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illustration by Hanna Barczyk

Over the past two years, I’ve been reasonably cautious, or maybe cautiously reasonable. On the scale of “woman who hasn’t left her apartment since March, 2020″ and “Québécois influencer doing shots on the way to Cancun” I’d probably fall comfortably in the middle.

In the end, it didn’t matter because the virus found me and my family anyway. There seems to be a fatalistic attitude that COVID is coming for everyone, and “we’re all going to get it one day” has replaced “you’re on mute” as the least welcome phrase of the pandemic. I’ve said it myself many times. But this fatalism is dangerous on a societal level. Even if the virus is mild – as it was in my case – there could be enough very sick people to crash the already-toppling Jenga tower of our health care system. Don’t let your guard down now.

As I write this, my period of self-isolation is coming to an end. I haven’t lost my sense of smell, and certainly not vision. In fact, some things seem clearer now than ever.

We are not all in this together: I suspected this right from the start, as the wealthy fled stricken cities for their yachts and summer palaces with their humidors clutched under their arms. One set of rules for the rulers, and one for the toilers. These divisions seem starker than ever, and likely to widen.

For example, the only reason our household even knew we had the virus is because we had spent $80 on a package of five rapid tests before Christmas. (One of our children also had a box of tests provided by the high school.) Rapid tests are in extremely short supply in the province of Ontario, though the federal government is supposed to be distributing 140 million throughout the country this month.

Ontario gave out some free rapid tests before Christmas, but they quickly vanished, snapped up by those who could wait in line for hours. Either you had the time to wait for a free box, or the cash to pay for rapid tests or for the more sensitive PCR tests (which were running around $150-$350 and were not meant to be used by the symptomatic anyway). If you didn’t have these resources, you were left alone to play 2022′s freshest parlour game, Guess the Symptoms.

Unfortunately, nurses can’t live on praise alone

Health care was dangerous even before the anti-vaxxers arrived

A friend in the U.K. posted a picture of her positive result, and I asked where she’d got the test. It turned out they were being handed out for free on the streets of London a few weeks before Christmas, and she’d snapped up a few. In other parts of Europe, you can easily get tested for free.

Meanwhile, I was watching Ontario’s government continue to behave like a soap-opera character with short-term memory loss. It’s as if our political leadership wakes up every day and says, “Oh sorry – are we in the midst of a global pandemic?” I’m not sure how else to explain its many failures, most recently to adequately protect students and teachers (by prioritizing teachers for booster vaccines, for example.) As a result, kids in Ontario are back to the delights of online schooling.

I’m writing this from home, because my job provides that security and flexibility. Not everyone has that luxury. The province had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, to even provide a few measly sick days for essential workers. At the beginning of the pandemic, I was hopeful there would be sweeping changes to the ways we viewed the most vulnerable, and workers who are the most valuable. It looks like my free box of tests will arrive first.

There’s no shame in illness: A year ago, when the virus was at its most terrifying, there was a misplaced sense of moral failing attached to those who contracted it, as though they’d done something wrong. There was a weird Stasi-like atmosphere where everyone’s choices were scrutinized: Were you an inadequate hand-washer? A secret dinner-party attender?

Those judgments have faded somewhat, but still I felt the need to tell everyone that I’d contracted the virus while being triple-jabbed and masked like a guest at the Capulets’ ball. This is ridiculous. What we’re experiencing is no longer a failure of individual actions, but one of societal dysfunction. Except for those who refuse to be vaccinated, who should go right ahead and feel ashamed.

Your people will save you: I thought I’d report my virus to the COVID app on my phone (which, by the way, has not sent one alert since I downloaded it). But the app threw up its metaphorical digital hands in surrender. It did not want to hear from me if I had no positive-test code to feed it. I had ceased to exist.

I was on my own – except I wasn’t. Every day, people dropped off things on my porch – chips, homemade bread, sweets. Friends I’d brought soup to when they were sick brought offerings of their own. Other people were willing to give up their precious rapid tests, or asked if I needed anything from the pharmacy. I had my family around me, which felt both like a blessing and a curse until I heard my son say one day: “I feel bad for people living on their own.”

As he noted, we’ve been lucky. Being vaccinated saved us from serious illness (at least so far). And I haven’t been alone. Other people can’t say the same, and they’re struggling emotionally and physically. That would be my main lesson: Reaching out can make all the difference.

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