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Surviving the Apocalypse, Again

By Mirjana Uzelac, University of Alberta

I was ten years old when I faced my first apocalypse. It was 1991, and the war had started in Yugoslavia. It seemed like the end of the world. I lived in Serbia, and I remember the economic embargo, political upheavals, and worrying for relatives fighting on different sides of the conflict across the war-torn country. Food shortages and the collapse of the economy.

I was eighteen when I faced my second apocalypse: the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999. This time, it felt more immediate, with danger looming outside. I remember the sirens and the sound of explosions. People would gather on rooftops and look at the sky. People felt like it was the end of days.

It is now 2020, and there is an apocalypse again. This time, it is global, but it does not feel much different. What is different is me: I am now in my late thirties, and I am an anthropologist in Canada. A fresh PhD holder and an instructor at the University of Alberta. I was in the middle of teaching a course on health and healing when the pandemic struck. The courses were moved online and “social distancing” became the leading buzz term. I faced the pandemic with resignation: “well, it is that time again”.

But it does not feel like the end of the world. Having experience with crises does help to put things into perspective. The familiar makes the fear less pronounced. It is “been there, done that”. In a perverse way, the empty shelves in supermarkets have an almost nostalgic feel. This is a sight from my tween years; a sight from home. Familiar.

At the same time, going through such an ordeal again makes me aware of dangers. I do not take it lightly, especially the unknown element. A disease leads to many familiar issues, such as toilet paper shortages and a looming threat, but there is a notable difference. It is not a time for people to get together and provide each other with hugs and support in person. Social distancing is the key measure, which is logical. Yet, it takes away some of the basic human ways to give each other support.

Luckily, technology makes communication more feasible than in the 1990s. Internet connections help. For people like me, the ability to work from home is invaluable. This was never an opportunity for people in my previous apocalypses, which made for varied economic results, often catastrophic. For an introvert like me, working from home is not a challenge, especially since the weather is too cold for me to go outside willingly. I enjoy working in my living room, even with the not-so-picturesque view of the back alley full of scattered beer cans (recently covered with new snow—Edmonton, will you stop?). There is also a view of a neighbourhood cat lazily perched on a windowsill and an occasional hare napping in the snow. The time dilates, as I knew it would—time always dilates in the days of the apocalypse. The March of 2020 already feels like a year.

Working from home has not dampened my productivity, but I do feel online course delivery is time-consuming. I am one of those young (but, sadly, not hip) instructors who had already prepared some course materials online. Early on, I decided on a non-synchronous delivery of lectures. It felt best for the situation: students can access lectures when it suits them, and we get to skip (inevitable) glitches in conference calls. The biggest challenge is voice recording for lectures. I am still learning how to adjust the volume of my voice, and my throat hurts afterwards. Lecturing to an empty room is also strange, in a way I never expected. I have read about a professor lecturing to a room of stuffed animals and I am thinking of implementing something similar. For some reason I cannot explain, I am shy to lecture in front of my husband. He knows me best and will recognize the acting under my “confident” exterior. It also feels deeply uncomfortable to speak in English to him.

But these are unimportant things. Easily solvable. The biggest sources of anxiety are the students and the disruption of the semester schedule. We receive guidelines—directives on what to do: how to conduct examinations, how to grade, what not to do in these situations. Sometimes, things change on a daily basis. It is difficult to keep up. More than anything, I wish to put students at ease and let them know that everything will be all right, but this is beyond my power. I do not want them to worry about studying, while I simultaneously try to keep the semester going. Students write in large numbers, and wonder about their performance, about assignments, about final exams. Replying to emails is another thing that makes online delivery so time-consuming. I teach three courses, with more than 150 students in total. This is a huge number of concerned people to console.

In 1999, during the bombing, the schools were closed. I completed my junior year of high school during that time. And here I am, twenty-one years later, on the other side of the fence. An instructor lecturing during a chaotic, unpredictable, dangerous time. The one thing my experiences have taught me, is that it will pass, eventually. It is not the apocalypse. But it will be a history to remember, and the best we can do is to learn from it.  

Featured image caption: Belgrade, April 2020. Photograph used with permission of Iva Tanacković.

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