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2020 COVID-19 Pandemic – #StayHome in Canada vs. #Restezàlamaison in France

Ottawa, Chinatown, April 2020
Ottawa, Chinatown, April 2020

“How’s your pandemic going?”

These days, my mom picks up the phone right away. Oh, she’s home all right—France is on a rather draconian lockdown.

After a month of daily calls, we’re both running the latest Skype version and even though there’s nothing new, we chat for an hour or two just to feel less trapped and hopeless.

Different continents, time zones, weather and an ocean between us but same shit—this damn virus.

So, what’s going on in France and in Canada?

Here is a (subjective) overview of the situation as of April 23 based on the experience of my mom and siblings in Nantes and Paris and on my own experience in Ontario (note that in Canada, restrictions and challenges vary from one province to another).

Draconian lockdown in France vs. partial lockdown in Ontario

France has been on lockdown since March 17. After weeks of denial (did you really think the virus would stop at the Italian border?), limbo and crisis management, it only took three days to go from “don’t get sick” to “don’t leave home.”

France is possibly the only country where schools were shut down before bars and restaurants. On Saturday, March 14, the government decided the immediate closure of schools, daycares and other non-essential public places, which prompted some epicureans to organize giant picnic meetups—oops. On Monday, March 16, the President announced a full lockdown effective Tuesday, March 17 at noon. As soon as lockdown rumours were confirmed, a mass exodus from the largest cities to the countryside took place, which facilitate the spread of the virus—oops again.

France’s lockdown is among the strictest. Everyone must stay at home except for essential trips out. Only a handful of reasons are accepted—grocery shopping, medical appointments, travelling to and from work (essential employees only), family emergency (childcare or helping an elderly person) and exercising (an hour and 1 km from home max). A dated and timed attestation (permit) must be filled out for each trip out—yes, it was designed to be inconvenient.

On April 13, the lockdown was extended until May 11. It didn’t come as a huge surprise but French now expect some restrictions to be lifted after May 11.

In Ontario, schools, public places and non-essential businesses have been closed since March 14 and March 23 respectively. We must practise “physical distancing” but unlike in France, we can go out. It’s simply recommended to avoid non-essential trips, work from home, cancel all gatherings and stay at least two metres away from anyone you don’t live with.

Geographical and cultural challenges

The virus hit France earlier and harder than Canada so there’s no point in comparing number of cases.

However, it’s interesting to note that it’s probably harder to practise social distancing in Europe than in Canada.

Population density is 117.37 people per km2 in France vs. 4 people per km2 in Canada. Your typical Canadian city isn’t very crowded and we live in an individualistic culture where people tend to drive rather than take public transit, drink at home rather than go to bars and order takeout rather than enjoy their food around other customers.

Canadians tend to need more personal space than French and except for the awkward North America hug, they are more touch-adverse—no social single or double cheek kisses for instance.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that it’s still very chilly in Ontario (it snowed again this week!). At this time of the year, Canadians are slowly coming out of hibernation—going out and getting social in public places isn’t too tempting… yet.

Key words

France stresses on “les gestes barrières,” i.e. preventive measures like hand washing, covering your mouth if you cough or sneeze, avoiding the traditional cheek kiss, etc.

French also conjugate “to be on lockdown,” i.e. “être confiné.” For instance, “on est confinés et on attend le déconfinement.”

In Canada, the key words are “social distancing,” later replaced by “physical distancing” because staying connected is encouraged. The recommended safe distance is 6 feet, or “the length of a hockey stick” (that’s two metres for Europeans).

Compliance and enforcement

Heavy-handed approach in France, as the police stops people in the street and ask them to produce the attestation paper. My mum lives in the city centre. She only goes to the nearest supermarket and to her mom’s (to bring her groceries), in both cases a ten-minute walk, and she is often stopped by the police.

I see police cars patrolling in our neighbourhood, which is rare. Stories of people being fined for kicking a ball with their kid in a public park or playing basketball alone—not okay, you can only walk through parks—have been popping up in the news.

In both France and Canada, people seem to be doing their best to keep everyone safe. It’s not an easy situation—compliance isn’t perfect because we’re human. A national joke in France is the number of people taking up running because it’s one of the acceptable reasons to leave home for an hour. In Canada, I’ve been seeing more and more neighbours and friends chatting on the driveway, keeping their distance.

Panic-buy bestsellers

In both countries, face masks, hand sanitizer, eggs, flour, butter and, of course, toilet paper are often sold out.

My mom reported that ink and printers and in high demand (because of the goddamn attestation to print out before going out but a digital version is now also acceptable) as well as hand soap.

Supermarkets around here often ran out of frozen veggies, baking supplies and canned soup—Canadians tend to have bigger living spaces, so “hoarding” is easier than in France.

Two countries, two (lack of) post-lockdown plan

Macron, the French President, is a big fan of long speeches, occasionally described as “that five-hour waste-of-time meeting where main decisions could have been shared in a 200-word email.” Fortunately, he only addresses the nation sporadically (three of four speeches so far).

Apparently, the government is still working on his ultimate “déconfinement” (a neologism for “post-lockdown”) plan but it looks like some restrictions will be lifted after May 11. One of his controversial decisions is to start with reopening the schools.

Whatever happens, lockdown tension rises and even the most compliant French are getting sick of being stuck at home, so it looks like it’s time to take cautious steps towards… something.

Trudeau addresses the nation daily and he’s been focusing on an economic support plan for the past few weeks. However, he also stresses that life won’t return to normal until a vaccine is available, so it doesn’t look like restrictions will be lifted anytime soon around here.

How about you? What’s going on in your corner of the world?

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