The Pandemic Papers: Sophia Smith

Sophia SmithThis essay is part of a series of reflections by UTM visual studies students about the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. The essay collection will be donated to Heritage Mississauga where it will become part of the city’s official historical record of everyday life during the global health crisis. Read the full series here >

In this essay, second-year Communication, Culture, Information & Technology student Sophia Smith writes about the surprise of seeing North Americans wear face masks, and about the strange journey across the border to reunite with her family in the United States.

I explicitly remember the very first time I was made aware of COVID-19: I was on the treadmill at my apartment gym and CNN and CP24 news channels were both on…discussing an unknown virus that was hitting Wuhan, China. The virus was beginning to spread outside of Mainland China. Two cases were in Toronto.

I had absolutely no worry about the virus. I never assumed the virus would have the power to pause the world in the way it has. I did worry about my parents, who were living in Beijing for my father’s job. Luckily, my parents made it out of China before the seriousness of the virus began to cause travel bans and government regulated quarantines.

Weeks passed and life was seemingly going on as normal, although the virus began to dominate the media. I found myself consumed by the news onTwitter, Instagram or [mainstream] news platforms. Unfortunately much of the misinformation and conspiracy theories made it difficult to know what was truly going on. I continued to commute to class, go to my part time job, hit the gym and go out with my friends. Although I was a little worried, the seriousness of the virus had yet to resonate. The gravity of the situation seemed to leap within the span of a couple days in early March when the World Health Organization named it a global pandemic. On March 13, UTM canceled all in-person classes. Nonessential businesses began closing. Grocery stores started to overflow with people buying way too much toilet paper, hand sanitizer, cleaning sprays and masks.

Masks. An item that I had almost never seen worn in North America began to flood public spaces. Growing up in Tokyo I was used to seeing an abundance of white masks covering half of people’s faces. Some would wear them just for the sake of not wanting to wear makeup (myself included). Streetwear brands like Off-White and BAPE even make reusable masks which have become fashionable items. Since moving to Canada, I had never worn a mask. It was not part of the cultural norm and oftentimes people I had seen wearing masks in public would be met with glares and concern. In Japan, people wear the masks to prevent spreading any symptoms to others, whilst in Canada and other Western countries I find the individualist culture means people only wear them to protect themselves.

The day of my flight came and I made my way to the airport. I wore a face mask, sunglasses, gloves and hoodie. The usually incredibly long line ups of people at security and customs at Pearson Airport were now empty and almost apocalyptic. I encountered less than 15 people in the terminal, all of whom were wearing masks. As I boarded the plane, I smiled at the flight attendant not realizing she couldn’t see my face at all. I think that is the thing about masks—they hide our emotions, inhibiting us from fully communicating with each other and providing a sense of isolation.

I arrived in Chicago for my layover where the usually busy airport was much like YYZ—practically deserted. I made it onto my next flight and soon met my parents at the airport in Burlington, Vermont. Like Toronto, all nonessential businesses were closed (somehow liquor and cannabis stores are essential). After spending a couple days there, my parents decided we should fly to their home in Sedona, Arizona to be closer to my sister and to self-isolate in a beautiful place which was usually very secluded anyways.

Since arriving here, I have not watched any news coverage, and have avoided much of the talk of the virus on social media on the virus (although I have been entertained by the memes and Instagram challenges).

The days have begun to blend together so, in order to keep my sanity, I make sure to perform certain tasks every day: meditate, exercise, enjoy the time I don’t typically get to spend with my family, and remember what I am grateful for. And, of course, I’m spending significant time adjusting to online lectures, attempting to write assignments with some coherency, and studying for the online finals coming up.

Looking forward, I know that this global crisis will make me appreciate the ability to physically interact with others much more and appreciate all of things we at this present time cannot do.