Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 25 November 2020

A second lockdown will be especially tough in cold countries

People get exercise along the lakeshore path on Lake Ontario on a fall day during the coronavirus pandemic in Toronto, 29 September. Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP
People get exercise along the lakeshore path on Lake Ontario on a fall day during the coronavirus pandemic in Toronto, 29 September. Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP

Montreal, where I live, is going into lockdown again.

The pattern of rising coronavirus cases is by now familiar to people around the world. Countries that had beaten the virus earlier this spring and “flattened the curve” are now struggling with a second wave. France and Spain, which were hit hard in March, are seeing a resurgence of cases rivalling those in the early days. Germany and the Netherlands are in the grip of a second wave. In countries like the US and India, there wasn’t even that brief respite.

This week the Quebec government announced a second lockdown in Montreal and Quebec City, as well as some surrounding regions that are hard hit. Only a few countries have reimposed tough lockdown measures a second time, because lockdowns are extremely unpopular, despite the disaster that unfolds without them in place. Israel imposed one earlier this month.

Canada is no exception. Cases in the worst-hit provinces, Quebec and Ontario, are rising as the global death toll passes 1 million. It is a sombre moment, highlighting the relentlessness of this virus.

Quebec recently reported 896 new cases of Covid-19, a figure that competes with spring infections. Most of the new cases are driven by young people contracting and spreading the virus. So while hospitals are not yet overwhelmed by patients, it is only a matter of time before the more vulnerable are affected.

Doctors are worried that younger people will infect older relatives, and that they will take longer to recover when they go to hospital, tying up resources. There have already been a few cases of infections in nursing homes, which were hit particularly hard in March and April.

In total, Quebec, the province that includes Montreal, had over 73,000 infections earlier this week and more than 5,800 deaths. At the prospect of a second lockdown I am experiencing a condensed version of the various stages of grief, cycling between frustration, anger and resignation at various points of the day. But mostly just resignation brought on by exhaustion.

To be sure, the lockdown is less harsh than the measures earlier in spring. Restaurants and bars will be closed, though the former can still offer takeout meals. Museums and libraries will be closed too. But businesses like gyms and hair salons will remain open. In-house gatherings are banned. Schools and day-cares will remain open, even at the highest alert level. There appears to be a government consensus that the social and economic cost of a full lockdown, even one that may arrest this wave in a shorter time, is too great to bear.

Still, it is frustrating. We are barrelling towards winter, which in Canada can be brutal, and without a vaccine candidate that is widely available in the autumn, an impossible feat, I am having a hard time imagining what life is supposed to look like in the coming months.

At least in the summer and fall, there was the panacea of walks in the park, an evening reading on the balcony, socially-distanced meetings with friends, strolls down the city’s boulevards or up the Mont Royal. It is harder to keep that up in sub-zero temperatures, especially with a baby.

I know I am lucky to be here in a country with a functioning healthcare system...

I am also frustrated because crowded bars were allowed to continue operating for much of the summer, despite quickly emerging as hotspots for the virus to spread. Closing these establishments may have allowed for a milder second wave, particularly one that is being driven by younger residents of the city.

I am worried about the next few months. Current infection rates are lagging indicators – they show a snapshot today, but the deaths and further infections that have already happened will show up only in a couple of weeks. As the premier of neighbouring Ontario, the most populous province in Canada, said, the second wave may end up becoming a tsunami.

I know I am lucky to be here in a country with a functioning healthcare system, a pandemic that did not spiral out of control as it did south of the border and where the government’s focus has been on tiding people over financially as they struggle with job loss. The cost of health care is not even an issue. And we are spared political and security instability.

But I cannot help but feel sad at the prospect of yet another season without friends, without the laughter and conversation over a warm meal with family, meetings of minds with strangers or a hot cup of coffee while browsing in my favourite bookstore, smiles unhindered by masks, hugs unhindered by fear.

As our reserves are depleted, we will just have to carry on for a while longer, and perhaps we will eventually see ourselves through this whole mess. As Justin Trudeau, Canada’s Prime Minister, said in a recent speech: “It’s all too likely we won’t be gathering for Thanksgiving, but we still have a shot at Christmas.”

Here’s hoping.

Kareem Shaheen is a veteran Middle East correspondent in Canada

Updated: October 1, 2020 04:51 PM

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