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2020 COVID-19 Pandemic – The Real Realities

Ottawa, Little Italy, May 2020
Ottawa, Little Italy, May 2020

Some days feel deceptively normal. My oldest friend in Ottawa calls and we discuss her upcoming move to Montreal on my way to the supermarket. I make a mental note to buy bananas, carrots, sugar and eggs. Kids are playing in the street and I step aside to avoid a fresh chalk drawing on the sidewalk. When I come home, Mark is super excited because he saw the new Scooby-Doo movie trailer. Trees are finally greening up, the neighbours are washing their car, someone parked a boat in the driveway a few houses down—suburbia and spring at its best in Ottawa.

But on a closer look, nothing is normal.

My Ottawa friend moving to Montreal? We’re chatting over the phone because she actually doesn’t live in Ottawa but in Gatineau, Quebec, just across the bridge, and there are interprovincial travel restrictions with checkpoints between our two provinces. And she’s laughing about her much-awaited move to Montreal because the city is a “hot zone,” which in 2020 speak means “COVID-19 outbreak area”—she can’t go visit the apartment she’s about to rent, she has no idea whether her kids will be able to start school in September and she doesn’t know a thing about her new position, a lateral transfer in the federal government, because she had secured it right before the pandemic and it was originally a travel-related job.

My grocery shopping trip isn’t normal either. I have to queue outside and when I’m finally allowed in, the aisles are eerily empty. Shelves are empty too—we definitely have supply issues around here. No eggs, no sugar again. Fuck it, I’m going home. I’m not joining another queue outside another supermarket and waste another thirty minutes.

“I’ll try to download your Scooby-Doo movie, Mark, but I don’t think I can find it if it’s not out yet.”

“It’s okay, I’ll see it at the movie thea— … oh, right, still closed. I hate COVID.”

As for the neighbours, it’s the third time this week they are washing their car—I suspect they are really bored—and the boat owner isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Oh, and the chalk drawing? It feels kind of weird that kids draw face masks and write “stay safe” messages for fun.

Day after day, even though nothing is normal, we try to recreate the illusion of normalcy because we have to, for practical reasons and to avoid going crazy.

But the so-called “new normal” is hard to navigate because there’s the reality—the pandemic—and realities, plural, depending on where we are, who we are, who is in charge and other factors.

I chat with Isa over the phone. She’s in Montreal and her daily life is very different than mine. Case in point, she takes calls on her tiny balcony while I wander around Ottawa—she is self-isolating because Montreal is a “hot zone” and her neighbourhood is crowded while Ottawa is comparatively safer and we have a lot of room.

I chat with my mom in France, epicentre of the pandemic just weeks ago. North American news reports may lead you to believe that there’s no one left alive in Europe, yet governments are cautiously optimistic and restrictions are being lifted.

We’re in limbo in Ontario. Phase 1 of the plan to reopen the province started last week. In theory, retail outlets with street entrances can welcome customers back inside but I don’t see that many stores open. Classes have been officially cancelled for the rest of the school year and there are no set dates for phases 2 and 3 of the reopening plan.

Meanwhile, official messaging is often mixed, confusing and occasionally perplexing. Again, there are realities, plural. Kids in Quebec—and in a bunch of countries—are back in school, Ontario can’t promise schools will reopen in September. Are kids most at risk (March messaging) or mutants barely affected by COVID-19 (current messaging in selected places)?

Some days, I check CBC or Le Monde and articles are about a potential second wave, numbers going up again, restrictions here to stay and people being stupid. And then the next day, messages change, it’s time to get back to work, embrace recovery mode—it’s under control, folks!

It looks like no one has a fucking clue.

Is COVID-19 very contagious and deadly? Yep. Do plenty of people have mild or no symptoms? Yeah, that too. Can you catch the virus at the supermarket? Probably. Are you at risk if you pass someone on the sidewalk? Maybe. Should we all ideally stay home and wait for a vaccine? You bet. Can we actually do that? For many of us, it’s probably not realistic anymore.

Our realities come down to probabilities and we’re left making decisions and taking risks based on what we feel is “real,” “right” and “acceptable.”

I mean, I stared at a bench for a minute this afternoon. I was wondering if it was okay to sit (needed to reply to an urgent email) both because of the virus and a potential fine for using street furniture.

We’re all trying to use caution, common sense and the freedoms we have left to navigate realities.

It’s exhausting.

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