A Primary Source Document for a Future Historian: The Early Days of the Coronavirus Pandemic

Claire Litt //

To the reader: 

Historians living through the COVID-19 pandemic will reckon with it on two levels. For inevitably the question that arises is not only “What is happening here?” but also “How will this event be retold?” and to that point, “What kinds of documents will exist from which this history will be later extracted by future historians?” 

This is a primary source document for a future historian. I imagine this historian is in graduate school in the 2090s, trying to piece together the early days of 2020. Of the thousands of breaking news articles that our historian unearths from the digital archives, I wonder whether any of them will aptly capture the quotidian aspects of life; the vacillations between the continuity of routine living and the sweeping societal changes implemented during this strange spring. And so unto our future historian I bequeath a diary of sorts, a boring record of my life in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic. 

I anticipate our future historian will raise the obvious methodological issues that pertain to the purposeful creation of a primary source document, and in answer I will say that while the exercise may be somewhat doomed to artificiality, I do promise to tell the truth (insofar as that can be told by anyone). I have withheld only the name of my significant other, whom I instead refer to as John. 

Tuesday March 10th 2020 – Boston, MA

The coffee shop on Beacon was full of people. I couldn’t find a seat anywhere, except squeezed in at the bar with my laptop where I became appraised over the next hour of thesis-writing of such weighty barista discords as whose shift was longer and who bakes the better blueberry scones. They concluded with grave remarks on the inferiority of the baked goods at the other location.

I  was distracted from my writing though by the sound of subtly rounded words floating from across the shop, the product of raised vowels that are distinctive of my own Canadian accent. 

“So your conference was cancelled, eh?” A man dressed in black-watch plaid was making crossword puzzles on his laptop. Another man, his face obscured by oversized tortoise-shell glasses, was clearly the academic.

“Yeah,” said the academic. “They don’t want people travelling from other countries. But it makes no sense that I’m not supposed to go to Saskatchewan but I could still fly across the States to L.A.”

“I keep hearing about cancelled conferences. I don’t know. I can’t tell if it’s an overreaction,” said the crossword-making lumberjack.

The conversation made me uneasy. This spring, for the first time in my fledgling academic career, I’ve been invited to speak at major conferences in my field: the Renaissance Society of America (RSA) and the Canadian Society for Renaissance Studies (CSRS). Over the next few months I will travel to Philadelphia, London (Ontario), and Vancouver Island to take a course at the University of Victoria. I have already paid hundreds of dollars in conference fees and put down a deposit for accommodations in Victoria. And yet, I can’t bring myself to finish writing my speech for the RSA. It remains open in a word document on my laptop, and I just leave it there for now. 

Later

John texted me while I was still in the coffee-shop to ask if I was okay with a last-minute houseguest. An old student of his from our college in Toronto is in town to interview for MIT, but his AirBnB cancelled because the host is worried about the coronavirus. I swung by the grocery store on the way home to grab some popcorn and snacks. They arrived home from campus late, and we stayed up chatting a few hours. A disquieting end to the evening, however, arrived in the form of an email from Harvard: all guest lectures are cancelled until further notice.

Wednesday March 11th 2020 – Boston, MA

I pestered John this morning, as he was on the way out the door, with questions about the Harvard email so as to ascertain whether it was wise to go to the yoga studio and the coffee shop today. He thought not. 

So I’ve been home today. I transcribed and translated entries from a late 16th-century inventory of jewellery because I can’t concentrate well enough to work on my thesis. I read the American news. I made more coffee, and listened to the Canadian news on CBC radio online. Somewhere in between regular scheduled programs the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. This news was shortly followed by Trump’s announcement that travel from European countries to the United States will be restricted for thirty days. I cleaned the kitchen and rearranged John’s dress shirts by seasonal appropriateness. (When he got home, he looked at his closet and shook his head in amusement.) I did some work for my supervisor. In the late afternoon, I decided that the floors underneath the dresser must be terribly dusty, and so I moved the furniture around and cleaned the floors.

Later

I went on inventing work for myself until late evening, when I met John to do some household shopping. When we arrived at Target we were confronted with a scene of barefaced hoarding. Shoppers donning surgical masks swished through the exits, carts overflowing with toilet paper, Lysol wipes, Clorox sprays and canned goods. By the time we got home with our meagre supplies I was reeling with the surreality of the experience.

Thursday March 12th – Boston, MA

In the early hours of the morning, the RSA sent out an email with one bolded line: “It’s probable that this conference will be cancelled.” By 9:30 AM my supervisors emailed to say they had pulled out of the conference. What followed in the afternoon was a bombardment of further cancellations.

At noon the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where John and I are both members, announced that they would remain open. By evening, they sent a second email: “Due to the rapidly changing situation, the Museum has now decided to close tonight…” I spent much of the afternoon on the couch trying to decipher antiquated Italian scholarship on Pugliese polychrome sculpture, but every ten minutes I was interrupted by the news of yet another university closure in Boston. One by one they folded. As students filed home from campus the backyard of the frat house next door filled with young men playing beer pong, yelling profanities, and rejoicing in the unexpected early start to their spring break.

In the midst of this I received two one-line emails from my mother. One read “Do you like this purse?” with a Nordstrom link, and the other “Do you have travel insurance?” Three people from my cohort at Queen’s University contacted me to inquire about my whereabouts and to inform me that the university is recalling students from abroad.

I called my Mom at work, and while we were talking, a new update flashed across my computer screen reporting the closure of all Ontario schools. She described a scene of looking around her office and watching the expressions of all her co-workers whom she knows to be parents take on varying expressions of panic and disbelief as they read the news on their phones. After we hung up, I sent an email to John suggesting that we think about going home to Canada. 

Friday March 13th 2020 – Boston, MA

This morning the check-out lines at the grocery store wound through the aisles, everyone jockeying for a better position. As I watched the cashier intermittently touch her gloved hands to her face I experienced something of a dawning realization of how disastrous this situation may actually be. It was accompanied by a new resolve to go home.

I called John and told him as much, but he said that while his workplace is essentially shutting down, he will be considered an essential worker and may be required to occasionally go in to work.

When I got home I listened to CBC radio while methodically washing each piece of produce for twenty seconds with soap and water. The newscaster announced that Sophie Trudeau has been diagnosed with coronavirus and that insurance companies might cut off benefits to people are not planning to return from abroad. This latter piece of news caused me to spend the rest of the day trying to contact my travel insurance company, an effort that resulted in no certain answer but rather a united chorus of strangers instructing me to go home.

John thinks it’s becoming risky to fly home. He’s offered to drive me to the border in a week or so, when things are sorted at work. We called my parents and tell them that’s the plan, and they agreed to pick me up on the other side of the Peace Bridge. I worry, though, about John driving so many hours alone back to Boston.

Monday March 16th 2020 – Boston, MA

The RSA officially cancelled the conference in Philadelphia this morning.

Just as I ascertained that it is fairly likely that I am still covered by my travel insurance, it became something of a moot point. Trudeau has taken to addressing the nation daily outside of his residence, and as he stood there with his new beard, live streaming into John’s living room, he said “Let me be clear, if you are abroad, it’s time for you to come home.” It is a strange experience to hear your Prime Minister issue you direct instructions.

Trudeau also announced that most airports will close on Thursday. If I fly home after then, I will have to go through one of the four major airports that will remain open – along with thousands of other Canadians returning from all over the world.

Later

After some debate I’ve convinced John that I should fly home immediately. He traded in $300 USD of reward points to help me afford the exorbitantly-priced ticket. I leave Wednesday. 

Tuesday March 17th 2020 – Boston, MA

Later, in Toronto when I am unpacking my suitcase, I will think back to this day and realize that I was in denial. A quick trip home, I must have thought, until this global pandemic passes. A couple weeks. I packed as though I’d be back in Boston in no time. I packed my winter coat but not my winter boots, my running shoes but not my work-out clothes. I even packed my dress pants under the illusion that I still might present at the Canadian Society for Renaissance Studies at Congress. I left my summer dresses and my sandals of course – because to have packed them would have been to admit the possibility I would not return to Boston this summer.

Wednesday March 18th 2020, Boston to Toronto

In the morning, I poured half of my remaining hand sanitizer into a bottle and left it by John’s front door. Instead of leaving the spare key, I stuffed it in my pocket, as if to pointedly remark I will be back shortly. And then we left. 

At the airport John waited on the other side of security to watch me go through. As I turned to wave a final goodbye a guard yelled at everyone to step back from the security line up, startling John enough that he only half-heartedly waved back while shuffling out of sight. In that moment I felt a deep pang of injustice, that not only were we to be separated, but that we were deprived of a satisfactory parting moment. A news update that flashed across my phone provided a note of finality to our separation: the American and Canadian border was officially closing to non-essential travel.

When I got to the gates I passed a disinfectant wipe over my cell phone, laptop and passport. The atmosphere was tense. A woman nearby me coughed, and as everyone turned to look at her she vehemently protested “I’m not sick! I’m not sick!” 

I was equipped with a coveted N95 respirator mask, a parting gift from a couple of scientist friends who had it lying around their house. As I put it on an elderly lady held up her disinfectant wipes, offering some to me. 

“Do you have wipes?” she asked, and when I replied in the affirmative, she nodded contentedly in a way that reminded me intensely of my own grandmother and the feeling of being humbled by the love of someone who extends their protection to you, even though they are the one truly in need of protection.

The flight was delayed, and when we finally boarded there were only seven other passengers. Since Trudeau banned everyone except Americans and Canadians from entering Canada, most of the people using Toronto as a connection for other flights were denied boarding. They spaced us out and told us not to move; since there were so few of us, they had to distribute our weight evenly across the plane. 

At the very last minute the plane door reopened. The flight attendant yelled down the aisle to a passenger, “Where are you going?” 


“Madagascar,” said the woman, “via Toronto and Paris.”

“I’m sorry,” said the attendant, and she beckoned her off the plane.

Later

As the handful of us exited the plane in Toronto we were met with officials wearing heavy-duty respirator masks. They stopped us individually, asking whether we had a fever or cough, and provided information sheets on the coronavirus. We were screened a second time in customs, where we had to declare whether we were sick and sign a document that stated that we were aware of our obligation to self-isolate for fourteen days. When I turned my phone back on I received an email from the airline, sent while I was still up in the air, that stated that flights were suspended until further notice.

April 16th 2020 – Toronto, ON

I spent my period of self-isolation almost entirely in my bedroom. On April 3rd, when I finally ventured out into the world to go grocery shopping, I realized how much the world changed while I was indoors. Almost every business has been closed for weeks now, with the exception of grocery stores, pharmacies and the liquor store.

Tape on the ground outside the grocery stores demarcates how far apart people must stand from one another. There’s a $5000 fine for flouting social distancing guidelines, which mandate that people must stay two meters apart, or by the official measurement of the City of Toronto, “one hockey stick apart.” People are let in one at a time to limit crowding. Everyone in line wears a mask and gloves; some even wear goggles. I boiled my N95 respirator mask and re-used it (a woman in line enviously inquired where I obtained it). Big signs on the store doors forbids anyone who feels sick from entering, and displays the public health phone number prominently. Reusable shopping bags are banned. Inside the store, an employee sprays your cart and gloved hands with disinfectant. Everyone must enter aisles in one direction only and stay well the behind other shoppers. I saw an argument break out when a man stepped too close to a woman in the produce section. At the check-out, plexiglass barriers have sprung up to encase the overwhelmed cashiers, all of whom don T-shirts that say “Stay safe” on the front and, on the backs, “Keep your social distance.”

On the drive home, while the radio whispers the abhorrent circumstances ER doctors, nurses, cleaners and essential workers all find themselves in now, I notice rainbows everywhere. The kids in the neighbourhood draw them with chalk on the sidewalks and fences, and paint them on paper and stick them in the front windows of the houses. Under the rainbows they write “We’re in this together.” A boy in my neighbourhood set up a fundraiser for health-care workers by placing a sheet of fake ice in his drive way in front of a hockey net, with a sign beside it that instructs his neighbours to come by with their hockey sticks, take a shot at the net, and put some change in a little jar on the front lawn. Other children have stuck posters to the telephone poles on the street corners with funny riddles, such as “What holds water even though it’s full of holes?” The answers are illustrated beneath (it’s a sponge). My favourite one, though, is a giant poster prominently displayed on the street: “Everything will be okay.” We hold on to this future. But for now time has become inconsistent. The days are longer than the weeks, which fly as though they are late for history. 

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