Susan Pinker is a psychologist whose most recent book, The Village Effect, explores the science of social interaction.
Logging the pandemic-related loss of life and livelihood has now become one of our main food groups. My own daily routine begins with digesting the tragic numbers right after my first coffee, and again after my nightly glass of wine. There seems to be no end in sight. But there are unforeseen gains, too, emerging from some ingenious confinement workarounds. How far will people go to finagle in-person contact, all while adhering to public health edicts?
In my case, about 1,800 kilometres. But I’ll get to that story in a moment.
First, consider the situation of 15 families from New York, Boston and Philadelphia who were loosely connected to each other as friends, or friends of friends. When infection rates soared in northeastern cities last spring, the group decided to band together to form their own bubble. But where could they go to dodge the virus?
“At the beginning of May when it looked like summer camps would be closed, all of us – 65 people – rented out a closed camp in New Hampshire,” said a former Montrealer, who asked not to be named and who was part of the group.
One of the man’s friends is a physician with a degree in public health, and so he tapped her to advise them on infection control. (That’s how they avoided the catastrophe that unspools in Philip Roth’s last novel, Nemesis, in which several New Jersey parents send their kids to a summer camp in the mountains, hoping to steer clear of polio in city streets – only to find that the camp had turned into a hellish infection hot-spot.)
Summer camps are bucolic, but there’s plenty of sharing in tight quarters. In other words, the group had to agree on safety precautions. “Everyone quarantined at home for one week, then took a COVID test. By the time we got the results it had been 12 days. We then drove to the camp and had a second test on the way. We kept our masks on for another week until those tests came back negative,” the former Montrealer said.
That’s when camp life began in earnest. The kids moved from family units into bunks, divided by age. The adults shifted to staff housing and, equipped with WiFi, worked from there. “It wasn’t luxurious but it was fine," he said. "We hired five camp counsellors who ran activities in the mornings for the kids. We ate 168 out of 169 meals outdoors.” (The one exception was the August night when Hurricane Isaias touched down in New Hampshire.) “And we had a lot of fun. We expected the kids to have fun, but the adults?” Most said they hadn’t enjoyed themselves that much since college, he told me. His enthusiastic report was like a testimonial for the pleasures of social contact. And while the original plan was to stay for four weeks, the 15 families stayed for two months. “If things go remote again, we’re looking at doing the same thing again this winter.”
Not everyone can withdraw from city life, to be sure, and for those whose jobs could be done remotely, a sliding scale meant that people paid what they could afford. Income notwithstanding, there’s a slice of the population that is forced to withdraw from almost all types of social life. I’m referring to seniors who have been residence-bound since the pandemic started. Despite a brief reprieve of outdoor visits this past summer and pallid Zoom encounters, workarounds have been thin on the ground for this vulnerable group.
One exception comes from Portugal – where I happened to be when the coronavirus hit Europe. Just over 20 per cent of the country’s citizens are over 65, according to Carla Palmeiro, the country’s vice-president of a global non-profit group called Cycling Without Age, whose mission is to reduce isolation in the elderly (there are Canadian chapters as well). Wherever they are, the group’s volunteers, called “pilots,” take isolated seniors for rides on bicycles equipped with front benches and seat belts. One or two seniors sit in these “trishaws” while the pilot pedals them around to visit their favourite haunts. The goal is to reduce the social isolation experienced by many mobility-challenged seniors, though Ole Kassow, the group’s Danish founder, simply calls it “the right to wind in your hair.”
The pandemic put an end to their rides in March, further isolating the local seniors, Ms. Palmeiro said. So she came up with an idea. Her own municipality of Cascais – a seaside town outside Lisbon – had arranged to have food and prepared meals delivered to housebound seniors over 65. “So we made an arrangement: volunteers got a list, went directly to the supermarket and the pharmacy, and, using the trishaws, delivered the goods,” she told me on a Zoom call. “At the same time we went to their windows or doors to talk to them. We started to bring around psychologists, social workers and yoga teachers to their balconies. We also did readings, short passages from books, so they could have these small moments of joy in their day.” In August, the volunteers started to give trishaw rides again. Though the majority wanted to ride, some seniors still preferred to have balcony talks instead. That’s a very good thing, as COVID-19 infection rates are rising again in Portugal.
Balconies are a theme. While some Portuguese seniors were getting treated to readings, yoga and therapeutic interactions on their balconies, Hasidic Jews in the Mile End neighbourhood of Montreal were using their porches as symbolic extensions of their synagogues. Orthodox Judaism requires a quorum of 10 men when essential prayers are said (Liberal congregations also count women). Called a minyan, this rule of 10 derives from the Torah’s definition of an assembly, but in practice means people hardly ever pray alone. They are surrounded by other voices chanting and singing, which feels biologically reassuring, psychological studies show. Simply put, a minyan makes us feel that we belong to something larger than ourselves. Joseph Rosen, a Mile End neighbour, evoked that sense of being a part of a whole when he wrote about the balcony Hasidim in these pages in May. “Melancholic songs ring up and down the street in passionate call and response, and passersby stare in wonder. After weeks of this outdoor synagogue, I see that the Hasidim have something to teach us seculars about what it means for a community to reconnect in a COVID-19 world.”
But not all pandemic workarounds are existential salves. Some are just longed-for family reunions. That’s what got me thinking about how far we’ll go, just to be face to face.
In late August, I flew from Montreal to Toronto to Thunder Bay, at which point I set off on a quintessential Canadian journey. The goal was to have time with my middle son, a medical resident in Winnipeg whom I hadn’t seen outside a Zoom window since New Years. As coronavirus infections had spiked in Quebec but remained low in Manitoba, there were strict travel restrictions between the two provinces. Gregory could use his repeatedly rescheduled one-week holiday to travel, as long as he stayed west of Terrace Bay, Ont., he told us. With Google as my guide and Gregory’s father as my travel companion, we decided to meet him halfway, in the middle of Northwestern Ontario.
Once we parents landed in Thunder Bay, we rented a car and drove west on the TransCanada, past Kakabeka Falls and Shebandowan Lake, through kilometre after kilometre of pristine coniferous forests and indigo lakes. It was still summer, officially, but the roadside brush had already turned gold. Rocky outcroppings, mauve aster and goldenrod lined the highway, flanked by the occasional stand of birch. But no stores, houses or towns, not even a gas station that I could see.
A few hours later we stopped for the night in Atikokan, population 2,700. That’s where we rendezvoused with Gregory, who had driven six hours east to meet us. Our plan was to paddle the next day to one of two outpost cabins in Quetico Provincial Park: 460,000 hectares of unspoiled wilderness. Our cabin was the only structure on an island in the middle of Batchewaung Lake. Social distancing? Not a problem.
That first night we ate takeout Chinese, ordered from the only open restaurant in town. (Generously larded with garlic and broccoli, it was absolutely delicious.) After a night in a roadside motel – also the only one in town – we drove to the local outfitter, Canoe Canada, which has been equipping paddlers and anglers, almost all of them Americans, since 1972. In their rustic barn decorated with ancient paddles and taxidermied local critters, a steaming Mr. Coffee and a friendly staff of three were waiting. The pandemic had reduced business to a trickle, but they didn’t let on. “We generally outfit 2,500 people for canoe trips and another 1,200 on the fly-ins,” said Jeremy Dickson, Canoe Canada’s owner. “This year we did 150-200.” The staff provided us with a canoe, paddles, maps, advice on the best fishing holes – and more food than we could possibly eat, packed neatly into dry bags. Then they loaded all of it – and us – into their van and drove us to our put-in point on Nym Lake.
Three hours later, after a sparkling morning paddle, we arrived at our off-grid island cottage in the middle of Batchewaung Lake. It was spotless – equipped with propane fridge and stove, a few modest solar panels, but no running water, internet, or neighbours.
For the next five days, the three of us got reacquainted. We read on the rocks in the sun. We chatted, caught and ate smallmouth bass. We swam in water that had never been churned by a motorboat. We saw a lynx and a bald eagle.
This idyll was, at least indirectly, sponsored by COVID-19. The pandemic may seem unending. But given our need for human contact, the possibilities are limitless.
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Editor’s note: (Oct. 23, 2020) An earlier version of this article incorrectly said 70 per cent of Portugal's citizens are over 60, when in fact 22 per cent are over 65.