To cite this article: Jen Pylypa (2020) A Week in the Life of COVID-19 in Ottawa, Canada, Anthropology Now, 12:1, 33-38, DOI: 10.1080/19428200.2020.1761208
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/19428200.2020.1761208
An Epidemic of Fear
On Friday the 13th of March 2020, my most immediate concern was getting to the supermarket. I hadn’t slept well and woke up at 5 a.m. No matter, it allowed me to get my kids off to school early so I could be at the store by 8:30. I felt guilty for what I was about to do: stockpile groceries. I asked myself, sheepishly, whether it would count as stockpiling if I filled only one shopping cart. I knew that people had been clearing supermarket shelves of toilet paper, canned goods and frozen foods, and I, too, wanted some of these staples before stores ran out. COVID-19, virtually unknown to the Canadian public two months earlier, had be- come so infamous that people were now simply referring to it as “the coronavirus.” It had arrived in my capital city of Ottawa, Canada — both materially and psychologically — just a few days prior. The newly declared pandemic had become what medical anthropologists such as myself call an “epidemic of fear.”
I arrived at the supermarket to find that there was, in fact, parking — a concern that had caused me irrational anxiety on the drive over. I was pleasantly surprised that the supermarket was quite calm. Staff told me that it likely would be crazy by afternoon, as it newly was the day before. The only restricted item was toilet paper (limit of two packs per person). I didn’t even bother looking for hand sanitizer — I knew there would be none — but most items were there, albeit with low stocks of canned goods, rice and pasta. I couldn’t find any frozen peas but managed to snag the last two bags of frozen berries.
I filled my cart before completing my shopping list and proceeded to the check- out. The cashier was visibly annoyed by the new intensity of her job. She complained to me in a low voice about a manager who was supposedly keeping busy but had avoided opening a till herself. The cashier opined that the manager didn’t want to do the hard work. She also told me that she didn’t understand “this panic shopping mentality.” I had a large order, and halfheartedly tried to justify it to her. The schools and day cares were going to be closed for a minimum of three weeks after today, I explained. As a single parent of two young kids, I didn’t want to drag them to the supermarket later under the conditions created by the pandemic. Grocery shopping with children is difficult at the best of times — and these were not the best of times. I told the cashier that I hoped that people were at least being polite to her, and she looked at me skeptically, suggesting that ship had already sailed.
I loaded the groceries into my car. Then I went back into the store a second time for the handful of items that I couldn’t fit in the shopping cart the first time around. I hesitated to reenter the store, but the prospect of my kids not having ice cream (in addition to all their activities being cancelled) convinced me to go. I traveled through the back aisles of the store, avoiding that same cashier’s gaze, and went through the self-checkout. I tried to make myself invisible as I hurried past her on my way out. Stigma, and the fear of it, comes in minute and trivial forms as well as big ones during a pandemic.
Epidemics, Past and Present
It was exactly two months earlier that my fourth-year undergraduate students had studied pathogens and pandemics, the first topic in my new Health and Globalization course. The week before, I had seen the first news report about “a new coronavirus in China,” which compared its potential to the 2003 SARS epidemic. Following our class discussion on Ebola and SARS, I showed the students that article and said to them, “If you think SARS seems like a small thing from a long time ago, then take a look at this.” I sensed that they were skeptical, thinking this was merely media sensationalism.
A look at my course readings from that week is instructive, providing a snapshot of some social responses to these past epidemics and what anthropologists had to say about their implications. The first chapter I had my students read was the conclusion to a book called SARS in China: Prelude to Pandemic? by anthropologists Arthur Kleinman and James L. Watson.1 This final chapter, by Watson, is called “SARS and the Consequences for Globalization” and, along with the book’s title, is quite prescient. In it, Watson referred to the SARS outbreak in 2003 as “a wake-up call” and considered “infectious diseases as a potential inhibiting factor in the future of globalization and international migration.” That is, he suggested that the threat of pandemics might become a major factor causing our national borders to become less porous.2 Indeed, one week after the supermarket panic set in, Canada basically closed its borders, at least in the short term, to all but repatriating Canadians and “essential” situations where goods and people needed entry from the United States. It was the first time in our history as a nation this had happened. Watson described disruptions in 2003 due to SARS as a harbinger of what might come in the future. The examples he cited seem quaint compared with what has recently emerged in response to COVID-19. There had been the quarantining of all passengers on a flight that contained a doctor who had previously treated SARS patients. Hong Kong hotels’ occupancy dropped to 5 percent. A Singapore bank segregated its employees into three groups working in different locations. In my class lecture notes, I wrote, “So imagine a bigger pandemic, with these kinds of precautions × 1,000, happening world- wide. It could change the nature of how we live, at least in the short term, and stop daily global movements and interactions dead in their tracks. It could even prevent people from gathering in workplaces and schools.”
I watched these words, written in the second week of January, come to life in mid- March. When I taught these same students on Monday, March 9, I had no inkling that I wouldn’t be seeing them again. By Friday, March 13, all in-person courses in my university were suspended, as was all public schooling in Ontario. All day cares, libraries, swimming pools, bars and restaurants were closed a week later. Messaging and restrictions changed not just day by day but rather hour by hour. On Thursday, March 12, Ontario premier Doug Ford told families to “go away and have a good time” for spring break. Later that same day, he closed the schools. Meanwhile, governments were trying to reassure people in the face of economic strain. People were worried about job losses, both temporary and permanent, and their retirement savings as markets tumbled. Referring to the pandemic potential of zoonotic respiratory diseases, Watson concluded — prophetically — that “Homo sapiens was lucky in 2003.”3
In the second article my students read, Laura Eichelberger wrote about SARS, racism and stigma. In particular, she discussed the stigmatizing of Chinese immigrants and their “backward culture” in the United States, and the impact on businesses in New York’s Chinatown in 2003.4 In February 2020, this kind of stigma was a hot topic in the media. Owners of Chinese restaurants talked about the loss of business because of COVID-19. There were stories of racism against people who looked Asian. A YouTube video of a man’s subway rant about how “all disease comes from dirty China” circulated widely. Yet by mid-March, the emphasis on problems of racism seemed to have passed in the media, at least temporarily. By then I guess we had more immediate concerns, but also the spread of COVID-19 outside of China, particularly the epidemic in Northern Italy, had made the stigmatizing of Asians perhaps less likely. The pandemic was everywhere, and no longer attributable to a single ethnic population. Chinese restaurants were empty, but so were all others. We no longer had the luxury, perhaps, of seeing pandemics as a problem of the “other.” Nevertheless, this lull in media discussions of prejudice didn’t last, but rather reemerged in new forms. U.S. president Donald Trump set off an angry media response when he publicly referred to COVID-19 as “the Chinese virus.” New forms of discrimination emerged as well. Media reports began to talk about prejudice against people from Hubei Province within China, as well as the eviction of physicians from their homes in India by landlords who perceived them as disease carriers.
On Ebola, my students read Sarah Monson’s article in which she wrote about the “otherization” of Africans in the American media during the 2014 Ebola epidemic. In particular, she noted the tendency to treat Africa as a single country and the prominence of the perception that “Ebola is all over Africa.” For example, she described a case in which a New Jersey school wanted to quarantine two students who had arrived from Rwanda, a country 4,500 kilometers away from the three West African nations that were Ebola affected.5 In the COVID-19 pandemic, as of mid-March 2020, the fact that it was affecting people so extensively in the West meant continuous media coverage. At the same time, there were extensive epidemiological data emerging, and number crunching in news media had become commonplace. As a result, the Canadian public was getting more specific information about the geography of the disease. The location was not a homogenized Asia or even China. It was Wuhan city, Hubei province — places that most people in Canada had never heard of two months prior. It was also Lombardy in Northern Italy, not Italy or Europe. A Western bias might explain the more specific geographical references to affected places in Europe, but the media were also specific about Asia. I wondered whether this might lead to increased public awareness and greater sensitization to the specifics of geography.
The other Ebola article that my students read, by James Fairhead, talked about social resistance, often violent, to public health interventions during the 2014 Ebola outbreak. Fairhead described how local responses in the Forest Region of the Republic of Guinea were embedded in a series of fragile colonial and neocolonial power relationships between locals and the state, outsiders and other authorities. He detailed people’s reactions to Ebola interventions, including panicking, barricading roads to prevent the entry of health workers and conspiracy theories. Fairhead showed how these resistant responses to public health measures were at least partly a result of the particular, tenuous nature of preexisting relationships of trust between communities and those in power.6
In mid-March 2020, I observed how different power relations in various nations elicited different popular responses in relation to COVID-19. In Singapore and Taiwan, for example, where people are accustomed to submitting to the state, social distancing was achieved in an orderly fashion, and they appear to have been quite successful at con- trolling the spread of COVID-19 as a result. Similarly, in Canada, where trust in government is high, people for the most part com- plied quickly with social distancing directives. In the United States, where personal freedom is sacred and many are suspicious of “big government,” resistance was prominent, often fervid, and social distancing was haphazard at best. Conspiracy theories (some perpetuated by President Trump himself) suggested that the COVID-19 crisis was a fabrication of the political left and objections to media “exaggeration” abounded. Purposeful flouting of social distancing advice resulted in some places and social media spaces. Simultaneously, in other segments of the U.S. population, epidemic fear and panic shopping set in — as we watched on social media first toilet paper, then canned goods, disappearing from grocery shelves. We can see here how social responses vary within a given society but also respond to a particular national ethos.
This Time, It’s Different
The biggest difference this time around, other than the obvious scope of the pandemic, is the fact that it extensively affects “us” (in the West) and not just “the rest.” Other differences relate to the extensive nature of global data sharing, a feature of the modern “technoscape” and the effects of the rapidly changing, modern “mediascape.”7 Public health authorities have to fight against the rapid dissemination of false information via social media. They also have to respond to growing online panic that results from both misinformation and accurate knowledge of the scope of infection. At the same time, Facebook feeds are filled with posts encouraging people to self-isolate and socially distance in the name of “flattening the curve,” a phrase — now well known — that refers to spreading out the disease burden over time so as not to overwhelm health care systems. There is an emerging, hopeful sense of community solidarity, which, given the need for social distancing, is occurring primarily via the internet.
There is an encouraging culture of responsibility emerging — not just to protect ourselves but also to protect the most vulnerable — the elderly and those with immunity-impairing health conditions. I see people around me doing this quite willingly. For example, my children’s day care workers supported the public health authorities’ directives to close them down temporarily as “the right thing to do.” (They supported this at a time when there were only two confirmed COVID-19 cases in the city.) A sense of corporate responsibility caused even private companies to suspend or change their operations, even before it was mandated by government. Other forms of generosity have also emerged. Large supermarket chains stopped charging for online ordering and pickup services as well as plastic bags; small cafés have offered free food for pickup to those in financial need. Social media groups are forming to connect volunteers to those in need of grocery drop-offs or other aid. In Canada, the new term “caremongering” has been coined for these groups. A BBC News article reported that 35 Facebook groups with more than 30,000 members were set up in Canada in 72 hours for this purpose.8 This is the positive outcome of the pandemic: social solidarity at work, a desire to protect the common good and not just oneself.
At the same time, we see some opportunism and selfishness — even in supposedly “civil” Canada — such as the case of a British Columbia couple who were reported to have cleared out truckloads of disinfecting wipes from area stores so as to resell them online, bragging that they had made $100,000 reselling cleaning supplies at inflated prices. Meanwhile, in the United States, televangelist Jim Bakker is being sued by the state of Missouri for selling a fake coronavirus cure. While many politicians are being lauded for their commitments to public health measures, others, rightly or wrongly, are accused of opportunism and greed. In the United States, President Trump was accused of withholding help from states with governors who were not, in his words, sufficiently “appreciative.” In Canada, the opposition Conservative Party accused the Liberal government of a power grab when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tried to expand the federal government’s emergency spending powers too broadly, forcing Trudeau to back down.
One week after the World Health Organization declared a pandemic, Ottawa still had only 13 confirmed cases of COVID-19, one— somewhat dramatically while also relatively uneventfully — a mild fever in Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, the prime minister’s wife. I had come down with a cold (or so I hoped), so I was self-isolating at home while teaching online and parenting two young children full-time because of school closures, which initially we thought would last three weeks but now seemed as if they would be indefinite (and I was glad to have bought all those groceries). I wrote this essay in that particular moment, in late March 2020. By the time you read it, it will be a different week, a different month, and the issues that seem important and worth documenting will have changed. Anthropology’s commitment to ethnography means documenting the human experience in real time as a means to capture these elements of our culture, social and power relations, and what will in a moment become history.
The effects of this pandemic will be far- reaching, and it will be interesting to see how it changes our social responses and behaviours in the aftermath, and how long those changes endure. For example, will the rise of COVID- 19 and the eventual development of a coveted vaccine be the nail in the coffin of the anti-vaccination movement? Will we become more conscious of disease transmission in general, replacing handshakes with bows or fist bumps and imposing new hygiene practices in schools? Will stockpiling supplies go main- stream, with people looking to “prepper” culture as a model of how we should all live? Will COVID-19 result in the long-term tightening of borders, and change the nature of globalization and international migration as anthropologist James Watson suggested following the SARS epidemic?9 Or will it just be business as usual two years down the road?
- Arthur Kleinman and James L. Watson, eds., SARS in China: Prelude to Pandemic? (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006).
- James L. Watson, “SARS and the Consequences for Globalization,” in SARS in China: Prelude to Pandemic?, eds. Arthur Kleinman and James L. Watson (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006), 196–233.
- Watson, “SARS and the Consequences,” 202.
- Laura Eichelberger, “SARS and New York’s Chinatown: The Politics of Risk and Blame During an Epidemic of Fear,” Social Science and Medicine 65 (2007): 1284–95.
- Sarah Monson, “Ebola as African: American Media Discourses of Panic and Otherization.” Africa Today 63, no. 3 (2017): 3–27.
- James Fairhead, “Understanding Social Resistance to the Ebola Response in the Forest Region of the Republic of Guinea: An Anthropological Perspective,” African Studies Review 59, no. 3 (2016): 7–31.
- Arjun Appadurai, “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy,” Theory, Culture and Society 7, no. 2–3 (1990): 295–310.
- Tom Gerken, “Coronavirus: Kind Canadians Start ‘Caremongering’ Trend,” BBC News, March 16, 2020.
- Watson, “SARS and the Consequences,” 196–233.
Jen Pylypa is a medical anthropologist and associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Carleton University, Ottawa.