Publication:

The Compass - 2020-03-25

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The whipsaw

Opinion

Russell Wangersky

I tell you so you will be ready. But you still might not be. A whipsaw is, officially, a two-handled saw that is pulled back and forth by two people, one on each end. It’s also become a term for a sudden change in the markets, when a financial security or other fiscal product starts moving in the opposite direction of what logic and experience says it should be doing. When I talk about the whipsaw, I actually mean it in both ways. (Disclaimer: I have a whipsaw. A four-foot-long, rusty, deep-toothed devil of a saw with a handle at both ends. I can tell you for a fact that it cuts just as deep no matter which of its two directions it’s going in.) The next couple of months are going to be strange. Anyone with any experience of trauma can tell you that. Whether COVID-19 lives up to the most dire predictions, the least, or somewhere in between, life is going to be dramatically different. If you’re just back in Canada, self-isolating, there are going to be little hiccups and big ones. There’s going to be the question of whether the virus is actually lurking in you, waiting to appear, or whether you can actually handle two solid weeks cooped up with your own family while the selection of possibly watchable Netflix series drains steadily away. On top of that, and along with everyone else, there are other issues: the inconveniences, the obvious fears you have about your own health and about your family — especially older family members and those who have any sort of compromised immune systems. Meanwhile, everything’s also wrapped up with a whole bunch of economic issues. What happens to your job if you’re working in the gig economy or in the hospitality industry if a shutdown widens across bars and restaurants and non-essential businesses? Maybe even things as derivative as your mortgage or the effects that a freefalling stock market is going to have on your ability to ever do something close to retiring. It’s all legitimate. Yet at the same time, we’re surrounded by the normal. There are few enough cases right now that it’s a bit like being told a hurricane might hit next week. The sun’s still shining, people buy groceries without looking any different, there’s gas at the gas station and fruit and vegetables at the store. Buying toilet paper and Tylenol might be a bit tough right now, but that has more to do with people and their herd instincts than it does with any real shortfall. Yet people are clearly concerned. Ask someone online if they’re isolating themselves after coming back from a state that has community infection, and there are threats and rage raining down before the traveller can even answer that yes, of course they are. You might not want to admit it, but no matter what the result, this state of affairs is going to chew a lot of people up. It’s like preparing for the death of a family member, lurching back and forth between fear, anger and impending loss. It takes a toll — an actual, physical toll, as well as a mental one. And, as anyone who has dealt with the weird workings of the human mind and emotional trauma can tell you, it’s a rollercoaster. You can go from almost euphoric and ridiculously hopeful to near-complete despair in a moment. That’s the whipsaw. You can’t stop it cutting. But you can try and prepare yourself by recognizing its unpredictability — and know that you’re not the only one experiencing this. It’s better to recognize the whipsaw instead of just lying there under its teeth. Russell Wangersky’s column appears in SaltWire newspapers and websites across Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at russell.wangersky@thetelegram.com — Twitter: @wangersky.

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