Over spring break, I travelled to the States to visit family I hadn’t seen in a long time, some of them quite elderly. COVID-19 was still just “the coronavirus” and didn’t really affect much as I left other than having to say whether I’d traveled to China or not during check-in. Yes, two planes of Canadians had been flown in from a Chinese hot zone and quarantined on a military base in the days before I’d started my trip, but the crisis was still largely confined to Asia: Quebec hadn’t had a single case. But then, soon after I left, COVID-19 broke loose in Europe, then Seattle and after that, the deluge. Florida’s first cases were identified the final days of my trip.
My selfish fear those last days was that I’d catch a cold or the flu, have fever when I travelled and be forcibly quarantined upon arrival in Pierre Elliot Trudeau. Thankfully that didn’t happen. I stayed healthy, got home and enjoyed a few days of normal.
Normal didn’t last though. Infections in Canada are cropping up everywhere, and Quebec is racing to “flatten the infection curve.” All the daycares, schools, colleges, and universities are closed for at least the next two weeks. Bars and cinemas were just closed as well, and restaurants were ordered to reduce their seating capacity by 50%. People are being told to work from home and to keep their distance from each other when in public. In a complete reversal of public policy, everyone has been asked not to visit elderly friends and family in residence and assisted living homes. And anyone back from abroad — that’s me — is also asked to self-quarantine for fourteen days.
Thankfully, the language of the reporting and of these announcements has focused on community, civic responsibility and protecting others, not on war or on invasion. This has been a relief and is part of why I have the sense that we’re better prepared here to deal with the crisis than the States are: at least we have a politically viable language for speaking about working cooperatively.
Yet despite everything, there’s still a palpable anxiety in the air, and I saw it in the nervous “is outside wrong?” smiles of the people who, like me, took a short walk in the sun yesterday afternoon. Everyone’s geared up by the endless announcements and the frantic preparations of the past few days, days that have felt like the first ten minutes of a zombie movie even if there are no helicopters, no cars rushing to get across the bridge before it closes, no soldiers being overrun by infected hordes. The streets are quiet, the first geese are starting to land on the river as they head north, and all we are being asked to do is to sit home and wait things out for two weeks, maybe more.
The disconnect between these simple, pleasant demands and the misery promised by the worst case scenarios has made spending the next two weeks doing one of my favourite things — staying home, doing my own stuff — feel odd and unnatural.