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June 18, 2020

We Can’t Let Our Imaginations Fail Us

It was interesting to read Oliver Burkeman’s Guardian column in May about expecting the worst in general and in particular during our current crisis. It was interesting, because I am usually pathologically inclined to hope for the best (albeit wisely—it’s a pack an umbrella just in case, kind of thing) and I get frustrated by doomsaying, because I feel like it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. But doomsaying and hoping for the best, so says Burkeman, are actually two sides of the same coin. Both are actions performed by people “engaging in their own private methods for managing their emotions.” And for the most part neither action has bearing on the future, because the one thing we all have in common is that nobody knows.

But I am not completely sure, at least not in the case of moment in which we find ourselves. Sometimes I feel like there is something craven in pessimism, or maybe it’s not that it’s craven so much as a failure of imagination, to be so adamant that things could not possibly ever be okay. Though as Burkeman writes, there is actually safety in imagining the worst possibilities, “as bad as things can get” as close as one might manage in uncertainty to a kind of solid ground.

And yes, of course it’s a failure too to imagine that things couldn’t possibly get worse, or more terrible, but here’s the thing: if things are going to get worse, they will, whether you imagine it or not. Whereas for building a better world and more possibilities, imagination is essential. Imagining ways to restructure societies so that racialized people are safe, for example, and the disproportionate funding of police forces is reallocated to social services instead. Imagining ways that schools and workplaces can function and keep people healthy and connected, or how outdoor parks and pools could reopen this summer and people can enjoy these amenities safely, or even how we can all keep going and working together as Covid outbreaks continue to happen, which they will, instead of throwing our hands up and screaming, “Second wave!” and taking up permanent residence under our beds.

There is optimism, and there is wilful ignorance, and they’re not necessarily the same. At the beginning of the pandemic too I was as doomy as anyone, because something was coming and no one knew what it was, and I wanted to be safe, for my family to be safe, for vulnerable people in our community to be safe. And because so many of us took precautions at that moment, which was a big sacrifice for all kinds of people (not me; I’ve been sitting at home eating gourmet cheese and keeping comfortable), things turned out to not be so bad after all. Not good by any means, but certainly good in comparison to the carnage in so many regions. I was thinking I was about to become a character in Station Eleven, is what I mean, and probably a dead one, but it didn’t turn out to be like that. Infection rates are going down in Ontario. We have reasons to be hopeful.

Which is not to say we’re about to pack hundreds of bodies into a crowded space anytime soon. Guys, we’re not Florida. And I think that many people in Canada are confused about this, sharing memes from Americans who are scared shitless, and for good reason, because culture warriors have decided to declare that an actual virus does not exist. “We’re right back where we started!” those memes keep on screaming, and they’re not wrong, but that’s because many communities have not done what’s happening here in Canada, in Ontario. (What’s happening here in Ontario is not exactly exemplary either. Testing and contact tracing have lagged. There has been a failure of imagination on that end, and also competence, but it hasn’t been an abject disaster. The answer, as always, is somewhere in the middle…)

We’re not right back where we started because people are wearing masks now, avoiding large crowds, shops have built plastic barriers and have caps on customers, people aren’t commuting en mass, offices aren’t packed with workers, we’re not sitting in doctor’s waiting rooms. This is not square one, where we are—though that risk remains for racialized communities, for people in dangerous working conditions, working in food production in particular, should not make those of us who are safer complacent. But it also means that we know a lot more about how and where the virus is spread than we did in March when we were all in such a panic and the reports that were coming out of Italy were devastating. We’re so much further down the road.

And no, I don’t think the pandemic is over, as many people keep accusing others of believing, but I do think we have to imagine a way to move forward and live with the virus. And I am trying not to get too frustrated at the sight of young people congregating in backyards, not so distanced at all, or the families who have continued to have playdates all along, because the likelihood of harm is really quite low in practical terms, which is kind of annoying for everyone who has been so strictly following the rules, it’s true, because we’d like to see a kind of justice, right? I know there were people who were disappointed that there was no documented Covid spike following an epic gathering of people in their 20s at a Toronto park in May. Because it would have felt good to be able to point to those people and say, Serves you right, and even have somebody to blame for part this bad dream we’re collectively living through. Much better than so much being random and shitty, nobody to point at at all.

(There have been spikes of illness at people in their 20s in general, however, and I wonder how much of this is tied to young people tending to be employed in high risk workplaces, living with roommates, all plans derailed, and if the backyard parties are necessary because of how much shittier the pandemic has been for them than those of us who are more comfortable and established…)

But there aren’t rules. I’ve written about this before. Everybody’s using their best judgment as we venture together into the unknown, and yes, many people’s best judgment is terrible. But many people are doing just fine, and want to stay safe, and protect their communities, and return to their businesses, and socialize with families and friends, and support their favourite restaurant, and have a localish summer holiday, and take precautions to stop the spread of the virus, wearing masks, washing hands, keeping distance, and I guess what I mean is that I wish amongst the various catastrophic outcomes so many people are imagining is the possibility that we might also be fine.

2 thoughts on “We Can’t Let Our Imaginations Fail Us”

  1. Kate says:

    I am typically the glum Lobellian Toad to my partner’s Frog, and my own positivity about this situation has shocked nobody more than myself. So this is what it feels like to be an optimist, I think, when I remind my neighbours that zero (0!) Canadian children have died thus far, and they stare at me blankly and shake their heads: uncomprehending and a little bit lonely.

    1. Kerry says:

      I think it’s tricky because there is a weird grey area between being an optimist, and being a conspiracy theory nutjob who believes the virus isn’t real. I don’t want anyone to think I’m the latter…

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