Curtis Fraser, Interviewed by Owen Jacobs
What were you doing when the pandemic was declared in March 2020?
In March 2020, I was working at a law firm in downtown Toronto. I had applied to a graduate program at Guelph, I was pondering my offer, and then I accepted it. So I started my grad studies at Guelph in September 2020. Then basically for my entire graduate school experience, I was pretty much in lockdown, I guess you could say. All of our classes were on-line except one in the fall of 2021. But yeah, just to answer your question, I started my grad studies at Guelph in the fall of 2020.
So you were working at the law firm, and then you went into your grad studies?
Exactly. I was thinking about law school at the time, but then I think news of the pandemic or the lockdown kind of caused me to be like, oh, what should I do now? Like, should I really move away or should I go back to Guelph, where my partner was living at the time, and kind of just stay there for a couple of years. So that's what I ended up deciding to do.
How do you think the impact of COVID was on your graduate studies? Do you think it had a profound impact on what you learned in your studies over that time?
That's an interesting question because I think when I started my grad studies, I was really excited to get started, and I was very studious and always wanting to do the readings, and everything like that. But then by the second semester I noticed I started to feel quite a bit of burnout, I think with just like the same old routine, being in my office every day, doing my readings on PDFs on my computer screen as opposed to being able to go into the library and check the book out and actually read the print text or anything like that. I think as far as how it impacted my studies I think it was hard to do everything online for me, I just didn't really enjoy it very much. I like being able to talk things out with my friends or with other people about historical concepts and things like that. But it felt like a very isolating experience. I also noticed it was just hard to find the motivation to get work done sometimes, especially being at home, trying to separate work life and just personal life and trying to just call it quits for the day or whatever. So I was just constantly doing work into the night when I was supposed to be relaxing or doing my own thing. I was just always doing some work on the side as well and constantly thinking about it. So there wasn't that clear separation, I guess you could say.
The work-life balance was a big problem when you're living every day at home and the days have kind of meshed into one. What did you do to find motivation during the pandemic?
Yes, that's a good one. I have two dogs, so I would go on lots of walks with them and I found that super helpful just to get out of the house because you're just trapped inside all the time. It can be hard to go for a walk or anything like that, it could be hard to sort of pull yourself out to actually do it. So I was lucky that I had my dogs, so I would be forced to kind of get out and go for walks and things like that. I know a lot of my peers just felt trapped all the time, they're like, “I want to go for walks and do things, but I just feel like it's kind of pointless, it feels like I should be doing work or something like that.” But I was like, no, you really need to get out and walk around because you're just trapped inside all the time. So I found what worked best for me was getting out of the house and going for walks with my dogs or cooking dinner and stuff like that. I found during the pandemic, I definitely cooked much more often, and that was a good disconnect from my studies and just sort of a nice outlet just to not worry about anything else and just focus on what you're trying to do and, yeah, I thought those were like my two biggest coping mechanisms.
A lot of new mechanisms for coping were developed during the pandemic. What would you say the impact on your friends and family life was over the course of the pandemic?
It was tough because I think at the beginning everyone was wanting to FaceTime a lot and catch up with each other because we were in lockdown. I don't know if other people had similar experiences to me, but I got very isolated. I was living with my partner, so I had a good amount of social interaction in a day, I thought, because we lived together and we had each other. But there were a lot of friends of mine that I wasn't really reaching out to because I had that social interaction just at home all the time. So I found it sort of hard to be able to reach out and talk with friends or try to arrange virtual hangouts or anything like that. I kind of feel like I fell off the face of the earth because I just didn't want to keep trying to Facetime with friends or call them on the phone. I don't really know why. Then similarly with family, I felt like they were just kind of off, like we were off in our own little world and I would try to keep up with my parents, like once or twice a week. It became tough to just pick up the phone and call someone because you just didn't have it in you sometimes.
Were there any aspects of pandemic life that were good for you, like social interaction with people at home or working online in general? I know most of it was bad, but were there any parts that were good?
It was actually good for my organization because I liked how Zoom meetings and Microsoft Teams meetings went right into your calendar. Organization was something that I struggled a lot with. I think the ability of a lot of my courses to have online formats was actually really good for organization, and that aspect of my life definitely improved. I liked sort of being able to work through things at my own pace and not feeling like I was taking time out of my day to commute to school and stuff like that. Not only that, but I felt like there was a lot more time to work on your projects and work on things like that because you weren't constantly walking around, taking the bus, or trying to get to campus. So that was kind of nice in a way. I didn't really enjoy the virtual format for classes because it was hard to stay engaged at times. It felt very robotic at some of those meetings because everyone had to raise their hand with the function and it kind of took away some of the spontaneity of really good historical discussions or just good class discussions about certain topics. It felt sort of regimented, and it kind of took the purpose out of some of those really good discussions that you have in these classes. So that was one thing that I really didn't like about it, but I think it was good because it gave us more time to sort of work through things. I definitely like some aspects of online learning, but for the most part, I'd say it was a bit tedious and stressful at times.
Do you think that any of your study habits or work habits changed over the course of COVID-19?
I think the pandemic really forced people to change their habits in a way. I'm sort of undecided whether or not it was for the better. I think it worked out well for me because I certainly became more organized, as I said, but it's too hard to say if it was good for everyone in that sense. I know now that when it comes to online, I really dread having online classes or just online meetings with people now because I feel like I had so many of them during the pandemic. Don't get me wrong, I think it was very convenient, and I think it sort of opened up a lot of possibilities for connecting people and far and distant places and working remotely, I think definitely it has its benefits. I think there needs to be more of a balance because if I have classes that are strictly online I'm just so disengaged now because of all the stress of online learning through the pandemic.
How was your experience when you got back to in-person learning?
So my first class back in person was a grad course in September 2021, and it was a course that I didn't really have any background in. I knew the prof, but I didn't really know the content of the course, and I remember feeling overwhelmed and a little bit anxious about going to class. I couldn't tell if it was because I wasn't familiar with the content or if it was because I was going back to in-person social interaction. It was definitely a little overwhelming and I felt pretty anxious at first, but then once I started talking to people in the class I got the little things that I missed during the lockdown, just like little interactions with people in the hall or something like that. It was a really great feeling for me to be able to go back to in-person, but I remember being quite anxious. To be honest, I like now that our classes are back in person in my next degree. It's been great, but I still feel that anxious feeling sometimes when talking in class or when I have gone to the classroom because I think I've just been made to feel that way because of the lockdown. Whereas, when I was hopping into a Zoom call or an MS Teams meeting, I didn't really feel that same sort of anxiety; maybe because it was in the comfort of my own home and I felt a lot more comfortable there. I just think that when you have to go back to in-person there's a lot more preparation, and you have to mentally prepare yourself to have a lot of social interactions and beyond. So I think I really craved it, like going back to in-person stuff, but it was a bit anxiety ridden at times.
Do you feel like going back to in-person learning outweighed the anxieties of the new-found social interaction after the pandemic?
Oh yeah, for sure. I think it was like, don't get me wrong, I definitely got nervous, sometimes nervous about going back to in-person and having those social interactions. The benefits from human interaction in person were just far outweighed by some of those anxieties. To me, it was so much more real to have that grad course that we had back in person, like just being able to have those very thought-provoking seminar discussions and being able to parse stuff out and not just having to be super robotic about you know, raising your hand and even if you have a good point you have to sit and wait for like five people to share their answers (In online lectures). Sometimes if you have something good you just have to say it, I'd say there are so many more benefits to being back in person. I think everyone was sort of in the same boat, everyone was really craving that in-person interaction and everyone sort of had this mutual respect for each other because of it. There weren't any expectations on how to perform socially because we were all just sort of trying to get our bearings back. I would say that even though it was a bit nerve-wracking to go back in person, the benefits far outweighed some of those negative thoughts.
Has there been any impact on you in the past year from the lingering Covid-19?
Yeah. I think it still has led us to be careful about the decisions that we make, but I think there has been a bit of complacency. Myself, I think our experience with COVID now is like we're a lot more familiar with it, and I think because of that we've become more complacent. I feel like I haven't had many experiences with COVID myself over the last year, or even the last few months because I haven't really been thinking about it that much. I still have to wear masks when going to school and stuff like that, as Brock University still has a mask mandate in place. So I mean, I would much prefer not to be wearing masks, to be honest, but I get it that they're important still. Other than that I haven’t had many experiences with COVID over the last few months.
As someone who studies history, how do you think COVID-19 will be remembered in the future? Say in 100 years, or 150 years, how do you think people will think about it?
Yes, that's a fascinating question, and it's something that we've talked so much about in a lot of my courses, when I think back to my experiences during the pandemic, I remember there were so many defining moments that happened over that period. There was the White House insurrection, there was the freedom convoy in Ottawa, and there was lots of distress among people in our society. There were a lot of people frustrated, a lot of people angry, and people had different ways of sort of lashing out and showing their frustration. There was also the Black Lives Matter movement, and I think when we reflect on our pandemic, it's not so much about COVID-19 because it was more of how people responded to that and what sort of social movements came as a result. If you look back to these two years just ticking through, just everything that happened from 2020 to 2022, historians are going to have a crazy time trying to figure out what happened in the future. So I think when people think back on the pandemic, they're going to think about how the disease impacted society and people's motivation to revolt or people's motivation to protest or, you know, lash out on social media.
I think there's a lot of that's going to come out of it, I guess from more of a societal perspective. But I think we also talk about some of the things that we're going to remember, like physical things, and we're obviously going to think about masks and those little tests. If someone saw a picture of one of those rapid tests in the future, it'll be interesting to see how they interpret that, and if they showed that to a person who was living through the pandemic, how they would react to one of those rapid tests? I don't know how frequently they'll be used in our future. If I were to create a museum exhibit think as far as physical things, those are definitely the big pieces that I think would be prevalent in there.
What do you recall about the Omicron outbreak in around December, or January 2021/2022? What do you remember about that?
I remember there was by that point, a lot of complacencies already about COVID and hearing that we were going to go back into another very strict lockdown was very demoralizing to a lot of people. Omicron was sort of this defining variant that was going to infect everyone, we're like, no matter what we can do about it, we will be infected by this, there was a lot of fear around it. I don't think it was necessarily just because of like the severity of that variant itself, but it was more like thinking about the lasting effects of long COVID and things like that, like if it had a significant impact on long-term health. There are even some studies that show that it had a negative association with mental health and things like that. So there's a lot of just uncertainty about what that meant. Like if it was going to be more contagious, how would that look in the long run sort of thing? So I remember it just being quite demoralizing to a lot of people.
I caught the Omicron variant myself, and it was very intense for a few days. I remember I could barely get out of bed and my cough was so bad at times. And yeah, it's still like I got better after about a week, but I remember still feeling quite sick for about a month or so afterwards. There was still a lot of fatigue that sort of lingered around for several months after the fact that I had recovered from that variant. I guess, my summary of that whole response was that it was a very demoralizing period of the pandemic because people had been hunkering down for so long, and we had been looking for sort of an endpoint. We were expecting by that point in the year that we would be able to get back to somewhat normal, and it was just like sort of hitting a brick wall and really realizing that we’ve got to strap ourselves in for another few months here.
We talk about complacency along with the long-term side of COVID-19 and its lasting effect in society. Do you think complacency nowadays will lead to an even longer COVID-19, existence or impact on people?
Oh, yeah, totally. Because I think complacency has a lot of ways that it manifests itself. I think a lot of that can play into vaccine hesitancy or just, you know, willingness to mask up or be more cautious when you have a cold. I know a lot of peers of mine still, despite our last two years, if they have a sore throat they're just like, “oh, it's just a sore throat. Like I can still go out and socialize and be in public and stuff like that.” Then you're seeing people just getting sick from that, it might not be COVID, but it could be just a sore throat and some minor cold, but still, that's how complacency has sort of manifested itself. It's like we've been told to stay in for so long, even if we have the slightest hint of symptoms then we have to stay in.
Now that people think that COVID is sort of becoming a thing of the past, people are overreacting now and just trying not to avoid social situations or public gatherings at all costs. People are willing to go out if they have some minor symptoms or things like that. So I think that's sort of like that sense is how complacency is manifesting itself, and then we also see it with vaccine hesitancy, like people's willingness to continue to get boosters and things like that. I think we know that COVID-19 will be a thing moving forward and there will be variants that manifest themselves alongside the seasonal flu. People's willingness to get vaccines are already dropping because of complacency and people trying to cope with living with the disease, so you see that as well. So yeah, I think those are two big things with complacency that will continue to have an effect on COVID-19 still circulating.
What is one thing that you would like to see handled better in a hypothetical future outbreak? What is one thing that you'd like to see handled better?
I don't know if this would actually be a better solution, but I think having information coming from one unbiased source, but I don't really know what that looks like, and I don't even know if it's realistic. A lot of the time when we got news about the pandemic we had no idea what was going on. We would hear from so many different doctors and so many different epidemiologists, political leaders, and social activists, there was just so much information coming from so many different sources. Don't even get me started on fake news and misinformation circulating on social media. I think there just has to be one trustworthy source that is completely from an unbiased perspective. I don't even know what that looks like, but I think if it was coming from a single person I think it would just be a lot less confusing for some people because I think having all that information from so many different speakers just overwhelmed the public at times and it kind of got lost in translation a little bit.