Content Warning: This post talks, in a detached kind of way, about both the current COVID-19 crisis and the 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster in northeastern Japan.
The two greatest disasters I have lived through as an adult are the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami disaster of 2011, and the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. As of this writing, I can’t really say which one was worse. The earthquake/tsunami death count topped out at about 16,000, but was concentrated in just three Japanese prefectures. The pandemic death count is 300,000 and rising, but is spread across the entire world. The pandemic developed over several weeks, allowing most governments to enact policies to slow its spread and save lives. The earthquake/tsunami struck without warning one Friday afternoon; by the time anyone could react, most of the damage had already been done. The tsunami destroyed homes, farms, and businesses. The pandemic has led to a massive recession that has left millions of people out of work. The crisis phase of the earthquake/tsunami disaster only lasted about a month, but its repercussions continued to be felt months and years later. In my part of the world, we’ve been on pandemic lockdown for over two months, with no telling when things may get back to normal.
In some ways, the crises are similar. Long queues at grocery stores and a shortage of certain food items – notably milk – have been features of both. Both have also made travel difficult, though in very different ways. The earthquake/tsunami damaged transport infrastructure, but people began travelling again as soon as they were physically able. The pandemic has left infrastructure unscathed, but people have stopped going anywhere. Both have prevented people from socialising, but in opposite ways. The earthquake/tsunami caused blackouts that made telecommunication difficult, prompting people to interact more with their neighbours while remaining largely cut off from the outside world. The pandemic has kept us away from our neighbours, prompting us to turn to phone, Skype, and Zoom. After the earthquake, a lot of people evacuated the affected region. In the pandemic, there is nowhere to evacuate to; on the contrary, we’re being told to stay put.
There are also similarities and differences to how I’ve experienced the disasters. Both have so far left me personally unscathed. No one I know died because of the earthquake; no one I know has contracted COVID-19. My sense of danger is very different, though. In the constant aftershocks that followed the original earthquake, there were nights I literally lay in bed wondering if the roof was going to cave in on me. COVID is less terrifying; I’m reasonably unlikely to get it and even less likely to be killed by it. On the other hand, I also have to be concerned about the health of my nearest and dearest; during the earthquake, most of my nearest and dearest were safe thousands of miles from the danger zone. In both cases, I’ve become the beneficiary of government aid, though in Japan this took the form of emergency rations, while in Canada it’s been financial subsidies.
Fears aside, however, neither crisis has done more than inconvenience me. In the earthquake disaster, it meant sleeping in a gymnasium, doing without electricity and running water, and living on instant wakame rice – in other words, camping. In the pandemic, it’s meant weeks of what basically amounts to paid vacation. And I’ve made good use of it, updating my other blog, learning to knit, and, best of all, spending time with my housemates.
And that’s what I really want to talk about this Carnival. Because both disasters found me isolated with a group of people, but those groups were very different. The earthquake struck while I was at work, and so I spent most of the next week basically living with my Japanese co-workers. That meant I was surrounded by people I barely knew, most of whom I could barely communicate with. I spent an anxious first weekend knowing that my family must be worried sick about me and having no way to assure them of my safety. Even as things got better and telecommunication got re-established, I was still acutely aware of my isolation. I was socially distant from those I was physically closest to, while my friends and family were accessible only by phone, Skype, and e-mail.
The result of the pandemic is that I’m stuck at home with my friends. That means that, while I may be distancing myself from society at large, I’ve had ample opportunity to spend quality time with people I like. With nowhere to go, we’ve been filling our evenings and weekends with walks, parlour games, family dinners, movie nights, and story time. It’s a bit like we’ve all gone on holiday together.
And here’s the really remarkable thing: you might think that after two months this would start to pall, and I’d start to grow sick of them. But I haven’t. I’m just as happy spending time with them now as when this crisis started. And I don’t think that’s because I’m such a laid-back, easy-going person. Pretty much anyone else I know, if I’d been forced into isolation with them, we would have driven each other crazy. But I’m fortunate enough to be with some really wonderful people, people who are kind and compassionate; people who can put up with me even when I’m being obnoxious and forgive me even when I make mistakes; people I can always count on for empathy and understanding. I’ve tried to do my part, too, of course, but, the truth is, I got stupidly lucky.
I don’t want to paint an overly rosy picture of the situation. I know the lockdown has brought more challenges for them than for me. I know they probably feel the lack of society worse than I do. And I don’t promise that another six months of this won’t take a serious toll on our relationship. But I think it’s saying something that, even after eleven weeks, I’m still getting along pretty well with them.
It seems that every year I end up writing one blog post about how great my friends are. The others were “Luke Skywalker and Other Celibate Heroes”, “Happy Endings”, and “Unhappiness, and Other Unexpected Blessings”. This theme is probably getting old, and maybe I should move on. But, on the other hand, maybe it’s a theme that’s worth revisiting every so often. After all, sharing your life with someone isn’t all thrills and excitement; it can become so routine that it fades into the background. Unless you stop to notice it. Unless, every so often, you say to yourself, “Hey, being stuck in quarantine with this person isn’t half bad!”
There are all kinds of popular metrics for how to tell you’ve found someone special: The person who will help you bury the body. The person you would save if the Earth got demolished. The person you can enjoy comfortable silence with. Here’s another one: A special person is someone you don’t mind spending two months cooped up at home with during a pandemic.