Self-isolation is a term most of us are just learning to wrap our heads around. The advice from the government is quite straightforward about the concept, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau summing it up by saying “don’t go out, unless you absolutely have to.”
Yet the sudden shift from a life of going to the store, visiting friends and leaving our house when we please to this new reality can be jarring. For Betty and George Andersen, they are only a few days into self-isolation and do not mind the change. Yet the reality they left Canada is not the one the same one they came back to when they returned to Hope last week.
As of Friday, the Canadian government has mandated all returning travellers to quarantine, with deputy prime minister Chrystia Freeland saying this mandatory isolation is needed to flatten the curve of the novel coronavirus in Canada.
Traveling through an escalating pandemic
While in Mesa, Arizona, the Andersens started hearing rumours about the Canadian border closing and began to seek out information. At the time there were few cases of COVID-19 in Arizona, George said, and none where they were. Yet when they found the CBC’s coverage and heard Prime Minister Justin Trudea’s address on March 13, they made the decision to pack up and drive home.
They left March 16 and on the first day of their travels everything seemed normal. On their second day of travel they began noticing traffic was easing with mainly trucks on the road. They also got word that hotels along the Las Vegas strip were in the process of shutting down their casinos.
“So we took a ride up the strip and the traffic was absolutely minimal on Las Vegas Boulevard on our way out,” George said. Later that day, they heard the governor of Nevada had ordered all casinos in the state closed. “So things were kind of ramping up and you’re catching little bits and pieces on the radio,” George added.
Stopping in Twin Falls, Idaho, the couple noticed several food items weren’t available at the hotel buffet. “There was a notice saying that anything that was open and not pre-packaged such as the oatmeal and the shredded cheese they put on omelettes and things like that would not be available,” George said.
Responding to COVID-19, hotels across North America have decided to nix breakfast buffets to lessen the risk of spread of the virus.
Having seen some photos of empty store shelves in Canada, which hadn’t been happening in Arizona, the Andersens went into Target to take a look. Whole aisles with paper and sanitary products were cleaned out.
Toilet paper, an item bought in large quantities by many shoppers as the threat of COVID-19 became more evident, was nowhere to be found at a neighbouring grocery store. Joking with a fellow shopper who asked her whether there was any toilet paper, George quipped “there’s a guy out in the parking lot selling it out of the trunk of his car.”
“I thought it was funny. She had this dead serious look on her face and said ‘really?’” George remembers.
By the time they reached Ellensburg, Washington, the response by local authorities was evident – no restaurants were open, with only take-out and delivery options, and their hotel packed up a breakfast for them. The buffet was off the menu.
Some of the scenes they saw on their travels – including the Sumas border crossing and a stretch of the I-84 – were “eerily apocalyptic” as a friend of theirs summed up. Arriving at the border around noon, there was a sole vehicle in front of theirs and one behind them. “We knew at that point, we’re awful glad to be home because something’s very, very, very wrong here,” George said.
“We weren’t frightened or anything like that,” Betty added. “But it was a little surreal.”
Staying home, in Hope
Since getting home, they have been self-isolating. They are in good health, and the weather last week lifted their spirits. “We’re used to spending all day every day together. We very much enjoy each others company,” Betty said, acknowledging that others isolating alone or in difficult situations don’t have it so easy.
Staying indoors doesn’t mean fun can’t be had. Taking a cue from the Italians who’ve been singing on their balconies, the Anderson’s have kicked back to a live concert put on by Dean Z, an Elvis-impersonator they discovered while in Arizona. And they plan to stay connected, while apart, with their neighbours.
“We’ve heard about the people in Italy that are sitting on their balconies, singing and talking to each other,” Betty said. “We’ve going to start here with our neighbours, we’ll each stand in our own driveway and yell across the road to each other. Nothing wrong with that.”
Watch parties on Facebook, as well as connecting with fellow gamers online for Betty, are ways modern connectivity is keeping them in touch with the outside world.
They are also engaging in the to dos – spring cleaning – and old-school hobbies including crocheting. Betty is part of the global movement of blanket makers for Project Linus, who provide blankets to emergency care workers for small children and youth in traumatic situations.
“It’s a good thing to be doing, when you know you’re going to help somebody else, while you’re sitting there isolated,” Betty said.
The Andersen’s say they understand the importance of self-isolating, harkening back to the 1918 to 1920 influenza pandemic. “They did not have the knowledge and the information that we have available to us now, and it killed millions of people,” Betty said. “If we don’t self-isolate, that will happen again. If we do, we can prevent it or at least slow it until it gets to the point where they’ve developed a vaccine and hopefully some other treatments.”
George says the rumours that swirl at a time like this are not helpful and the important thing is getting the facts. Having worked in the funeral industry during the height of the AIDS epidemic, Anderson remembers working with human remains and having to educate himself in an era prior to social media.
“There was almost hysteria involved, if you came across somebody who was gay, because they might be carrying AIDS. We all know so much better now that this wasn’t the case,” he said. “It was simple and easy to educate yourself, just like it is now. It’s just a question of finding the facts and not listening to people’s opinions about it on social media, but actually going to the source.”
The Andersens are continuing to get the facts, via the Prime Minister’s daily statements and B.C.’s chief medical health officer’s daily update as well as government websites.
“We can’t cure the common cold, we can’t stop COVID-19 or anything like that,” George said. “We have a very small part to play, and we’re quite prepared to do what we can do.”