Survival in the Time of COVID

No rice. No pasta. No flour. No yeast. And yikes, no toilet paper!

COVID-19 has us all spooked and not just because we’re afraid we might end up intubated in our friendly neighbourhood ICU. No, we’re spooked because we’re afraid our friendly neighbourhood grocery store might run out of food. Shelves that are normally stocked with a plethora of choices are barren. Or down to the one and only brand we wouldn’t be caught dead buying. Until now.

Enter panic buying and hoarding.

We’ve become so accustomed to stores offering us goods from around the world that we think nothing of it. The problem is, that wealth of options is the result of a supply chain stretching around the globe, one that depends on a fragile web of interconnectedness. We have become dependent on those supply chains for everything, and it now threatens to break under the strain of the pandemic. We have lost our self-sufficiency, not only to grow but also to preserve our food. Now, we feel vulnerable.

What’s a shopper to do? We need only look at history to find potential answers.


My grandparents faced a similar dearth of options, not once but twice, during each of the World Wars. Governments decreed it necessary to send as much food as possible overseas to feed both Great Britain and the troops. Hoarding and profiteering were declared unpatriotic. Certain items – sugar, flour, eggs, butter and meat were strictly rationed. Even alcohol was rationed but provinces, not the federal government, set those amounts. Vegetables were about the only food group that wasn’t rationed. From 1939 to 1942, rationing was a voluntary action, but beginning in 1942 the Canadian government issued ration booklets to each person, 11 million in all.

World War II ration books. Left: Province of Saskatchewan Beer and Alcohol ration books (courtesy of Eastend Museum); Right: My grandparents’ ration books.

How much were people allowed? Could you manage on these WEEKLY (per person) allowances?

Sugar: one cup (the average Canadian eats twice that much today)
Tea: two ounces, OR Coffee: eight ounces. (because these items came from other countries)
Butter: four ounces
Meat: 24-32 ounces.

These restrictions led to some creative cooking. Eggs were replaced with vinegar and baking soda, or with applesauce. “Drippings” – the fat from frying bacon or cooking roasts (when available) – were saved and used for frying and baking. A “War Cake” used no eggs, butter or milk, and apparently tasted very good. Margarine, being a vegetable product, became widely used as a butter substitute. Potatoes, also widely available, when mashed would eke out the meager flour allotment to make pastry. And just in case you were at a loss for how to cope, the Government had scores of booklets to advise you.

Two items still with us became popular during the war – Kraft Dinner and Spam. Spam was a staple in soldiers’ ration kits who, it is rumoured, not only ate it but also used to it grease their rifles and boots! No one knows where the name “Spam” came from: short for “spiced ham,” or “an acronym for either “shoulders of pork and ham” or “Special Processed American Meat.” Take your pick. As for KD, well, a quick glance at the supermarket shelf tells how popular it still is.

One side-effect of rationing – the black market. If you knew the right people and had the money, you could still get whatever you wanted. Just don’t get caught because the penalties were high.

We may not like the idea of government-imposed rationing, but it’s one way to limit panic buying and ensure that everyone is able to buy what they need. Some stores are already imposing rationing of a sort by limiting the number of items you can buy of certain products.

Next: Survival in the Time of COVID, Part 2: Gardening

#COVID19 #Coronavirus #Rationing #FoodInsecurity #FoodHoarding #FoodSelfSufficiency #History #HannaFamilyHistory #HighamFamilyHistory #MargaretGHanna

Bread of Life

Man may not live by bread alone but it’s a good place to start.

Bread is as essential to us of European descent as rice is to Asia. We “break bread” together. We give thanks for our “daily bread.” When women, a century ago, marched for better working conditions and the right to vote, they sang “Give us bread and roses.”

I grew up with bread-making. Mom made bread, six loaves at a time, almost every week. We knew what was in store the day she saved the potato water. Tomorrow, there’d be bread fresh out of the oven when we got home from school! We could taste it, smell it, from that moment on.

Next morning by breakfast-time, Mom was already scooping flour out of the bin. She baked so much that we bought flour (and sugar) in 100 lb sacks. (As an aside, those flour sacks were recycled. Once the flour was dumped out, she unpicked the seams, washed and bleached them to remove the trade marks – either Five Roses or Robin Hood – and then handed them off to me to hem for dish towels. She told me when she grew up during the Dirty Thirties, her mother made those flour sacks into underclothes for the girls or shirts for the boys). She was kneading the dough by the time we left for school. The bread was into its second rise when we came home for dinner – we lived only a quarter-mile from school – and soon it would be in the pans.

The heavenly aroma of bread greeted us as we ran in the door after school. The loaves were out of the pan, cooling. Time for “coffee”, the mid-afternoon lunch that was both tradition and ritual in our family. Mom and Dad had coffee; my brother and I had milk. Mom cut the still-warm bread; it steamed as she let the first piece – the heel – fall away. Then, to prevent a battle royal from breaking out, she cut the heel off the other end of the loaf.

You see, my brother and I both preferred the heel (still do) because we could slather on no end of butter and jam without it falling apart. The heel made a most satisfying crunch when we bit into it. And it had more flavour, or so we claimed, than the inner slices.

By the end of “coffee,” we had demolished the better part of that first loaf.

Bread-making fell by the wayside for many families. It was easier to get your loaf ready-made from the grocery store or the bakery. Now, in the midst of this pandemic, people seem to have rediscovered bread-making. Yeast and flour are almost as rare as toilet paper.

My husband uses a bread machine but, for me, the grind and thump of the machine is no substitute for the physical, visceral experience of kneading bread. At its most elemental, it is a communion of person, flour, water and yeast.

Kneading is meditation – turn, fold, push, repeat again and again. I rock back and forth with each turn and push.

It is physical – I feel the dough give and resist, give and resist.

It is sensual – the smell of flour and yeast, the dough turning from sticky and obstreperous to smooth and satiny. Every now and then, the dough speaks, a slight squeak as an air bubble pops.

And it is memory reenacted, memories of my mother and her mother before her, standing at a counter, participating in a ritual generations-old.

Then magic happens. This seemingly inert mass of flour and water and yeast grows and expands before your very eyes. It seems so fragile – poke it and it collapses with a sigh. Yet it is resilient; it expands once again, this time taking the shape of whatever you want to create, be they loaves, buns, cinnamon rolls – the possibilities are endless.

Perhaps that’s the lesson to be learned from bread-making in the midst of this pandemic – that even though we may appear fragile, we are also resilient. Although we may collapse in the face of something overwhelming, we will rise again. That our strength, our resiliency, grows out of our malleability.

There’s more than food for the body in that humble loaf of bread.

#BreadMaking #Meditation #ChildhoodMemories #COVID19 #Resiliency #Hope #Courage #MargaretGHanna

Notes from the Isolation Ward, Postscript

The Fashion Statement Du Jour

Like Cat Stevens sang, “It’s a wild world . . . just remember there’s a lot of bad and beware.”

Now that we can go out, do we want to? And should we wear a mask? The experts are equivocating on that, but one thing they agree on – non-medical masks should be reserved for all the workers who so desperately need them. What are the rest of us to do? Wear cloth masks, of course.

I thought, I can make some of those. I can sew. I have piles of fabric scraps left over from a myriad of past projects. I have a stash of elastics of all widths and strengths.

The CDC has instructions for making cloth face masks. They are quite simple and easy to follow. All you need (aside from a sewing machine) are some fabric scraps and elastic. I took a few liberties with their instructions (my husband says, never try to tell a Hanna what to do) and whipped up 4 in an hour or so. And they’re reusuable — wash them in soapy water once you’re back home. Wash your hands, too.

All dressed up, but wait, is there any place to go?

Some people think that, just because you are wearing a mask, they can invade your 6-foot space and cozy up to you. So, using my basic freehand machine embroidery skills, I added a certain message, telling people – politely, of course; I am Canadian – to “Back Off!”


I know, being Canadian, I should have written “2 meters,” not 6 feet. But here’s the thing: the coronavirus doesn’t give a rat’s ass about the unit of measurement you use. Leagues, nautical miles, fathoms, parsecs, whatever; all coronavirus wants is your body to turn into a factory so it can churn out gazillions and gazillions of tiny baby coronaviruses.

And they’re not even cute!

Now that I’m all dressed up, it’s time to hit the grocery store. See ya’.

Keep safe.

#COVID-19 #NovelCoronavirus #SelfIsolation #Quarantine #FaceMasks #GoodNeighbours #Pandemic #KeepingSanitized #SocialDistancing #MargaretGHanna

Notes from the Isolation Ward, Day 14

Now What?

“Free at last! Free at last!
Praise God Almighty, we’re free at last!”

It started as a spiritual and became the mantra for the civil rights movement of the 1960s, but now it feels like our song as we end our quarantine and are finally “free at last” to go out of our house.

But, to go out for what? To be infected? It’s a dangerous world out there. COVID-19 lurks around every corner, in every nook and cranny, in every less-than-six-feet space. And it could be like that for weeks, months even!

We don’t have N95 masks, or full face masks, or haz-mat suits (don’t think my painter coveralls qualify), or any of the other PPE that is in such short supply for those who really need it – all those people who HAVE to go outside their homes.

No thanks, we think we’ll stay home.

Being quarantined hasn’t been all that different from our normal life, but then we’re not teenagers who seem unable to conceive of life without a gaggle of friends to hang out with (although I do miss hanging out with my friends of the Airdrie Writers’ Group). No, our usual, pre-COVID outings were to:

a) the grocery store (when we feel really adventuresome, we go to Costco),
b) the pharmacy (we’re of that age when pills are a part of everyday life),
c) Canadian Tire (you never have the right-sized screw), and
d) the occasional visit with relatives.

So you see, we did not lead the most exciting life pre-COVID. The only way I spiced it up was by going to my favourite shopping venue – the Salvation Army Thrift Store. Guess I won’t be doing that for a while.

I want to end my last post of this series on a serious note, namely, a huge Thank-You to all the people who do not have the luxury of enjoying the safety of quarantine and who, as a consequence, run the risk of becoming infected themselves (this has already happened to many, some of whom have died):

– all who work in hospitals and nursing homes: doctors, nurses, interns, orderlies, cleaners, cooks
– all the first responders: EMT personnel, firemen, policemen (heart attacks, crime and fires don’t stop during a pandemic)
– grocery store workers, garbage collectors, pharmacists, postal workers, undertakers, taxi drivers, public transit workers, railway workers
– truck drivers and everyone who keeps the supply chain going (how else are we going to get toilet paper?) and those who provide them with food and bathrooms
– utility workers who keep us supplied with endless amounts of electricity, natural gas (or whatever heats your home) and water (so we can wash our hands)
– those who look after the homeless, who work in food banks and women’s shelters, and who staff the crisis phone lines
– everyone who goes above and beyond the call of duty

I also want to extend my sympathies to those who have lost loved ones during this pandemic. It’s hard enough to lose a beloved family member; it’s doubly tragic when you cannot be with them during their last days.

And let’s hear it for the scientists and researchers who are desperately seeking a vaccine for this nasty beastie.

I applaud those political leaders who have risen to the challenge of leading their constituents through the pandemic by being honest and forthright. They put to shame those who have not.

As for the millions who have been laid off or whose businesses are shuttered, who still face rent and mortgages and bills in spite of having no income – what can I say? I can’t imagine the anxiety, stress, even terror you are facing. “We’re in this together” and “This, too, shall pass” are trite and condescending in the face of such a bleak and worrisome future. I hope the promised government assistance arrives in time to see you through to whatever lies beyond.

Stay safe. Wash your hands. Keep your distance. Look after each other. We’ll get through this. We may be scarred, but we’ll get through it.

#COVID-19 #NovelCoronavirus #SelfIsolation #Quarantine #FreeAtLast #Gratitude #Hope #GoodNeighbours #Pandemic #KeepingSanitized #SocialDistancing #MargaretGHanna

Notes from the Isolation Ward, Day 13


I didn’t realize how quiet it was until I heard a plane fly over a couple of mornings ago.

Normally, planes flying over our house is normal. We live right under the glidepath to one of Calgary International Airport’s two main runways; the other glidepath is just to the east of us. During airport rush hours, planes constantly arrive and depart overhead. The air is filled with their roars and whines. One of our summer “games” is to identify the airline of each plane and then to imagine where it might be coming from (or going to, if it is taking off).

But the other morning, when I heard that plane fly over, I realized it was the first one I had heard in a long time. The occasional plane still flies over, but mostly the skies are silent.

We live a stone’s throw from what’s known as the Trischools area – a complex consisting of a French immersion primary school, a middle school and a high school. Right now, assuming the wind is blowing in the right direction, we should be able to hear the students laughing and shouting when they’re out for recess. At the very least, we should hear the buzzer indicating time to change class. And the honk and squeal and rumble of cars come to pick up the children.

But now, nothing. Silence.

We live just west of Alberta Highway 2, known as the QE2 (after Queen Elizabeth the Second). It’s a heavily traveled route between Calgary and Edmonton, filled with cars, trucks and buses rushing to and fro at all hours of the day and night. During morning and afternoon rush hours, it’s bumper-to-bumper traffic between Airdrie and Calgary. When there’s an east wind, it sounds as if the highway is right beside our house. Normally, we hear that traffic; well, truth be known, we’re so used to it, our brains don’t even register it any more.

Now, the roar has been reduced to a murmur, a whisper.

Who knew the absence of sound could be louder than sound itself.

#COVID-19 #NovelCoronavirus #SelfIsolation #Quarantine #Silence #AbsenceOfSound #GoodNeighbours #Pandemic #KeepingSanitized #SocialDistancing #MargaretGHanna

Notes from the Isolation Ward, Day 12

Learning a New Skill

They say being in quarantine is as good a time as any to learn a new skill. Or to make another stab at learning a skill.

BanjoPickinMommaSo here I am, trying once again to become proficient on the banjo.

Now, before you clap your hands over your ears, scream “Oh, no!” and ask, “Are you nuts?” let me say that I have always loved the banjo. To me, the banjo is a cheerful, fun-loving, toe-tapping, gotta-get-up-and-dance joyful sound. If I had to personify it, the banjo would be the quirky aunt or uncle who refuses to act his/her age (whatever that means) and who continually regales the family with embarrassing stories or slightly off-colour jokes and, in the process, leaves everyone laughing their heads off. Not like the guitar who would be the fine, upstanding, prim-and-proper, always-there-for-you relative who doesn’t get the jokes. Or at least, refuses to laugh at them. Continue reading “Notes from the Isolation Ward, Day 12”

Notes from the Isolation Ward, Day 11

Keeping Sanitized (part 2)

My hands have never been so clean. I may even have washed the top layer of skin cells off. If cleanliness is next to godliness, I have the holiest hands around.

I have always been rather cavalier about hand-washing. I grew up on a farm with a limited water supply. And an outhouse. And a barn filled with cattle, and a hog barn with hogs and a hen house with (you guessed it) hens. Lots of opportunities to get my hands  dirty. I mean, filthy dirty! And whenever we ate lunch or a meal in the field (especially during harvest), we’d just wipe our dirty, oftentimes greasy, hands on our equally dirty, sometimes greasy, pants, or on the grass or on the stubble, and then sit down and tuck into whatever food Mom had cooked. Continue reading “Notes from the Isolation Ward, Day 11”

Notes From the Isolation Ward, Day 10

Keeping Sanitized (Part 1)

Do you know how many things in your house you touch each day? Let me give you a hint: EVERYTHING! Well, almost everything. By the way, did you just touch your face while reading this?

Long before we started our trek home, I made a dilute bleach solution to disinfect things we had touched in the trailer. I started with the kitchen counter (spray, wipe). Next, the microwave and toaster oven (spray, wipe). The cupboard doors and drawers (spray, wipe). Oh wait, the coffee maker and toaster (spray, wipe). The bathroom sink and toilet. And what about the shower door? And the bedroom doors? Argh! Continue reading “Notes From the Isolation Ward, Day 10”

Notes from the Isolation Ward, Day 9

Step Right Up, Folks. Getcher Snake Oil Here!

COVID-19 virus isn’t the only polluting thing going around. The internet is also polluted with a myriad of posts extolling the virtues of various snake oils. (Not sure what snake oil is? Check it out on the NPR site.)

Snake Oil #1: Tea. A social media post has gone viral that researchers from the Zhejiang Provincial Center for Disease Control and Prevention in China found that, because of its chemical components, drinking tea could help prevent novel coronavirus infections. Now, I have to drink tea while chanting “O-o-o-o-o-o-h-m.” (See “Notes from the Isolation Ward, Day 4.“) Continue reading “Notes from the Isolation Ward, Day 9”