Books Review

Vivek Shraya: Next Time There’s A Pandemic

We’ve had pandemics before this one, and by most accounts there will be another in our lifetime.

Statisticians generally agree that, in any year, the probability of experiencing a pandemic ranges from two to four percent. This translates into a “47-57 percent chance of another global pandemic as deadly as COVID in the next 25 years.

So what can what do? As a collective we could take our cues from leaders like Bill Gates who’ve been advocating for this to be our the last pandemic. According to Gates, for this to happen we’ll need at least three things; access to better tools, improved disease monitoring and a more resilient healthcare system.

As individuals there’s a lot we can do which is the focus of Vivek Shraya’s latest work, Next Time There’s A Pandemic. Vivek, who lives in Calgary, Alberta is a self-identified trans, feminine, queer, brown, visual artist, musician and author.

Published this year, through the Canadian Literature Centre (CLC) Lecture Series, Next Time There’s A Pandemic is more of a TED Talk than a lecture. Vivek revisits the past two years amidst the pandemic and has organized these insights into five areas of “reflection”. She begins with a deconstruction of some of the COVID catchphrases we’ve been inundated with such as “Stay safe!” and “We’re all in this together!”. While intended to evoke feelings of being cared for, these phrases are often used by people of privilege. Safety is not a concept that comes as easily for historically marginalized communities. 

“…As a trans, feminine, queer, brown person, regardless of whether there’s a global crisis, I can’t control how others react to me.”

-Vivek Shraya, Next Time There’s A Pandemic

“Stay safe” is also something a person says when things are, in fact, are not safe. When COVID first hit, this country’s leadership couldn’t agree on whether or not we should wear a mask. Added to this, international governing bodies such as the World Health Organization were bungling even the simplest of public messages. So one person’s notion of “safe” fast became another’s source of frustration and fear. Summing up this reflection,Vivek offers up an alternative phrase for us to use, “Stay caring.” This seemly minor re-write opens the possibility for acts of kindness, checking in on others, sharing our mental health struggles, and making space for each other to be vulnerable.

Vivek navigates topics ranging from suicide, survival of the fittest, canceled book tours, and the increased online activity during lockdowns that blurred the line between work and her personal life. Advocating for a more rigorous form of honesty, Vivek calls out the impact of niceties and empty affirmations. She asserts that these gratitude platitudes, while well-intended, can be toxic, inducing guilt and shame as people compare their pandemic mental health to that of their peers. 

By section four Vivek tackles artists and the cultural expectation to “remain relevant” throughout the pandemic. She argues that during a lockdown, an artists’ perceived value is reduced to how much art they churn out coupled with the strength of their online presence. As Vivek grapples with how to remain in the public eye, the pressure to stay relevant is real, forcing her to rethink the way she makes and disseminates art altogether.

While Next Time There’s A Pandemic is a quick read at forty-three pages, Vivek is prolific and concise in her use of words. If you’re looking to feel better about the prospects of another pandemic, or if you’re feeling lost in this one, Next Time There’s A Pandemic is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. •

Buy the book.
Vivek Sharaya’s website.

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