Just outside the window, the late fall afternoon was glorious. Our farm dog sprawled lazily in a patch of sun on the lawn. Across the farmyard, the pigs lay about in their pens, quiet in the warmth of the afternoon sun — except for an occasional piggy scuffle. The cows grazed placidly in a distant pasture. My dad crossed the farmyard on a tractor, pulling a heavily loaded wagon, and the dog trotted off to join him at the grain bin. If I waited patiently, I would see Dad return with an empty wagon shortly, crossing the farmyard again, on his way back to the fields.
What I observed was no more than an ordinary fall day, but, from my perch on a counter in Mom’s kitchen pantry, each piece of it seemed marvellous. I longed to burst out of the house, to feel the contrast between the warm fall sun and the cool fall breeze on my skin, to run with our dog to meet Dad at the grain bin, and to beg for a ride to the field on his tractor. However, I was confined to my perch, too sick to be allowed outside, and too well to spend more time in bed. Some six decades later, I still remember the longing of that afternoon. These days, I sometimes recognize a similar feeling in my response to life during COVID-19.
A desire not to be separated from life, but to be with others and take part in joint activities, lies deep within us. As John Donne, the seventeenth-century British poet, wrote, “No man is an island entire of itself.” Nor is any woman, as we now would add. If we didn’t recognize our need to belong before, the experience of a pandemic has taught it to us. In the last two years, who among us has not longed for free access to the people, places, and activities that we used to enjoy? These connections once seemed ordinary. Now they seem precious.
COVID-19 taught us more about belonging. We also learned that there is no “us” and “them” in a pandemic — everyone is “us.” Distinctions that rank or separate people mean nothing to a virus. Whether we are wealthy or poor, whether we are persons of colour or white, whether we are citizens, immigrants, or refugees, whether we live in cities or rural areas, or whether we lean right or left politically, we are all potential hosts for this virus. From the virus’s point of view — so to speak — we are one undifferentiated herd.
Many of us have noticed the advantage of adopting the virus’s point of view to combat it. As a province, we have suppressed the virus best whenever we have behaved as a united community to which each member fully belongs. When we allowed our distinctions to divide us — whether by providing inadequate supports to certain groups or by creating divisions in our response to the virus — COVID-19 gained ground. On the other hand, to the extent we supported everyone and worked together, we pulled ahead of the virus.
With many new starts and disappointing retreats, something like our past is returning. As it does, will we apply what we have learned? At the level of our biology, we have no choice about being a single community to which each one of us fully belongs. However, our social and political lives do not come to us fully formed. Generation by generation, we have a hand in shaping the attitudes and building the connections that give our society its character. That’s why John Donne advised us to remember that no one is an island. So did the virus.
Lloyd Den Boer is a retired educator who lives with his wife in Edmonton. Having relied on technology to maintain their connections for far too long, they hope to be face-to-face with others soon.