaucracy to defeat, but which is still pushing us around, proving how little we actually control our own lives? COVID reminds you to be humble, even the second time around.

The main problem with having to isolate indoors with less alarming symptoms is that there is little to do but read, which inevitably leads to inhaling nonstop news “updates” on the internet, which, I submit, is more debilitating than COVID.

The bad news during the fifth wave has been non-stop: disease (monkeypox), supply chains, heat waves, famine, fires, drought, assassinations, the cruel grind of war in Ukraine, mass shootings, plunging markets, stubborn inflation, incipient recession, endless furious culture wars (Roe, guns, God, the freedom convoy), the amoral stupidity of the right (Jan. 6!) and the cannibalistic shrillness of the left (the New York Times ran multiple stories in a 24-hour stretch about Mr. Biden’s age, despite the fact that Old Frail Joe has led his country through an unprecedented medical crisis and the most challenging economic circumstances in half a century, all while stick-handling war in Europe and an obstructive Congress).

The media – there are no exceptions – have pitched and shilled this frightening fare like hustlers selling ice lollies out of a shoulder cooler on a blistering day at the beach. It’s hard to know what to be more upset by: the cracked world, or the algorithms pushing the cracks at the addicts who can’t help but dive down into them.

To kill time and break my screen addiction, I turned to reading books. I mean the bound, non-electrified physical gadget. The most fetching feature of the physical book is that it isn’t connected to Bluetooth or the internet or any other array of information beyond the “content” between its covers. It’s just you and the writer’s words in the room, alone together at last. A book does not deliver updates. It is the enemy of the update.

The first book I started reading in the basement was Ian McEwan’s as yet unpublished novel Lessons, the story of a boy who grows up to be a man. It is full of excellent and sometimes very sad sentences. “Against his chest he felt the baby’s heartbeat,” Mr. McEwan writes at one point. “Just under twice the rate of his own. Their pulses fell in and out of phase, but one day they would be always out. They would never be this close. He would know him less well then even less.”

I find this observation as gripping as, say, the hebephrenically repeated internet update that inflation is back. Call me sentimental. The difference between the two stories is that the inflation update, like all updates, implies fault. Inflation is up because someone – a central banker or the prime minister or someone associated with him – did something terribly wrong.

Never mind that no one understands precisely how or why inflation starts, or that inflation currently afflicts the entire world to varying degrees: the blame must fall somewhere, and the culprit will be outed. Or as my late mother-in-law used to say, “It has to be somebody’s fault, and it isn’t mine.” The scolding motto of our judgy time. Whereas Mr. McEwan is simply stating an undebatable fact of life, with no single perpetrator: Our closest human connections are always fading, tragically disappearing in the rear-view mirror.

Admittedly, between long stretches of McEwan, I watched a little YouTube, which is how I discovered the log-love video of Pierre Poilievre, the front-runner in the contest to lead the Conservative Party of Canada. It is four and a bit minutes long and consists of Mr. Poilievre stroking the hand-hewn wooden beams in his house (recovered from an old barn) and rhapsodizing about how loggers long ago freed the beams from the logs they cut down.

“Look at these scars,” he says. “Each one of them represents the swing of an axe.” No policy, no numbers, nothing to be debated or refuted. Just wood, proffered as proof of authenticity. Alex Marland, a political scientist at Memorial University in Newfoundland, told me the other day that Justin Trudeau made similar ground-breaking character reels in 2015, when he was the outsider trying to unseat Stephen Harper.

“He’s really storytelling,” Mr. Marland said. The video is a capable piece of political propaganda, intended to appeal to “old-stock, first-growth” Canadians (though not Indigenous peoples, who aren’t mentioned at all). “Society has changed too quickly for a lot of people,” Mr. Marland said, and those people are the base Mr. Poilievre’s videos seek to reach.

“What I’m doing, what all of us do when we bring these boards into our house,” Mr. Poilievre coos, “is we are reclaiming something that was already there. That’s what my campaign is about. … It’s about reclaiming the freedom that is our natural right.”

As the video ended, I happened to look across our tiny basement kitchen and spotted Benjamin Hett’s The Death of Democracy: Hitler’s Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic. My mind can’t help but make the comparison, exaggerated as it may be. “The cynical dishonesty of the Nazis’ propaganda,” Mr. Hett writes, “received a significant boost from the cult of irrationality that drove their followers: the contempt for, indeed the revolution against, enlightenment standards of rationality.”

It’s surprising how philosophical you can get, calmly awaiting the ebbing of the virus on repeat. By the time my isolation ended, I was spending an hour a day gazing at the astonishing images being transmitted 1.5 million kilometres back to Earth by the James Webb telescope.

I read that astrophysicists were bursting into tears when they saw the first pictures, which in turn made me cry. The telescope has already revealed 10 times as many galaxies as we thought existed. The achievement feels so gigantically big and important, so mysteriously enlargening.

Like everyone else, I stared into the photographs and thought what everyone else was thinking at the same time, as if some Great Consciousness – whatever or whoever they are – had decided to reply all, just to, you know, update us. The questions were, how the hell did it (and thus we) begin? What made that Big Bang happen? What was there before the explosion? And how did that stuff get there? What set it off? The questions never end, and it’s no one’s fault, which is why we can handle having no answer.

I am grateful to be over COVID, again. I don’t want it to come back, for fear the next time is worse. But I will miss the chance to sit in the cool understory of our basement, forced to do nothing but wonder, struck dumb with awe, at the unlikely miracle of being here.

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