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I’m blessed with a big, warm group of cousins on my mother’s side of the family. A bunch of us got together last week, online of course. Their smiling faces popped onto my computer screen from Hamilton, Victoria, New Zealand and various places in downtown Toronto.

One by one, we shared stories about life under the Big Lockdown. How we had watched the world grind to a sudden stop and our work change or dry up. How the days at home seem to race by despite all the anticipated free time. How teenagers and their middle-aged parents are going squirrelly after days indoors. In one household, the family dog is exhausted from being taken on so many walks.

A Toronto cousin, who is a skilled amateur magician, pulled out his ever-ready pack of cards and showed us a mind-bending trick. I demonstrated the clumsy sterile mask that I fashioned out of parchment paper from the kitchen drawer. The New Zealand cousin, a drama teacher, sang Happy Birthday to my brother. His birthday was the next day but, given she was many time zones ahead and already in our tomorrow, it fell to her to do the honours. We signed off with cheerful waves, agreeing that we must do it again.

This is a dark time, the most unsettling many of us have ever experienced. Those lucky enough to have networks of friends and family are finding comfort in a new kind of togetherness. All over the country – all over the world – people are checking in on those who matter to them.

Neighbours are asking neighbours whether they need anything. Friends are reconnecting through social media, e-mail, text, video and even that almost-abandoned medium: the telephone conversation. Office colleagues are getting a look at each others’ kitchens, cats and kids. In the face of our physical isolation, we are discovering ways to connect. Paradoxically, physical distancing is bringing us closer.

We are all craving the balm of human contact right now. The marvellous technologies at our command make it easier than ever to get it. Some people have moved their book clubs and exercise classes online. Some are playing virtual poker or scrabble. Others are watching movies together as if they are in the same room, although they may be in different parts of the city or even the world. Still others are sharing funny memes and favourite songs.

Since my wife and I scuttled back home after a truncated overseas vacation, we’ve been in touch with friends and relatives, from Vancouver to Ottawa to Honolulu, on all manner of platforms. Our terrific neighbours were in touch to offer help as soon as we got back. One of them brought us a stash of paper towels and a couple of bottles of wine, while another dropped off a box of spring flowers. Friends called in on Zoom to make sure we got through all right. Our daughter’s pals came by to say hello to her at a safe distance. We shouted down greetings from our isolation zone on the upper floors of our house, like Rapunzel from her tower.

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When I called my best friend in Calgary, he was tinkering with his vintage car in the garage. Another friend in Toronto was bringing meals to her daughter in her room, where she was confined with a confirmed, but not serious, case of COVID-19. Another was fretting about his aged parents, who are struggling to get medical treatment in the strained health system. My aunt, living alone across town, said she was getting by with the help of her pals, who were bringing her food and necessities.

Catching up on their news was great. We are all wondering how the people in our lives are faring. Many calls these days begin with a simple, “Are you all right?” But it also feels good just to hear their voices, and see their faces.

We are learning many lessons from this crisis: the importance of good leadership and the danger of bad; the importance of international co-operation – so lacking in recent years – on global problems; the importance of strong, well-funded public-health systems. Perhaps most vital of all, we are learning the importance of human connection. To beat the virus, we need to stay apart; but to pull through the crisis, we need to hold each other close.

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