As it became evident to me that the COVID-19 pandemic had become a life-altering phenomenon on a global scale, soon after I received news that the NBA’s regular season had been canceled on Wednesday, March 11, 2020, I began to think about writing an article on it and its many implications.

However, for approximately five days, I entered a psychological downward spiral that was perpetuated by a traumatic event that affected my family, in addition to experiencing the stress and confusion created by my initial interpretations of the pandemic.

Since the beginning of this year, the Coronavirus pandemic has touched me, my family, my friends, my colleagues, all Torontonians, all Canadians, all human beings, and our planet as a whole.

It took me nearly a week to find stable ground, to accept a new normal, and to begin navigating the learning curve of the Coronavirus pandemic. With the help of many books and articles, my parents, my family, my friends, one of my psychotherapists, support groups, my mentors, a handful of colleagues, and some of my clients, I have been able to feel grounded. Practices like hatha yoga, meditation, journaling, and others are valuable tools in my life. 

I am certainly lucky and privileged in many ways, and without the aforementioned tools and support systems, I have no doubt that the downward spiral that I was in the midst of would have continued for much longer.

Miraculously, I am doing much better today than I was for the vast majority of this year. I can now express my thoughts on the Coronavirus pandemic through this article while creating new works of art, articles, businesses, products, and services to help a number of people during the pandemic and in the future, especially in relation to their mental health. It may take me months or years to fully process the magnitude of COVID-19.

The Financial District, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Photographer: Ajani Charles
The Financial District, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Photographer: Ajani Charles

Professionally, and as I mentioned through a recent interview with the Toronto Guardian, many of my projects and many aspects of my current businesses have come to a standstill. And countless entrepreneurs throughout Canada and the world are in the same position or worse, depending on their fixed costs, their industries, and many other variables.

At this point, it is quite obvious that the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic are manyfold, far-reaching, and that they have changed the fabric of human life and human history forever. 

In downtown Toronto, where I reside, the streets have never been emptier, and each morning, when I look out from my balcony, the once densest part of Canada resembles a dystopia from the minds of George Orwell and The Wachowskis.

Previously mundane activities like walking around the streets of Toronto or going grocery shopping have become anxiety-provoking and paranoia-inducing adventures.  

Half a decade ago, Bill Gates, The Bill And Melinda Gates Foundation, The World Health Organization, and many health experts including Tom Frieden and his team at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention addressed the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, which led to the death of more than 10,000 people. 

During the outbreak, and by leveraging data on global public health policies, human history, and more, Bill Gates made the now-infamous “The Next Pandemic? We’re Not Ready” TED Talk, which accurately describes the pandemic that we are now experiencing. 

H&M, Toronto Eaton Centre, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Photographer: Ajani Charles
H&M, Toronto Eaton Centre, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Photographer: Ajani Charles

Eerily, Gates stated that we are “simply not prepared to deal with a disease — an especially virulent flu, for example — that infects large numbers of people very quickly. Of all the things that could kill 10 million people or more, by far the most likely is an epidemic.” 

Gates believes that we can prevent future catastrophes by building a global warning and response system for epidemics, soon after the Coronavirus pandemic has been contained. His vision for a global warning system would apply the kind of planning that goes into national defense — systems for training, recruiting, and equipping healthcare providers; investments in new tools and so on, specifically to prevent and contain outbreaks.

As expressed through his recent Washington Post opinion piece, Gates has stated that the solution to the Coronavirus pandemic must include the shutdown of all personal travel and non-essential businesses, while also enforcing social distancing and states of lockdown, especially throughout America, until mid-July 2020. He also believes that most governments must increase their volumes of daily testing, and finally, according to him, the COVID-19 pandemic will not come to an end until a vaccine has been developed and implemented, which will take no less than a year and a half.   

Humanity has not faced a pandemic as disruptive as the COVID-19 pandemic since the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic.

Most flu outbreaks disproportionately kill the very young and the very old, but the pandemic of 1918 led to a higher than expected mortality rate for young adults, ultimately killing approximately 17 million people worldwide. 

COVID-19 may not be as deadly as the Spanish Flu, and it may not be as potentially harmful to young adults, but it has disrupted life as we know it to a greater degree than the Spanish Flu did, simply because our world is vastly more complicated than it was in 1918.

Uknown Chinese Restaurant, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Photographer: Ajani Charles
Uknown Chinese Restaurant, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Photographer: Ajani Charles

Toronto is a complex system. New York City is a complex system. Beijing is a complex system, and globally, human civilization is a complex system. Complex systems are systems whose behavior is intrinsically difficult to model due to the dependencies, competitions, relationships, or other types of interactions between their parts or between a given system and its environment.

Complex systems exhibit phenomena such as nonlinearity, adaptation, emergence, spontaneous order, and feedback loops, among others. And when a wrench like a global pandemic is thrown into a complex system, it is impossible for anyone to predict the outcome accurately. 

So, while there are many theories as to when the COVID-19 pandemic will end globally, there is no definitive end date as it stands. No one has the capacity or knowledge to predict its end accurately. There are too many variables.

In “The Ingenuity Gap”, a non-fiction book written between 1992 and 2000, Canadian academic Thomas Homer-Dixon argues that the problems faced by human civilization are currently so complex that our ability to implement solutions is not keeping pace. There is a gap between our current challenges and the ingenuity needed to transcend them.

To Homer-Dixon, the COVID-19 pandemic is simply one of many game-changing world issues that humanity faces, it is reminiscent of many phenomena that collapsed numerous civilizations in the past, and we must mobilize the brightest minds that humanity has to address challenges such as the next pandemic, the growing rich-poor gap, climate change, and future wars, to avoid the convergence of these problems in a way that becomes unsolvable.

I am a photographer, director, producer, and mental health advocate with a fine arts background, a philosophy degree, and a unique life story. I have studied many subjects intensely, I have many hobbies and interests, I have met and worked with many experts and world leaders of all kinds around the world, but I am by no means an expert on global pandemics, their effects on complex systems, or what comes next for humanity as a whole. I have no idea how the COVID-19 pandemic will play out.

Nathan Phillips Square, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Photographer: Ajani Charles
Nathan Phillips Square, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Photographer: Ajani Charles

At this point, I am not quite sure who to fully trust, when it comes to a number of potential solutions to the pandemic and its disruptive implications. I have presented some information that seems credible to me throughout this piece — information that ought to be scrutinized, regardless of how credible it may seem to me and others.

Unfortunately, since the pandemic became an obvious disruption to life as we once knew it, I have noticed that The Dunning-Kruger effect has become far more prevalent than before, especially online. In the field of psychology, the Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which people with low ability at a task overestimate their ability. 

Since COVID-19 has become ubiquitous, I have noticed that retail employees, hatha yoga instructors, singers, delivery drivers, and basketball players have suddenly become economic experts, historians, epidemiologists, nutritionists, political scientists, and prophets. All of a sudden, the average joe or jane knows exactly how a global pandemic will play out. 

The internet has become inundated with absurd and completely nonsensical conspiracy theories about the Coronavirus — conspiracy theories that cannot be proven or acted on in any practical way, and that do nothing to help humanity in the here and now. 

So, I encourage everyone with an internet connection to vet the sources of information that they ingest on a daily basis while questioning what they believe to be true, whether they are studying the COVID-19 pandemic or any other subject. This article ought to be questioned and criticized too.

Simply because a source of information is online or shared widely or shared by a public figure does not make it credible, accurate, or true.

MAC Fitness Centre, Ryerson University, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Photographer: Ajani Charles
MAC Fitness Centre, Ryerson University, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Photographer: Ajani Charles

Also, most people can benefit from limiting their internet and social media use in general and in light of the Coronavirus pandemic, as much of the COVID-19 pandemic headlines, articles, and memes can be anxiety-provoking, depressing, or confusing when consumed at a high volume. 

Nothing that I can write will do justice to the millions of people that have been traumatized by hospitalizations and deaths perpetrated by the Coronavirus, nor can anything that I say accurately describe the profundity of the confusion, existential angst, anxiety, fear, depression, racism, nihilism, suicidality, job loss, debt, and financial insecurity that has spread across the world at an inconceivable pace. The effects have been unprecedented for individuals, families, communities, businesses, healthcare systems, and many other networks.

Apparently, nearly 150,000 people have died of COVID-19 globally, millions of people have been infected with the virus, and many individuals and families that were barely scraping by financially are now in dire straits. 

With the exception of governments like Spain, that have rolled out universal basic income, most governments have not provided enough financial support for the vast majority of individuals and families to pay their current and future bills, which include, but are certainly not limited to rent or mortgage payments.

As previously mentioned, the pandemic has adversely affected small, medium, and major businesses globally. Apparently 75% of businesses in the downtown core of Toronto will not be able to pay their rent in May, at least 40% of small businesses in Canada will not survive COVID-19, and globally, millions of people have been laid off. 

Numerous people that once believed that their professions were recession-proof or impervious to disruptions have experienced a rude awakening, and at the very least we are heading towards a global economic recession that could potentially turn into a global economic depression.

The Financial District, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Photographer: Ajani Charles
The Financial District, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Photographer: Ajani Charles

Last fall, Steve Jurvenston of Space X, Tesla, and Future Ventures told me that the rich-poor gap would be accelerated by technology in the near future, after sharing with me his presentation entitled “We Solve for X: Steve Jurvetson On The Accelerating Rich-Poor Gap”.

At the time, I had no idea that his predictions would come to fruition as swiftly and dramatically as they have this spring, through the combination of a viral pandemic, technology, economic systems, politics, and many other complex systems. Right now, being in the bottom 20% of earners in any society could not be more challenging.   

The mental health, short-term goals, and long-term goals of many small business owners, entrepreneurs, and most of their employees have been compromised, and the mental health of marginalized communities and those that exist on the fringes of all societies have been unfathomably damaged. Among other variables, social distancing, isolation, and the lack of human touch have taken a toll on many of us, since human beings are social animals. The adverse psychological effects of loneliness are scientifically proven. 

Those with diagnosed and undiagnosed severe mental illnesses and addictions may not be coping well and may lack access to the resources that can help them during the pandemic.

Many people around the world are traumatized and experiencing the five stages of grief that were first proposed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book “On Death And Dying” — stages that include denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, in relation to life as we once knew it. Many people will not survive COVID-19 psychologically or physically.

Moreover, numerous people around the world live in abusive households, and they are now trapped with their abusers in lockdown. 

Toronto General Hospital, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Photographer: Ajani Charles
Toronto General Hospital, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Photographer: Ajani Charles

I and my team at Operation Prefrontal Cortex —  a Julien “Director X” Lutz co-founded program harnessing the power of mindfulness and meditation to help reduce the incidents of gun and mass violence in Toronto, are currently in the process of digitally addressing household abuse, trauma, and neglect in Toronto and beyond, through mindfulness techniques.

However, doing so effectively under our current circumstances is truly a tall order for Op PFC, our partners Mindfulness Everyday, and other organizations that address the same problems. 

For the time being, I recommend that all Canadians that are experiencing mental health crises, or in abusive environments, to call 911 immediately and review the Centre For Addiction And Mental Health’s COVID-19 mental health resources in safe environments.

Coincidentally, I recently became a journalist for Arianna Huffington’s Thrive Global —  an American company that provides behavior change technology and media to support individuals struggling with stress and burnout.

Through Thrive Global, Huffington has stated the following in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic’s mental health implications: “Even before anybody without a degree in epidemiology had ever heard of COVID-19, we were already in the middle of a mental health crisis. Worldwide, over 264 million people were struggling with depression, and in the U.S. alone, nearly 50 million adults had experienced some form of mental illness in the past year.”

“And now, long periods of isolation, the loss of loved ones, the loss of jobs, financial insecurity and the daily stress of our new normal is accelerating that mental health crisis. Just as we’ve had to make drastic changes to our lives to stop the spread of the virus, we need to take urgent steps to safeguard our mental health, too.”

Loblaws Carlton Street, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Photographer: Ajani Charles
Loblaws Carlton Street, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Photographer: Ajani Charles

Huffington further states that “many of us are reaching for short-term fixes that will only further damage our mental — and physical — health. As Sara Fischer writes in Axios, Americans are “doubling down on their worst habits to cope with the mental and emotional stress of the coronavirus pandemic.” Alcohol sales have jumped — with spirits up 75%, wine up 66% and beer up 42%. Cannabis use reached an all-time high in March — even as medical experts warn that marijuana and vaping, as well as tobacco, may increase the risk of COVID-19 infection and exacerbate the risks of spreading it.

Not surprisingly, people are exercising less. They’re also eating more and reaching for comfort foods — Oreos, Goldfish crackers, Slim Jims — with “COVID-15” becoming a meme for the standard quarantine weight gain. Scientists from Columbia University have warned that school closures could exacerbate already epidemic rates of childhood obesity, which in turn can have lifelong effects.”

For many of us, simply getting out of bed in the morning will be a small victory, and for others, surviving until the end of the day will be a miracle. 

For those of us that are privileged and lucky enough to have our health, our mobility, and access to the financial resources needed to materially endure the COVID-19 pandemic for the duration of 2020 or longer, I believe that there are practical steps that can be taken, in service of taking care of ourselves and others.

The most obvious steps include following the health mandates and laws of one’s local government, the maintenance of any semblance of a daily routine, proper hydration, proper hygiene, daily exposure to sunlight, daily exercise, daily creativity, the ingestion of nutrient-dense whole foods, proper sleep hygiene, effective stress management, and the creation and/or maintenance of healthy relationships, within one’s household and through Zoom, Google Hangouts, or Skype. Most of these tools and habits have been scientifically proven to contribute to one’s health and wellbeing.

Less obviously, I believe that survival of the COVID-19 pandemic depends on meaning, stoicism, mindfulness, and gratitude (while keeping in mind that these tools will most likely not be enough to help most individuals that do not have their basic needs met, as per Maslow’s hierarchy of needs). And they will most likely not be enough to help individuals that experience untreated, severe mental illnesses or forms of trauma.

Loblaws Carlton Street, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Photographer: Ajani Charles
Loblaws Carlton Street, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Photographer: Ajani Charles

Meaning is essentially one’s life purpose, whether it be a vocation, a higher power, or the creation of art. 

“Man’s Search For Meaning” is a book by Viktor Frankl, which was written in 1946, chronicling the psychiatrist’s experiences as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps during World War II. The book describes his psychotherapeutic method, which involved identifying a purpose in life to feel positive about. 

According to Frankl, the way a prisoner imagined the future affected his longevity. The book intends to answer the question “How was everyday life in a concentration camp reflected in the mind of the average prisoner?”

Frankl concluded that the meaning of life is found in every moment of living; life never ceases to have meaning, even in suffering and death, meaning can be found, and he once described life in the twentieth century in the following way: “Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for.”

So, if one can find or cultivate a clearly-defined life purpose, during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond, one will be able to endure the hardships of the present and the future. As Friedrich Nietzsche famously stated, “he who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”

Stoicism is a school of Hellenistic philosophy which was founded by Zeno of Citium, in Athens, Greece, during the beginning of the 3rd century BC. Stoicism is a philosophy of personal ethics informed by its system of logic and its views on the natural world. According to stoicism, the path to eudaimonia, otherwise known as happiness or blessedness, is found in accepting the moment as it presents itself, by not allowing oneself to be controlled by the desire for pleasure or fear of pain, by using one’s mind to understand the world and to do one’s part in nature’s plan, while working well with others.

Yonge-Dundas Square, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Photographer: Ajani Charles
Yonge-Dundas Square, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Photographer: Ajani Charles

Stoicism is the separation of what is in one’s control from what is out of one’s control while focusing one’s attention and actions on what is in one’s control. Clearly, none of us can control the COVID-19 pandemic and how it plays out, but to varying degrees, most of us can choose how we spend our time within our homes, who we speak to, the food that we eat on a daily basis, the media that we consume, our goals and values, our relationship to mortality, and more. We have at least some agency over ourselves.

As the stoic Epictetus once wrote, “There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will”, and some great books on stoicism include “The Obstacle Is the Way” by Ryan Holiday, “The Daily Stoic” by Ryan Holiday, “Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius, and “The Tao of Seneca: Practical Letters From A Stoic Master, Volume 1” by Seneca.

Mindfulness is the third tool that I believe can benefit most people, and through mindfulness, stoicism becomes self-evident.

Mindfulness is the psychological process of purposely bringing one’s attention to a single point or various experiences occurring in the present moment without judgment, which one develops through various tools. Mindfulness is being immersed in the here and now, it is present moment awareness, without attachments to notions of the past or future. And as Amit Ray has stated, “If you want to conquer the anxiety of life, live in the moment, live in the breath.”

Mindfulness can be experienced through many avenues, and two of the most common are meditation and flow states. 

Mindfulness meditation typically involves sitting in a comfortable seated position, while focusing on the sensations of one’s natural breath. As I have mentioned in the past, I use the Calm app to engage in mindfulness meditation and other forms of meditation on a daily basis, and I also engage in other meditation practices that do not rely on the app. More information on mindfulness meditation can be found through Mindful or by simply googling “how to meditate.”

The Rex Hotel Jazz And Blues Bar, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Photographer: Ajani Charles
The Rex Hotel Jazz And Blues Bar, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Photographer: Ajani Charles

Also, some useful books on mindfulness include “When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times (Shambhala Classics)” by Pema Chodron, “Wherever You Go There You Are” by Jon Kabat-Zinn, “Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness In Everyday Life” by Thích Nhất Hạnh, and “Be Here Now” by Ram Dass

The term flow state was first created by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in 1975. It is widely referred to across a variety of fields, though the concept has been claimed to have existed for thousands of years under other names, most notably through Taoism and Buddhism.

Flow states essentially get one into “the zone”, into a state of mindfulness. To achieve a flow state, one must be involved in an activity with a clear set of goals and progress, which adds direction and structure to the task at hand. Activities that lead to flow states must also have clear and immediate feedback, which helps the person negotiate any changing demands to maintain the flow state. Finally, to achieve flow, one must have a good balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand and one’s perceived skills. One must have confidence in one’s ability to complete the task at hand, and examples of activities that can lead to flow states include, but are certainly not limited to bike riding, running, weightlifting, programming, writing, and dancing. More information on flow states can be found in “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi.

Gratitude is the fourth tool that I believe will help the vast majority of people endure COVID-19. A daily gratitude practice can help move one’s attention away from fearful thoughts while focusing on the abundance in their life, however modest that abundance may be. 

My daily gratitude practice involves listing three things in my life that I am grateful for and why I am grateful for them. I have found that I have been able to complete this activity on my worst days when the world has seemingly been falling apart within and around me, and I truly believe that most people can find at least one thing in their life that they are grateful for, such as the capacity to breathe or simply being alive.

Through the previously-mentioned tools, which inevitably lead to confidence and self-efficacy, most of us can collectively endure the COVID-19 pandemic and eventually experience a new world that can potentially be more robust, more equitable, and more creative than the old one that we found ourselves in a few months ago. We can also leave behind the aspects of human civilization that did not serve us well.

Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Photographer: Ajani Charles
Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Photographer: Ajani Charles

The notion that an individual can work in the same organization indefinitely has fallen apart, the flaws in our medical systems, political systems, education systems, and economic systems have never been more obvious, the weaknesses in our supply chains have been evident since January, the lack of meaning in many of our lives is plain to see, and we now have a rare opportunity to revamp all of these systems and more. The future can be better and more resilient than the past, and better can be far more meticulously defined than it was.

Although many of us feel depressed and anxious about the COVID-19 situation, and although it is undoubtedly a terrible tragedy, Robert Wiblin of 80,000 Hours recently wrote, “millions of people are rising to the occasion, and there’s a lot of good news mixed in with the bad.

The media has a tendency to give extra coverage to bad news because readers find negative stories more eye-catching.”

Based on my research, the Coronavirus might kill fewer people than we thought, testing is increasing rapidly in most countries, supermarkets are refilling and hiring fast, we are learning what we need to know to respond intelligently, we are making rapid technological progress on every front, the best of humanity has been embodied across the world, especially amongst healthcare professionals and frontline workers, and China is no longer in a state of lockdown, which means that many other countries will follow suit eventually. 

Recently, through a Globe And Mail article, Thomas Homer-Dixon claimed that “the emerging pandemic could help catalyze an urgently needed tipping event in humanity’s collective moral values, priorities, and sense of self and community. It could remind us of our common fate on a small, crowded planet with dwindling resources and fraying natural systems.

We won’t address this challenge effectively if we retreat into our tribal identities and try to wall ourselves off from each other. COVID-19 is a collective problem that requires global collective action — just like climate change.”

Loblaws Carlton Street, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Photographer: Ajani Charles
Loblaws Carlton Street, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Photographer: Ajani Charles

The illusions of job security and reliable dependency on governments have been shattered into a million small pieces, and anyone that believes that they are not subject to job loss in the near or distant future, as a result of a pandemic, a war, famine, an economic recession, automation, or a combination of many possibilities is simply deluding themselves.

From my perspective, everyone that has the means and ability to create their own business or businesses while minimizing their dependency on employers, banks, and governments should take an entrepreneurial path, as soon as possible. We will make it through COVID-19, but there will be other global crises, and human history has demonstrated that many times without fail. We must be prepared.

For artists and entrepreneurs that have the mental health and other forms of health which are not afforded to many people around the world, now is the time for us to create the future, and doing so will require a reinvention of our ideals, our skillsets, and our notions about ourselves.

We can collectively create a brave new world, one person at a time, one project at a time, one delivery at a time, especially by leveraging our inherent creativity and tools such as meaning, stoicism, mindfulness, and gratitude. 

I believe that some of the books that can help artists, entrepreneurs, and other professionals to pivot during these turbulent times include “Linchpin: Are You Indispensible?” by Seth Godin, “Creative Calling: Establish A Daily Practice, Infuse Your World with Meaning, And Succeed In Work + Life” by Chase Jarvis, “The Power of Broke: How Empty Pockets, A Tight Budget, And A Hunger For Success Can Become Your Greatest Competitive Advantage” by Daymond John, “80,000 Hours: Find A Fulfilling Career That Does Good” by Benjamin Todd”, “Think And Grow Rich” by Napoleon Hill, and “Oh, The Places You’ll Go!” by Dr. Seuss

Although most of us in North America and in other parts of the world may be in states of lockdown and social distancing until the summer or possibly until 2022, and although there is no way of going back to the way things were, for some of us, now is the time to create new works of art and new ventures that inspire and help humanity. Now is the time to create the artwork and solutions that carry the human race out of the Coronavirus pandemic and into a far more resilient and beautiful future. If not now, then when?

Zanzibar Tavern, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Photographer: Ajani Charles
Zanzibar Tavern, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Photographer: Ajani Charles
Bulk Barn College Street, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Photographer: Ajani Charles
Bulk Barn College Street, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Photographer: Ajani Charles

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