Christina Colizza is a NYC-based writer and an editor at Wirecutter.
Ten years ago this week, delegates from students newspapers across the country descended on the Harbour Towers Hotel in Victoria. They had all gathered in this scenic corner of Vancouver Island for the annual Canadian University Press (CUP) conference, nicknamed NASH, and for the more careerist, hashtagged #NASH74. They packed into elevators with their hand-me-down luggage, sizing up the competition: who would clean up at the Johnnies? (The John H. McDonald Awards for Excellence in Student Journalism). Who should I make-out with at the post-conference dance party? My McGill Daily colleagues and I breezed right in, fancying ourselves the New Yorker editors of the bunch. It would be many days until we breathed fresh air again.
I remember little from the conference itself: feeling shy to introduce myself to Anna Maria Tremonti after her keynote, shame when a cute guy from the Daily’s francophone sister paper, Le Délit, motioned that I still had scalloped potato on my face from the buffet dinner (this part is important). The real joy was not the schmoozing, but the peer-run sessions where we could nervously workshop story ideas, or commiserate on whether we would ever “make it” in journalism: We were all in this together.
And with the flick of a slotted spoon, we were left to fend for ourselves. What would turn out to be the brutal Norwalk virus, a gastrointestinal nightmare borne presumably on said scalloped potatoes, began to ravage the conference. The school bus driver, taking us to the final dance, promptly turned around at the sight of young girls in tube skirts, puking, in their parlance, their “literal brains out.” Re-entering the Harbour Towers was like a scene from The Hot Zone. “Droplet-based” was not common vernacular then, but I’ll spare you the chunky details. I had to use my elbow to push the elevator button.
The series of firsts that followed feel like a prophecy. Dozens of students, now prominent journalists who cover COVID for publications like The Globe and Mail, went looking for answers from those in charge. But there was no evening pandemic broadcast, just Gatorade and Tylenol bottles left outside hotel doors after a day or so. I experienced the closest thing possible to an exorcism, and then, I am told by my unlucky roommate, slept “the sleep of a thousand sleeps.” In the interim, unafflicted students fled to exclusive “healthy rooms,” to book early flights home, or carry on with their academic deadlines. The privileges of remote work.
Public-health workers in hazmat suits eventually arrived and told us we had entered a “voluntary quarantine.” The 3-star Harbour Towers became our Hotel California. We could check out any time we’d like, but we could never leave. So, student journalists found their escape where they could: Twitter. The #NASH74 hashtag morphed into #barfipelago, a play on the weekend’s “archipelago” theme. Hysteria begot misinformation, and the story gained national attention. A CBC report from that week quoted a University of Calgary student: “The co-ordinators were unprepared for this,” said Amy Badry. “What is the best way to disseminate information to the people affected by it? … The best way is not through Twitter.”
Likely hundreds of essays have been published since March, 2020, comparing COVID-19 to illnesses past: the 1918 Spanish Influenza, the bubonic plague, various smallpox outbreaks. I don’t dare count the Norwalk NASH of 2012 among them, nor do I suggest that the young conference organizers’ failures come close to governments’ general dysfunction these past two years. The thing that separates this outbreak from its more historic predecessors is that most of us are alive to remember it, or more curiously, to forget it.
When ambulance sirens wailed for weeks outside my apartment during New York’s stay-at-home order, and I would regularly walk by hazmat suits outside nearby Lenox Hill Hospital, I never once thought about the CUP conference. Not even while scrolling Twitter, or pushing my building’s elevator buttons with my elbow. And while the jokes write themselves about that weekend, I was genuinely terrified to be so sick, so young and so far from home.
The nature of living amidst contagion, or enduring it, is that after its peak is a valley of forgettable boredom. After our stomachs settled, we killed hours watching hotel cable before heading to the airport. Today, as Omicron numbers dip, we’re entering a collective valley, praying no mountains appear in our future. COVID is too large, too multi-faceted and for many, too full of grief to fade from our memory any time soon. Yet, what makes me hopeful about the future is not the possibility of forgetting this pain, but the knowledge that its edges will eventually soften. Details inevitably blur.
For the second year now, the coming NASH will be held virtually, and that hotel in Victoria has since been converted to luxury apartments. I don’t remember if we took a Johnnie award home that year, just that we made it home at all.
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