People & Culture

Placing the Pandemic in Perspective: Walking at the end of the world

How a new pandemic walking route helped me process feelings around illness and isolation as a chronically ill person 

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Placing the Pandemic in Perspective is a multimedia project to collect and share how Canadians’ experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic were — and continue to be — shaped by place. Visit the project website to read more stories and add your own. 

It’s spring 2020 when I first discover a new walking route in my neighbourhood. Just as they have for many others, the first few weeks of the pandemic have forced me into new routines based on safety and seclusion. To interrupt the monotony of long days spent in my 400-square-foot basement apartment, I begin to tentatively explore my neighbourhood on foot. Late March in Vancouver is a treat to the senses: the air is cool and fresh, and the city’s famed cherry blossoms have just started to bloom. The street I stumble upon one day, opposite the path I usually cut from my home, is filled with cherry trees. I wonder how I’ve managed to avoid it previously. At my feet, crocuses pepper garden plots, and buds are forming on the magnolia bushes. Small instances of the world expanding even as it contracts. I pass a dog park and watch as the few dog owners in it keep their dogs away from each other, everyone filled with apprehension about a virus we don’t yet understand.

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The beginning of the pandemic brought up old wells of pain for me as a chronically ill person. Six years earlier, I’d become sick with an acute infection that eventually developed into an autoimmune illness that turned my life upside down. Over a period of several years, my world shrunk: instead of focusing on my career and relationships and expanding my sense of self as a young person, I was spending my days researching solutions to my health issues, trialling different treatments, bouncing from specialist to specialist and grieving the many losses that chronic illness brings. In early 2016, after two years of failed endeavours to heal, I developed a chronic pain condition that left me bed-bound for weeks and that would further unspool the contours of my life, leading to my withdrawal from the work-force and long periods of social isolation. 

Like many disabled and chronically ill people, my experience of watching a global pandemic unfold in 2020 was complicated by this personal history. In many ways, I’d already been through what others were experiencing for the first time: the fear, the loneliness, the lack of contact with the outside world. It was at once a replay of pre-pandemic trauma and an utterly terrifying new reality: For an immunocompromised person, what was safe? How could I care for myself when so much of my well-being depended on the decisions of others?

Walking became a balm for me to process these complex feelings. The new route I discovered in March would carry me through two years of isolation — because, like many other immunocompromised people, I didn’t stop isolating when social-distancing guidelines were dropped. Lengthy weeks without much social interaction were improved by meanders along the cherry-tree-lined street, up into the quiet blocks of my west-side neighbourhood. There, I could feel at once part of the world but safe from it — free to move through whatever state of mind the day had brought. As the seasons changed, I came to know the route in all its many guises: dark and grey, under Vancouver’s mercurial weather; full of autumn’s burnt reds, golds and browns; in the immaculate stillness of a fresh winter snowfall. 

It’s fall now, two-and-a-half years later, and I’m about to move out of my current neighbourhood and into a new one. The pandemic isn’t over, but many seem to think it is. As I walk the now-familiar streets of my route, this time back towards my home, I look out over the city. I can just glimpse the distant flinty skyscrapers of the downtown core and the deep blue mountains of the North Shore, their peaks hidden under thick cloud cover. I think about all the emotions this routine has held room for over these years, and how disability has taught me to accept uncertainty in a way that many non-disabled people struggle with. I think about how disabled and chronically ill people have so many resources to share for the future, for the pandemics that will inevitably follow, and I feel both sad and hopeful. Mostly, I feel grateful that the pandemic gave me this — a space to reflect, to grieve and to safely tend to my body and mind in a time of upheaval. I’ll miss this place when I’m gone.

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This story is from the March/April 2023 Issue

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