Sunday, April 19, 2020

End Times Margarita 

Stay at home, inside, spinning your wheels. Illustration by Paul Blow

Well, it’s been forty days since I last gathered with friends for a public event. One where we sat together, drank, listened and spoke to each other within a two meter radius and hugged each other good-bye. Forty days in the wilderness. Forty days confined in solitary. Forty. Four-tee. For tea. Language in an empty house sounds strange. It’s strange how long ago forty days feel. Not like a month or so, but almost entirely out of memory. Days pass like weeks. It’s the strangest aspect of this time. Time itself. I usually know the day of the week but have no idea of the day of the month. It’s messing with my perception of time. It’s a forced perspective of time, like a crazy kitchen but with minutes and hours.

Who would’ve thought the word, “unprecedented” would become cliché because we’ve all lost our words to describe the impact of this pandemic (the word "panic" always jumps out at me in pandemic). Yet it is unprecedented. Our current collapse is without rivals and has left us in slack-jawed awe. I’ve seen enough Black Mondays/Wednesdays/Fridays to not even remember which market correction was which. In 2019 over 2 million people had applied for unemployment insurance from a labour force estimated to be around 19 million, now close to a million Canadians have applied for unemployment benefits in March alone. When the Dotcom bubble burst I saw it happen in real time as a group of my colleagues and I were in San Francisco trying to decide which sushi restaurant to go to. The impact of the 9-11 terrorist attacks was previously a benchmark of woe. Travelling got more difficult. Immigration policies changed. Priorities shifted. Sales were down. Layoffs followed. Companies retracted. The spread of viruses like SARS caused Toronto to lose untold millions in productivity and tourism. A week-long power outage that threw the eastern seaboard back 100 years created a mini recession. The housing crash of 2008 wiped out 25% value of my entire RRSP portfolio, erasing years worth of savings which took three years to recover (a similar estimate has been made about current losses). Environmental disasters from pine beetles, forest fires, giant storms, tornadoes, earthquakes all came and went forever changing the lives of those in their wake. Still, it wasn’t like this.

The last time baseball or the hockey season was cancelled was during the 1919 Spanish Flu which persisted over three years. The last time the Olympics were cancelled there was a world war. Forget the fact for a moment that the Tour de France is cancelled and contemplate that Saudi Arabia cancelled the hajj pilgrimage. Certainly in our lifetime we’ve never seen such a confluence of events. There have been wars, droughts, massive forest fires, the shrinking of the polar ice cap, the loss of glaciers and historic protests. Have we ever seen nations close down one country after another, cancelling all sport events, unheard of market collapses, the bottoming out oil prices and the shuttering of whole economies? Airlines, hotels, bars, restaurants, community centres, libraries, theatres all closed shut. It’s like someone wanted to put together a world war, the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl and the Spanish Flu into a giant blender like an End Times margarita.

It’s put a spotlight on our lack of resilience and our just-in-time supply chain. Why is it that our markets, our businesses, our schools, our “way of life” is so dependent on growth that basically standing still leads to a destructive collapse into oblivion? How can never ending growth itself be sustainable? Everyone knows nothing grows forever. My beard grows like crazy for three weeks then just goes into a state of increasing fuzziness. Redwoods grow for hundreds of years but for most of the time they don’t, they just stand like an unchanging totem. Families grow then parents become Empty Nesters. That doesn’t stop economists, politicians and corporate leaders from measuring every and any success by growth. Not by quality or outcome or by satisfaction or happiness or any meaningful measure of wellness but growth. Nations are marked by GNP and GDP and are only valuable if they grow, not by how stable they are. Where do these people think growth comes from? Not even the universe will expand forever. Thus not even this virus will grow forever. Eventually more people will recover than have died and we’ll be on the other side of that curve. In the meantime and before the contraction of the universe, I doubt I’ll see anything quite like this again in my lifetime. At least I hope so.

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