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Acting (and thinking) weirdly during the coronavirus pandemic Text and Photos by Bicram Rijal

“Our physical distances between us are not because we mistrust each other, but because we fear the infection by the deadly virus that we know thus far very little about.”

An empty aisle inside Safeway store in Kensington Square Centre, Burnaby, BC on March 17, 2020.

It’s a spring day in Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada. Local time: 11:15am. Day: Sunday. It’s the first time in four days that I have come out of my apartment. I desperately wanted to come out, but I was not encouraged enough until I ran out of some groceries. There was a fear factor too.

I am walking on my way to a nearby grocery store and enjoying the cool spring breeze. I feel that the birds’ chirpings are more audible than during normal times. May be that has to do with a low number of vehicular traffic on the street. The cherry trees inside my daughter’s school compound are yet to bloom, but the native wildflowers—particularly Western Aster (?)—have already taken over the green meadows. The amazing dandelions will soon bloom as well. However, whether my daughter will be able to blow their dried seeds is still a question mark. A lot of uncertainty lies ahead us.

In the nearby Kensington Park, some spring flowers are about to bloom. The wild berry shrubs, maple and other trees have grown the fresh spring leaves. The squirrels are playfully moving around the park occasionally looking for whatever food is available there for them. The crows are flying between the trees. The social life is slow, but nature is on a full swing.

I see a woman with her dog and a child waiting to cross the street at the nearest intersection from where I live. A local transit bus stops in front of me. It is thinly occupied, carrying only 4-5 passengers. A man gets off the bus and walks through the empty gas station. A couple coming from opposite side with probably a 2-year old kid stop at the grassy side beyond the sidewalk until I get past them. They hold their kid from the back and keep him/her in between them before I get too close to them. A bit of protection, I suppose. I feel weird a little bit not by their (re)action but by the circumstance that we are living in during this coronavirus pandemic. A bit ahead, a famous sushi restaurant has a sign on their entrance: “Takeout only.” A neighboring Chinese restaurant has “open” sign up, but there is no sign of activity. It is business unusual, so to speak.

I get close to the long-term care centre, which is located just by the intersection. As soon as I see it, I am frightened. Having heard about most of the coronavirus-related deaths of British Columbia associated to a long-term care centre in North Vancouver—a city just 15 minutes drive from where I am living right now—a weird question hits my mind: “what will happen if the coronavirus is found in this centre?” I feel cold inside. I try not to think about it, but the haunting thought lingers. In hopes of overcoming the dark thoughts I try to walk faster. Then I see a man jogging in the park. Two kids accompanied by a woman are biking nearby. I am sure they must be a family. Seeing the happy kids, I wish I had brought my daughter outside, too.

The street is way calmer than it is used to in normal times. The sidewalks are empty too. I get to the Kensington Square Centre—a closest shopping area from my residence—and find that the vibe is low. A few people are seen wearing a mask. It is hard to find a couple or a family making an errand. Mostly, I see people getting in and out of the stores alone. The group sociality seems to have temporarily paused.

Inside the Safeway store, customers are not talking to each other. The conversation between a staff and a customer is happening in a more-than-usual distance. The aisles for bathroom tissues are all empty. Surprisingly, the milk has run out of stock too. There are floor marks to guide the customers where to stand for checkout so that the 2-meter physical distance is maintained. Unlike other times, the customers don’t rush to the self-checkout counter until the previous customer has cleared all their items and left already. The in-personal communication is rarely happening.

On my way back, I see two cyclists biking from each side of the road. A man coming from opposite direction does not even make eye contact with me. The closer he comes toward me, the more he goes to the side of the walkway. A lone cherry tree is about to bloom, and I remember how beautiful it was looking last year. I had taken many photos and videos. I wonder if it will have enough people this year to enjoy its bloom. I realize the nearby tulips need some water. The soil under them looks extremely dry. After a brief stop for some photos and videos of flowers, I move on.

Flowers at Kensington Park, Burnaby, BC on March 22, 2020.

I arrive at the same intersection where the long-term care centre is located. I push the traffic light button with my elbow. I had learned yesterday to avoid direct contact with my fingers from an American scholar living in Hong Kong. A woman on the other side of the street approaches the intersection. I watch closely whether she will use her finger or not. She uses her palm to press the traffic light button. She had first tried to use her fingertip. But after a slight hesitation, she decides to go with the lower part of her palm instead.

I see kids playing together in the school’s playground, accompanied by two adults. Soon I recognize the faces. It is my daughter’s classmate and his dad. The girl playing with him must be his sister and the woman standing a few meters away must be his mom.

I get inside my building and press the elevator button. When the door opens, I see a new sign attached to its wall. It suggests the occupancy of only 4 people to maintain the recommended physical distancing. It makes me a little happy that the notice does not call it social distancing but “physical distancing.” A more appropriate terming, I guess.

A new sign inside an elevator of my apartment building on March 22, 2020.

As I sit to write down my observation, I wonder why there is weirdness in the way I and other people are acting now. I wonder why we are trying to be distant from each other. And, I convince myself with a provisional answer: the seemingly weird behaviours that we are displaying to each other are not because we want to act that way, but because we need to. Our physical distances between us are not because we mistrust each other, but because we fear the infection by the deadly virus that we know thus far very little about.

Bicram Rijal is a Ph.D. Candidate in Anthropology at Simon Fraser University, Canada.

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