Hard-hit Canada is springing back to life – or to the already cliched 'new normal'
Taking an afternoon stroll in the small park near our house in Montreal, it is tempting to think that normality is within reach. The city has finally shaken off the last vestiges of its long winter. Leaves have sprouted on trees almost overnight.
Grass is filling out patches of brown earth. The warmth of the Sun is invigorating, more so following weeks of confinement and the season’s shift. It feels like the first sip of water after days of fasting and privation.
More restaurant and cafe owners are opening their storefronts for takeout. You can pick up a coffee from Starbucks (at the entrance, after dropping your contactless credit card in a clear box to a masked barista) and sip it on a park bench. Most people walk around in solitude or in pairs, and maybe a third are wearing masks.
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There are occasional glimpses of people flouting the rules of gathering too close. Some chat while their children frolic with squirrels nearby.
A young man and a woman sit together on a bench, talking, and then walk off in different directions to their respective homes.
The halting return to normality is startling because the province of Quebec is the scene of Canada’s worst coronavirus outbreak.
There are signs that the danger is abating, but until a few days ago, it was one of the hardest hit places in the world, with Montreal at the centre.
There have been over 44,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19, and over 3,600 have died in Quebec. Over half of the cases, around 22,000, are in Montreal, as well as two thirds of the deaths in the province.
The daily death toll has slowed down but Montreal alone, at 2,200 deaths, accounts for over a third of Canada’s coronavirus fatalities.
There appear to be two main reasons for Montreal’s predicament. Last month, the Montreal Gazette published an expose that revealed the deadly mismanagement and abandonment of elderly people at a nursing home in the city where the virus had spread.
I am reading that it is too soon, that there will probably be another wave and another lockdown
Subsequent revelations showed similarly dire conditions in other nursing homes in Montreal and other cities in Canada.
Deaths in those homes account for a scandalous 80 per cent of all deaths in the country, and there are 126 retirement homes and long-term care facilities with at least one confirmed case of infection by the coronavirus in Montreal.
The percentage is much higher than in Europe, and those conditions affect the elderly, the most vulnerable among us.
There is also a class component to the crisis. Lower income areas are more deeply affected, which echoes the inequalities that have come to the fore in the West because of the pandemic, such as the disproportionate number of deaths among African Americans in the US.
Despite all this, somehow, the death toll is stabilising. Quebec as a province has reopened businesses and daycares, and Montreal is supposed to follow suit next week with the reopening of retail stores, and daycares in the beginning of June.
Social distancing is supposed to be observed in all these situations. Emergency services have not been overwhelmed so far.
Montreal is so eclectic that it is hard to really describe it in a way that broadly captures its essence. But there is an unpretentious joy and embrace of living within it (despite the winter months) that is difficult to capture unless you have experienced it.
The hum of conversation and the giggles of children in the park in the late afternoon in summer, the buzz of the Old Town, an espresso with cannoli in Little Italy, the light show in the Notre Dame cathedral, and the music all around.
The walks in the park, the gardens flowering again in the front yards, the takeout meal from your favourite date night restaurant, the tentative steps that we associate with normal, are seduction incarnate to souls hungry for the evolutionary imperative of social contact.
Is it the right thing to do? I am not an epidemiologist, though what I am reading tells me that it is too soon, that there will probably be another wave and another lockdown.
There are all these conversations happening about the “new normal,” a phrase that’s already become cliched, about the future of work, about whether we’ll ever have offices again, how classes at McGill University and Concordia will resume in the autumn, about handshakes and masks and whether you should worry about delivery packages, if you should order in, and where you can find Lysol wipes, and on and on.
But it is easy to drown out all that for just a moment when you pick up the scent of grass through the haze of hand sanitiser. Because that whiff is a fitful glimpse at the light at the far, far end of the tunnel, and it is a little easier for a moment to have to be so far away from loved ones.
I just hope we take it slow, so we do not have to mourn so many between now and when we get there.
Kareem Shaheen is a former Middle East correspondent based in Canada
Updated: May 20, 2020 04:12 PM