Lessons Learned: COVID-19 Edition

In 1998, when I was 23 years old, Eastern Ontario and Quebec were struck by an ice storm which shut down power for days or weeks. Then there was Y2K, and 9/11. My oldest daughter was born in May 2003 in the first SARS pandemic, and a few months later, overloaded transmission lines combined with a software bug to create “the world’s second most widespread blackout in history” — the city of Toronto had no power for two days.

I’ve been through a few emergencies, and along the way with the help of experience and some books, I’ve put together a pretty comprehensive emergency preparedness system.

But until now, my emergency preparedness has been largely untested. In the last major blackout I realized that a stovetop kettle would be handy for making tea (since we have a natural gas stove but usually use an electric kettle), but that’s the only fine-tuning I have done. Until now: Ontario is in week six of self-isolation in order to reduce the impact of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus.

Here are some things I’ve learned about my emergency preparedness in this latest, biggest and still-going-on emergency.

People Gonna Bake

Five or ten years ago I considered flour an emergency pantry staple, but over the last few years I’ve been busier and have been baking less. I figured that the stuff we’d need in an emergency would be the same stuff we’d need normally, so I cut back on the amount of flour I kept around as a matter of course.

Bad idea. It turns out that in a long power-on–stay-home emergency, people bake. People in my house bake, but also all the other people in the world bake. Everyone out there discovered baking and needs flour and yeast and eggs. The supply chains took a hit, it’s now impossible to get flour, and I’ve got a jar of sourdough starter I can’t use, a new obsession with Bon Appetit magazine’s YouTube channel, and a houseful of people who want to bake everything.

Good Relationships are Emergency Preparedness

Several times over the last few weeks I have given thanks, silently or out loud, for relationships.

Within the house, we have good communication, trust and love. We respect each other and feel safe raising concerns or asking for what we need. I didn’t raise my kids in an environment of mutual trust and respect specifically so that we could survive for weeks jammed together without respite, but I’m sure glad I did.

Outside the house, I am thankful for good relationships with neighbours, friends and family. People are checking up on each other, running errands, sharing food, fabric, recipes, shopping tips and memes, or just commiserating.

It would be a little weird to make “maintain good relationships” a part of my formal emergency plan, but it certainly lends weight to the anxiety of being lonely — not having friends doesn’t only make Friday nights a bummer, it can be a matter of life and death… or at least of knowing which stores have yeast.

Cash is Irrelevant

I have a pretty good stash of hard currency in my house. Don’t get excited and break in — it’s not even enough to buy a good TV, so you might as well steal my TV. But it’s enough for a grocery shop or two. I figured it would come in handy if the power went out, cash machines didn’t work and I needed to exchange cash for goods or services.

I haven’t used cash for five weeks. I wouldn’t even want to give cash to someone right now — it would be socially awkward. Plus I’d have to get so close…

It’s Not Going to Be Like You Think

With the exception of the ice storms and attendant winter blackouts which roll around pretty regularly, all the emergencies I’ve lived through have been unique: little pandemics, big pandemics, summer blackouts, air travel lockdowns, existential dread. Every time I think I have crises figured out, a new one comes along with slightly different details.

So a cornerstone of emergency preparedness has to be a certain amount of flexibility and resilience. Practically speaking, it helps to be able to improvise dinner from whatever is in the house or improvise an office from a corner of the bedroom. And mentally, it helps to embrace amor fati, keep your expectations low, and be willing to lean into the weirdness of stuff for a while.

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