This story is divided into nine chapters. Read it in one go or click/tap to navigate to the chapter of your choice.
Chapter 1: Shut it all down
Chapter 2: On the front lines
Chapter 3: Essential workers—by accident
Chapter 4: Closing the borders
Chapter 5: A shuttered economy
Chapter 6: Justice in a pandemic
Chapter 7: The better angels of our nation
Chapter 8: Fear, suspicion and the weight of tragedy
Chapter 9: How does this end?
Chapter 1: Shut it all down
On the sunny beaches of Playa del Carmen, Mexico, in early March, a glass of sangria in hand, Jerilyn Gabruck finally had time to do some planning.
Life had been busy of late, sometimes to the point of overwhelming. She had recently moved from Provost, Alta., to the nearby town of Vegreville—100 km east of Edmonton—with her husband and three kids. Gabruck had ideas about how to spruce up their new home but little spare time in which to do it. In addition to her work as a part-time nurse, the 35-year-old had recently launched a home-organization consultancy that she was trying to grow. There were also her children—a boy and two girls, all younger than 10. Gabruck didn’t want her new venture to mean she’d miss out on being their mother.
So this vacation with her husband and two friends—no kids—was a reset. While getting a tan, Gabruck was busily writing down tasks she’d face upon returning home to multiple jobs, home renovations and parenthood.
On March 7, Gabruck and her husband, Mike, began their trip home, taking a direct flight from Cancun to Saskatoon, where they’d spent the night of their return with her parents, who had watched their children while they were away. The next day, they loaded the kids into the car for the four-hour drive home. It marked the end of a fantastic vacation.
That night, as she went to bed, Gabruck had a slight fever.
Nothing serious, she figured. She was aware of the novel coronavirus spreading oceans away in Asia and parts of Europe. But in Canada, the outbreak was in its earliest stages, with about 50 confirmed cases. Mexico had detected just five.
Gabruck didn’t have other common symptoms of the virus, like a cough or shortness of breath. She didn’t even feel all that unwell. Still, erring on the side of caution, she thought it best to call Alberta Health Services. She’s a nurse, after all, and she’d been out of country. She was told they would test her for coronavirus, a prospect that didn’t worry her. With a negative result, she thought, she could return to work without fear of endangering patients or co-workers.
Gabruck tested positive, one of the earliest confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Alberta. Because her symptoms were mild, she could stay quarantined in her home, but her family would have to go into self-isolation too, because they had been exposed to her. (Gabruck avoided them as much as possible while she had symptoms, but sealing herself into her own part of the house simply wasn’t viable, she says.)
It didn’t seem calamitous, but suddenly, everything in her and her family’s life went into suspension. Her household shut down while the five of them dealt with an unseen threat whose effects could not be predicted. She marked the time by setting homework schedules for her kids, and noting which of her neighbours’ disposal bins were out for pickup when she couldn’t recall which day of the week it was. But it became clear that all the plans she’d made on the beach had been thrown into doubt. What would her job as a nurse be like as COVID-19 coursed through the hospitals and nursing homes of Alberta? How could she adapt her business when more and more of her neighbours found themselves out of work? When would her kids go back to school? What would the world look like when all of this was over?
Those questions reached far beyond Jerilyn Gabruck’s front door. The country has never faced a challenge quite like the one now put to it by this virus, and by the instructions of hitherto obscure public-health officials trying to keep it under control: Grind everything to a halt. Close the borders. Cease all commercial interactions except shopping for food and essentials. Stop going to work. Shut down the business you worked hard to build.
Stop seeing each other. Or, if you must, keep the width of a regulation hockey net between yourselves. Stop congregating. Stop touching each other. Stop touching your faces.
Stop travelling. If you have travelled abroad, come home, and stay there for two weeks without so much as going out for groceries. Get someone else to help you.
It is a social, political and economic experiment on the grandest possible scale, reaching around the globe, into every neighbourhood and right into our homes. Here in Canada, it has meant placing a nation of 38 million into a kind of country-wide quarantine, while putting some of our core beliefs about ourselves to the test. That we value order. That we compromise. That we unite for the sake of the common good—in this case, nothing less than the preservation of life.
“We hear from our politicians and leaders that this is what Canadians do. We help each other,” says Kerry Bowman, a bioethicist at the University of Toronto who has been watching events unfold with a mixture of fascination and astonishment. “This will prove whether we are who we say we are.”
And what if we’re not? Or, to put it differently, what if we are other things that override our cherished ideals? When applied on a near-universal scale, after all, the demands on Canadians collide head-on with the tenets of what it means to live in a Western democracy: individual rights, liberties and freedoms; personal privacy; the free market; the responsibility to take care of self and family first. Even as authorities beseeched Canadians to practise social distancing, some continued to gather for parties, to hit the beaches and their neighbourhood malls. They swarmed toilet paper shelves as if the stuff were made of gold leaf.
By March 23, the Prime Minister, doing his best to summon Old Testament wrath, hinted that the state would act for the greater good if people couldn’t do so themselves. “Enough is enough,” he told the weekend partiers in his daily press briefing. “Go home and stay home.” It was a warning, not a plea. Within a week, Ottawa had ordered anyone entering the country from abroad to self-isolate for 14 days. No one showing symptoms of the illness would be allowed on a plane.
“People are saying this is the point in our nation’s history when we band together in solidarity,” says Bowman. “But do that in your living room—don’t talk to anybody; don’t visit your neighbour; don’t meet in public spaces—it’s a bizarre challenge for us.”
A challenge made greater by the lack of concrete answers to vital questions. How long can Canadians show such solidarity? And at what cost—to their mental health, to their livelihoods, to their families in the form of lives lost—as the country finds some new, temporary normal amid this crisis?
Though she kept a video diary of her time in quarantine, posting regular updates online, Gabruck isn’t someone who regularly watches the news. “I don’t dwell on the negative,” she says in an interview. “I watch the updates on my phone, but I would rather not be petrified.” Which was just as well, because by the end of March, the news was filled with horror stories of deaths in nursing homes and COVID-19 patients crowding ICUs.
She certainly has much for which to be thankful. While she has no income during quarantine, Gabruck says family finances won’t be a concern. More importantly, neither her husband nor her parents tested positive for COVID-19, while her kids have shown no symptoms. (Unless they do, children typically are not tested.) After a week in quarantine, she felt healthy enough to talk up the prospect of getting re-tested—hopefully coming back negative—so she could go back to the way things were, without fear of infecting others.
Still, in the same video update in which she mused about getting out, Gabruck put words to the bleak circumstances facing the country, and the rest of the world: “I’m realizing there’s not much of a world to come back to at this point. Everyone is at home. No one is going anywhere. Parks are closed. My life is no different from the rest of yours.”
Tweet this chapter
Chapter 2: On the front lines
Michael Herman removes the surgical mask that has been cutting into his face throughout a long shift, preventing him from eating or drinking. He disposes of his scrubs and gloves at work and retrieves the phone he hasn’t touched all day. He dons a bouffant cap and a new pair of sweatpants, which he bought at a Walmart to wear on trips to and from the hospital. After his commute, he strips down at the threshold of the back door to the apartment he shares with his wife. The sweats go into a wastebasket. Before doing or touching anything, he marches to the shower and washes off all residue from the outside world.
Herman, an emergency doctor at Ottawa’s Queensway Carleton Hospital, felt that up until recently he was experiencing the calm before the storm. Now it has started to rain.
“I’ve become more vigilant,” he says. “You have to be very fastidious about these things, because it’s through being anal about this that you’re going to prevent the spread of infection.”
Anxiety has started to heighten among his colleagues, Herman says. “Everyone is a bit more tense. Everyone is a bit more cognizant of the risks,” he says. “We’re all plugging away. We’re all trying to do our best. Now that the numbers are starting to pick up, we’re anticipating it’s going to get worse.”
Health care workers across Canada are approaching the surge in COVID-19 cases as if heading into battle—you can tell by their reliance on military allusions. “I feel like I’m a soldier about to get off the boat at D-Day,” says Michael Warner, a doctor in Toronto. “We are in a war,” reads a statement from the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario.
Doctors, nurses and caregivers leave their homes to go to work every day—“We stay here for you. Please stay home for us,” say signs in a widely shared staff photo from the Richmond Hospital south of Vancouver—but during a time of enforced self-isolation, they’re no less captive than the rest of us.
In close proximity to contagious patients with a precious, too-limited supply of personal protective equipment (PPE), they are worried about their own health, and that of their colleagues and their families. On top of trying to save the lives of patients, some of these workers are, as of this writing, preparing to make wrenching decisions about which lives to save.
There’s little respite when they get home, where they worry about putting loved ones at risk, and where they know they will have to quarantine themselves if they begin to show symptoms. Some have already separated from their families to protect them. Social media offers no escape either. Online, they see horror stories from Italy, where a nurse diagnosed with COVID-19 reportedly committed suicide; or New York, where a nurse with inadequate access to protective equipment died from the virus. There is a flood of such coverage. Even when they turn off the news, health care workers field seemingly endless questions from anxious loved ones in private messages and phone calls.
It’s all a recipe for burnout—the last thing an already strained health care system needs.
“The mental health aspect is big. It’s the sword of Damocles hanging over your head,” Herman says. “In addition to what everyone else is going through, all you read on Twitter and Facebook and the news is all about COVID. I’ve been getting a number of messages from well-meaning friends, family, co-workers, asking what they should do, or what’s happening. At a certain point you just get inundated with COVID, COVID, COVID, all the time.”
It used to be easier to switch gears, says Herman, to relax by going to a pub trivia night with friends or by putting a hockey game on TV. Now, the pub night happens on Zoom, a video-conferencing app. It’s still a welcome break, but there’s no hockey. “Although, I’m a Leafs fan, so maybe that’s better for me,” Herman says. Humour helps, too.
The stress is compounded in long-term care facilities that have already seen deaths due to larger outbreaks of the virus. “It can be something that is very impactful for people when you’re having to watch, day in, day out, as family members are losing their loved ones. And having to console them, and be there as a support mechanism for them,” says Daniel Fontaine, the chief executive officer of the B.C. Care Providers Association.
And no matter how hard they try to keep perspective, part of the impact is a very human inclination to self-question, says Christine Sorensen, a public health nurse and the president of the B.C. Nurses’ Union: “It will be hard for nurses, thinking what could they have done, how could they have helped to make sure the patient could not be infected, or to [better] manage the symptoms. There is both physical and mental exhaustion, and moral distress that comes for nurses.”
Herman and other health care workers who spoke to Maclean’s emphasize that their biggest fears come from a potential shortage of protective equipment, including N95 masks that protect medical staff during the intubations that are required for critical COVID-19 patients. In Toronto, some hospitals were rationing masks in late March amid what many described as a massive shortage.
One Ontario nurse, who asked to stay anonymous because her employer won’t allow her to speak publicly, says she is “mortified” by the current situation. “I cry about what’s to come, what is happening and how unsupported we have already been. And we cannot handle this in our profession—it will break us,” she says. “As nurses, we cannot strike, we hardly fight or say no, and we always put our patients first regardless of whatever bad conditions are around us. Our fight for proper PPE is small but non-negotiable.”
Sunny Johal, an emergency doctor at Surrey Memorial Hospital in B.C., has seen at least four positive cases of COVID-19. Morale is good, for now, but he’s worried about the strain this crisis will put on the health care system, especially if staff lack the equipment to protect themselves. “As health care workers get sick, while they’re quarantined at home, it means fellow health care workers likely need to work more. So I do worry about burnout, which is why it’s even more important to have appropriate PPE,” he says.
Johal and his partner, Manpreet Kaur, built a pair of websites in mid-March, MaskaHeroBC.ca and MaskaHeroOntario.ca, to match up prospective donors of medical equipment with health authorities in need. It’s one of several such initiatives across the country.
Johal says he’s encouraged by the news that governments and companies are working together to manufacture new medical equipment. In the meantime, donations from sources as diverse as dentist offices, tattoo parlours and even film studios have been helping to fill the gap.
Some minor solace comes, too, from displays of solidarity. Near hospitals in Vancouver, businesses are offering free meals and coffee to health care workers. Strangers have chalked messages of support on the sidewalks. In several neighbourhoods, every evening at 7 p.m.—the time of the shift change for many doctors and nurses—people clap and cheer out of open windows, bang pots with wooden spoons on their balconies, and honk their car horns with abandon.
The ritual, inspired by a similar trend in Italy, began as a show of affection for health care workers. “It’s really moving to be recognized when we’re rising to the occasion to provide the best care,” says Levi Elijah, a union steward at Vancouver General Hospital. “I’ve seen people who’ve even cried because it means so much.”
But as the crisis deepens, it is quickly becoming more. The pots have come out in communities across the country, where the dedication, tirelessness and creativity of everyday people have proven nearly as essential as that of the workers in masks and scrubs. During a lonely time, it is a rare act of community—a reminder that no one is really alone.
Chapter 3: Essential by accident
At 6 a.m. on March 20, Robert de Groot’s phone woke him up. Police. He was suddenly awash in panic, dread and confusion—a break-in? Everyone okay? Are they at my door? But it was the Thunder Bay Police. They were calling from three provinces away to find out if the Edmonton distiller had hand sanitizer for sale. “She was so excited she forgot about the time change,” de Groot says.
Like many craft boozemakers across Canada, the owner of Red Cup Distillery has shifted from producing alcohol to making sanitizer, one of the scarcest and most coveted commodities during the pandemic. The “denatured” version of de Groot’s vodka is a cut above others, but it’s not for drinking. In mid-March, he received the Health Canada certification he’d been seeking for months to produce high-grade sanitizing lotion, in partnership with an Alberta salon chain that makes a line of beauty products. The Alberta government has put in a massive bulk order to get production lines churning within days.
Heavy-set, bald and goateed, de Groot calls himself “Shrek with the beauties,” referring to the women from the salon. A property manager who raced to get him a new, larger facility by Edmonton’s airport was more generous with his label for de Groot: “humanitarian.” Says the distiller: “To go from moonshine to being called a humanitarian is a shock.”
This economy-reordering pandemic has brutally divided Canadian society into three categories: the work-from-home crowd, terrifying numbers of newly unemployed, and those who must venture out on our eerily quiet streets to perform roles considered vital to keep the country going.
But recent weeks have shone a light on how essential workers like paramedics, nurses and doctors aren’t the only ones keeping us safe and healthy. There are also those who keep our water clean. Our hospitals sufficiently stocked. Our lights and internet on. And, as every Canadian is witnessing, our grocery stores open.
At a No Frills in Etobicoke, Ont., Heather Wear knows she is providing a service that people need, yet she still feels nervous. “I try not to touch my face, and I make sure to wash my hands and sanitize as often as I can, especially after I’ve touched cash,” says the 24-year-old cash manager. “I’m aware that I have a higher-risk job at the moment.”
It’s not, of course, that we need grocery cashiers and bakers now more than ever. We’ve always needed them. But now, more than ever, we need them to remain healthy to help keep us fed. Major supermarket chains installed Plexiglas shields to protect cashiers, and reduced hours to ensure proper sanitation and shelf-stocking time.
Cashiers became front-line workers. Some grocery staff have been reassigned to regularly sanitize checkout areas. Other critical people, beyond the swinging doors marked “staff only,” keep the place humming, filling shelves and produce bins so shoppers can empty them. Others tirelessly pilot trucks through 15-day stints while making sure to stay at a distance from those who greet them at the loading docks.
Further back on this essential chain is Kruger Products. The toilet paper and tissue maker (Scotties, Cashmere, Purex) remains confident it has met the early, panic-driven spike in demand and will continue forestalling shortages, even though its factories normally function at 90 per cent capacity. “I don’t have an 11 on my production volume button,” CEO Dino Bianco says. Yet the company has boosted output to 300 truckloads a day, from 220, by delaying maintenance on some machines, recommissioning mothballed ones and hiring temporary labour, he says. Some of his staff have offered to defer vacations or take on extra shifts.
“There’s a higher order here, which makes it more palatable to come into work even if you’re afraid for your own health and your family’s health,” Bianco observes. “To come in and say, ‘I have a duty here to produce this product because people across North America need it.’ ”
One link further back in the supply chain are the forestry and pulp-mill workers that tissue factories need to keep producing. Farmers, too, now find themselves at the bedrock of our system—where they’ve always been. At Kevin Antworth’s 18,000-cattle feedlot in southwest Saskatchewan, there’s enough wide-open space and segregation of work duties to limit risk of infection among his staff of 27. Still, Antworth is urging them to be serious about social distancing when they’re off his farm. “No matter what, we’ve got to feed the cattle,” he says. Does he mean because abattoirs need the supply, as do markets and beef eaters and takeout restaurants and so on? Antworth interjects: “The cattle are depending on us.”
Across the country in Grand Falls-Windsor, N.L., Ken Dicks notes that everyone thinks of emergency rooms as front line, but that they’re less apt to consider pharmacists like him. Hospitals have all the masks, containment areas and visitation crackdowns. He’s got a counter and wipes. “Lots of times we’re the first point of contact, publicly accessible to patients,” he says. “We’re kind of out here, exposed, doing our best.”
Before any cases were detected in his region, Dicks began mulling next steps to safeguard his staff and prescription service at his Central Pharmacy. He erected plastic barricades to keep clients at a distance, and to reduce contact and the number of surfaces to clean. By the end of the month, he’d closed the store’s doors and had begun serving patients outside in the parking lot, like the old drive-in restaurants.
Drop-off and pickup has also changed at Hamilton Homestyle Daycare in Saint John, N.B. Most childcare facilities have been ordered to close, but Heather Hamilton enlisted her two facilities among the four in town to handle children of essential workers. Parents can’t come in, even as their children adjust to suddenly being thrust into a new environment; they hand the children off to employees in the tiny vestibule of the squat, brown-brick facility. In the afternoon, they collect their kids the same way.
A rundown of the parents Hamilton serves is a roster of jobs always considered essential: doctors, nurses, ambulance drivers, firefighters, snowplow drivers, gasoline refinery staff, nuclear plant employees.
Municipal governments, which provide many basic, must-run services, geared down where they could to protect workers: garbage and recycling are picked up less frequently; transit services require you to get on the bus at the rear door to protect drivers (don’t worry about paying now, in some communities); train schedules have been reduced in step with plunging demand, and to ensure extra time for thorough cleaning.
Still, labour unions have raced to ensure their essential workers are protected. Flight attendants’ unions demanded reduced interaction with passengers. The postal union fought to ensure Quebec carriers and distribution staff who are older than the at-risk age of 70 could stay home, while grocery-worker unions helped secure a $2 per hour wage premium at Loblaws, and an extra $50 a week at Sobeys.
The extra safeguards don’t reach everyone, though, especially those who are subcontracted and non-unionized. In Toronto, the Workers’ Action Centre hotline is hearing complaints from cleaners—mostly women—who feel overworked and vulnerable in already low-paying, precarious jobs at stores and office buildings. “In addition to the regular work the women are doing, they’re being asked to go back every hour to clean every doorknob, but there’s no recognition in terms of extra money or hours of work,” says Deena Ladd, director of the organization, which supports people in precarious employment. On TV, she sees footage of city workers in Hazmat suits wiping down buses; at work, she hears about cleaners being given new chemical supplies without any information about how to handle them and no protection but dollar-store plastic gloves.
And what is decidedly not an essential service? For starters, a video-game launch event for Doom Eternal at EB Games outlets across Canada. In downtown Toronto, keen gamers lined up outside on a Friday afternoon with little regard for social-distancing advice. Ontario Premier Doug Ford scolded the business for imperilling young people, and the chain closed its doors that night. Three days later, Ford addressed a news conference, the usual boosterish enthusiasm gone from his face. The premier who had erected “open for business” signs at the province’s boundaries became one of the first leaders to order all non-essential businesses to shut down.
Back in Edmonton, de Groot raced to prepare alcohol for Health Canada-grade hand sanitizer while his beauty supply partner readied its bottling operation, gearing up to produce 100,000 bottles a week—more than all the shampoo and lotion the firm made in the last six months. Lina Heath, president of Eveline Charles Labs, the salons’ parent company, secured a production facility from a maker of oat extract, and found containers from a bottled-water company. “They’re bottles with sport-drink lids,” she says, “but everyone’s just so happy they’ll have the sanitizer.”
Some of her new plant workers are laid-off hairdressers and beauticians from shuttered salons. In this new world, aesthetics can wait. Craft liquor can wait. But what these two operators now dispense has become indispensable.
Chapter 4: Walling ourselves in, and the world out
Hours after the Canada-U.S. border closed to tourists for at least a month, a steady stream of snowbird-helmed RVs rolled north past Border Mall, a gift shop, café and typical first port of call for tourists who’ve crossed the Thousand Islands Bridge into Ontario. The tchotchkes-and-coffee stop welcomes travellers to a region known as a playground for the vacationing rich during normal summertimes—and where the border can feel as fluid as the St. Lawrence River that divides island-hopping Canadians from American friends and family.
Joanne Scarlett, the co-owner of Border Mall, could count the number of actual customers on one finger when Maclean’s visited on the morning that a ban on non-essential travel between Canada and the United States came into effect. Scarlett, who with her husband took over the business just a year ago from its long-time proprietors, says most visitors that day weren’t customers but hoping instead to use the restroom—there aren’t many opportunities on the other side of the bridge, where the coronavirus pandemic has ravaged New York state. Two minutes later, as if on cue, a father and daughter ask to use the facilities.
The couple leveraged their home against the business last year, and spent tens of thousands on much-needed renovations, including a patched-up roof. The previous owners had always closed for winter, typical in the Thousand Islands where most businesses shutter for months at a time. But Scarlett sensed an opportunity in staying open year-round. Now, after an encouraging February, business has dried up. “There’s a fear of stopping at all,” she says of the snowbird passersby. “You can feel it.” She only shakes her head at planning for a future in which a border closure could stretch on and on, well into the warm season.
There may be no more powerful symbol of Canada’s locked-down, sealed-off, self-isolated and idled state than the closure of the world’s longest unmilitarized border—an event that has happened very rarely in the two nations’ 153-year shared history. Even before the mutual decision, foreigners other than Americans had been barred from this country’s airports, turning international arrivals areas into near-empty caverns. Now, car and truck traffic at crossings like the Thousand Islands—normally gearing up for a summer rush—had slowed to a trickle.
Even the International Boundary Commission, which spends its summers maintaining the border so that it’s obvious where one country ends and another begins, has paused its work. Not that it will matter if Canadians follow every doctor and politician’s advice to stay home. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reinforced that instruction during one of his daily press conferences from Rideau Cottage. Asked by Maclean’s if border agents would apply restrictive rules to all travellers equally, the PM responded: “The message going out to people across North America is to stay home, is to not go visit your neighbours unless it’s absolutely necessary. It won’t necessarily take a border guard telling someone that.”
Trudeau’s version of Fortress Canada is a country that only accepts returning Canadians and Americans essential to supply chains—and rejects asylum-seekers at irregular crossings like Roxham Road in Quebec. But while a thickened border might protect citizens on one side from infected visitors at the nation’s front doors, invisible walls can cause a world of hurt for Canadians stuck on the other side—and frustrate those who need to cross the border for work.
Soon after Trudeau announced that Canada would shut out most non-citizens, Sunwing Airlines announced that upwards of 100,000 customers were enjoying tropical climes during March Break. The air carrier announced not long after that it would fill flights from the Caribbean with Canadians desperate for repatriation, free of charge—whether they were Sunwing customers or not.
WestJet made 30 airplanes available for repatriation flights, part of a broader federal strategy to work with the nation’s carriers to get citizens home safely. More than a million Canadians returned from foreign lands in the week after the border closures.
But many struggled to find safe passage. As countries closed their borders and Canada scrambled to organize repatriation flights, the feds were forced to negotiate safe passage for aircraft on a case-by-case basis. When the Peruvian government declared martial law, Canada’s foreign minister, François-Philippe Champagne, managed to squeeze a chartered plane into Peru’s airspace.
Meanwhile, amid widespread reports that returning Canadians were flouting federal requests to self-isolate for 14 days, the government stopped asking. On March 25, Health Minister Patty Hajdu invoked provisions of the Quarantine Act that made it illegal for travellers to leave their homes for two weeks. At his daily press conference on March 26, Trudeau issued a stern warning: “If you do not comply with these instructions, you could face serious fines and even prison time.” Offenders could face a $750,000 fine or six months in prison.
Closer to home, border guards reckoned with tightening a typically porous Canada-U.S. border. The Canada Border Services Agency’s staff at land, air and marine crossings received instructions from the top on March 18. But at first, confusion reigned—not least because essential commercial traffic was to be excluded from the closure.
“We heard the Americans were still letting people in to go get groceries,” says Jean-Pierre Fortin, the president of the Customs and Immigration Union that represents Canadian border guards. “CBSA candidly told us they need to have further discussions with American counterparts to get clarity on what’s essential and what’s non-essential.”
The new restrictions did shut down, at least for the foreseeable future, a practice known as “flagpoling,” which Fortin’s union has long regarded as a loophole that stresses border resources. Typically, U.S. visitors to Canada on temporary visas—often students—avoid immigration backlogs by simply driving to the nearest border crossing, entering the U.S. briefly before circling back and getting their visas renewed at Canadian booths. (Many of Scarlett’s customers are friends of students who kill time at the shop while the visitors do their cross-border U-turns.)
Fortin says that in mid-March he urged Public Safety Minister Bill Blair to put a stop to flagpoling. The next day, the minister committed to doing so. Clarity in small doses.
The need for clarity is greatest for businesses entwined in critical cross-border supply chains, says Mark Agnew, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce’s senior director of international policy. Agnew said dozens of members joined a conference call to talk through the measures. They wondered if truck drivers who showed coronavirus symptoms would be forced into quarantine immediately, or if they could drop off their goods first. They weren’t sure if an important business meeting on the other side of the border counted as essential.
After the first weekend, Agnew said he was “cautiously optimistic” that people who should be crossing the border are being waved through. The new rules appear to block mostly tourists and recreational visitors. But there’s a wild card. Border guards on both sides retain their notorious powers of discretion, deciding on the spot in some cases who can and cannot pass. Says Agnew: “We’re not taking our eye off the ball yet.”
Essential business, in the form of thousands of cars and trucks that cross the border without notice, goes back generations. Every day, a small army of nurses who live in and around Windsor, Ont., stream into Detroit, where they now work at hospitals caring for thousands of ailing coronavirus patients. Dawn Kettinger, a spokesperson for the Michigan Nurses Association, told Maclean’s that 2,600 registered nurses from Canada are licensed to work in her state. Christopher Sands, the director of the Canada Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., hails from Detroit. He rhymes off the names of local hospitals that employ Canadians, including the John D. Dingell VA Medical Center, which cares for veterans. Bill Browning, a spokesperson for that hospital, says Canadian staff are “essential in helping provide the best health care for our veterans.”
There will be a time when border traffic again flows freely. But when the restrictions lift, will tourists follow? Scarlett doubts the Thousand Islands will see anything close to the influx of summers past. She views today’s collective turn inward, where people on both sides of the border retreat into smaller worlds, as tomorrow’s stubborn habit. Border Mall closed indefinitely days after border traffic dried up. If the shop reopens, its success depends on Scarlett’s crystal ball being wrong.
Tweet this chapter
Chapter 5: ‘Deep into debt and don’t look back’
When George Alkhoury was a child growing up in Damascus, his mother and grandmother would make falafel from scratch. Friends and relatives would swing by their home for a cup of tea and maybe the chance to hear George play the drums while his brother sang. That was a long time ago, before Syria was fractured by its long civil war.
After moving to Lebanon as a refugee, Alkhoury had the chance to start a new life in Canada in 2017, when a family sponsored him to come to Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. In a new country and new climate, he grabbed his drums and used music to make connections, volunteering his time in schools. He quickly found work as a line cook at a popular Italian restaurant. A year later, he landed a job at the community career centre, linking fellow newcomers with experts to teach them about the culinary business—everything from chef skills to rules and regulations. Then, in October 2019, he took a leap, borrowed some money and opened his own restaurant, Georgie’s Shawarma, a place where he could combine his passions: food, music and—most importantly—people.
Many people in the Soo had never tasted cooking like this. Musicians would swing by and fill the room with melodies. Alkhoury would mingle with customers as he offered free Syrian tea and desserts. Business was good. So good, in fact, that Alkhoury was planning to hire more people to make hummus in bulk to be sold in local grocery stores. At least he was before the outbreak.
When the provincial government ordered all dining areas to be closed, his authentic Syrian restaurant was suddenly empty. Alkhoury can do takeout, but downtown foot traffic is non-existent. He tried delivery for a week after the government measures were introduced, but can count on one hand the number of calls he’s received. “I wasn’t prepared,” he says. “My plan was to host people. If you make this great dish, you don’t want to put it in a box. You want it to look good with a beautiful plate on the table in front of the customer.”
So he’s closing Georgie’s Shawarma, for a few weeks at least. The two days’ worth of food he keeps in the kitchen went to the Salvation Army across the street. He feels bad, though, especially about having to lay off his half-dozen full-time staff—all newcomers to Canada, just like him.
The best defence against this pandemic is to heed health officials’ pleas for social distancing—increasing the physical space between people and limiting contact. Early recommendations that people limit themselves to groups of fewer than 50 people were quickly dismissed by experts as insufficient. Governments have threatened fines for allowing public or social gatherings of more than five people.
But what’s good for fighting the novel coronavirus has proved devastating to the routines that sustain us. As office spaces shut down across the country, the economy has been flattened—even the few non-essential services that are still allowed to operate are doing a tiny fraction of their usual business. Canadians aren’t stopping by coffee shops for a caffeine fix and a bagel. Bus ridership is drying up. Drivers don’t need to fill up the gas tank if there’s nowhere to drive. Date night no longer means leaving home, but rather parking in front of a screen. (Digital home entertainment providers have been notable—if inadvertent—beneficiaries of the outbreak.)
The domino effect of companies shedding workers has been breathtaking. Cineplex laid off thousands of employees. Cirque du Soleil laid off more than 4,600, nearly 95 per cent of its workforce. The Stratford Festival laid off several hundred. The Calgary Stampede let go nearly 900 more. With storefronts closed, fewer businesses have the need (or money) to advertise: SaltWire Network, Atlantic Canada’s largest newspaper chain, laid off several hundred staffers because of the revenue loss.
Closing borders dries up the need for international flights—not that Canadians are willing to fly much at all these days. Approximately 16,500 Air Canada staff are out of work. WestJet let go nearly 7,000 workers, or about half its staff. Sunwing helped repatriate more than 3,000 Canadians who weren’t Sunwing customers, for free. “It’s the Canadian thing to do,” the company’s CEO, Stephen Hunter, said in a news release. But the low-cost airliner relies on customers travelling south to warmer climates—the border is closed, and so are many countries to international travel. Nearly all of its 470 pilots are now out of a job.
No less hard hit are the small businesses, defined as companies who employ less than 100 people, though the vast majority have less than a handful. Together, they employ more than eight million Canadians and 70 per cent of Canada’s private-sector workforce, according to 2018 government data. Nearly two million Canadians work for small businesses in wholesale or retail trade, while more than a million are employed in accommodation or food services.
Suddenly, most have no one to serve or feed.
In one week in mid-March, more than 900,000 people applied for employment insurance benefits—and this was before the provinces of Ontario and Quebec, under a state of emergency, announced that all non-essential services must be closed. Community centres, concert venues, pubs, salons, clothing stores, barbershops, gyms: all shut down. As of this writing, more than two million Canadians had applied for EI since the outbreak.
What happens, then, when an entire economy essentially hits the pause button?
“We’re about to find out,” says Lindsay Tedds, a University of Calgary economist. “It’ll be a reckoning.”
Of all the folders for an economist to keep on her computer desktop, Tedds never imagined she’d have one labelled “Pandemic.” “I live in a province where people talk about individualism and pulling up your bootstraps,” she says. “We have to stop all that. This is where the state comes in.”
Indeed, nowhere are the indicators more dire than in the province that, until recently, served as the country’s economic engine. Alberta’s jobless rate was already above seven per cent in February—the highest of any province west of Atlantic Canada. As the pandemic spread, an oil-price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia pushed the cost of crude to its lowest level on record, throwing thousands of jobs in Alberta’s energy sector into jeopardy as stocks plummeted. Oil sands companies like Cenovus Energy have been clobbered; the company lost more than half its value in a single day.
The worst may be yet to come. By late March, the CBC noted, the discount on Western Canadian select oil was so deep that it cost more to buy a “Barrel of Monkeys” toy online than a barrel of Alberta crude.
Ottawa’s first response to the country-wide shutdown was aimed at kitchen-table finances rather than big business. On short notice, and with the Prime Minister at home under self-isolation, Parliament unanimously approved a $107-billion rescue package offering an injection of cash for parents; an emergency benefit for those who can’t work because they must self-isolate or take care of a relative with COVID-19; or extra financial support for the newly unemployed who have no access to EI. Some businesses have been allowed to defer income taxes and will also have access to $10 billion in credit through the Business Development Bank of Canada and Export Development Canada.
The Bank of Canada kept lowering its benchmark interest rate until it bottomed out at 0.25 per cent—“its effective lower bound” in the words of Bank of Canada governor Stephen Poloz, meaning the lowest level that rates can be set. The federal government moved further to rescue small businesses by offering a 75 per cent wage subsidy, with up to $40,000 available to storefront businesses in one-year, interest-free loans. Federal student loan debts, both payments and interest, will be suspended for at least six months. That sounds like welcome news for young people, but may prove small comfort given the lack of job prospects for anyone graduating from university in the near future. “Our 18- to 30-year-olds will be permanently labour market-scarred from this,” predicts Tedds, repeating her call for Canadians to temporarily embrace state intervention. “We need to make sure that people don’t die. We need to make sure that people stay healthy and sane. And we need to make sure they keep the belongings they do have.”
A recession is now unavoidable, according to forecasts from Scotiabank. And as for the public debt that desperate governments are quickly amassing, Tedds says: “We don’t look back.” Until the coronavirus is behind us and economic activity ramps up, the federal government will take on a remarkable amount of debt to limit the damage, as will every province and territory.
There have been signs of goodwill amid the growing financial hardship, like grassroots movements for locals to buy gift cards from shuttered small businesses—a monetary promise that they’ll come back when this is all over. But Andrew Brassard, part owner of Broken City, a Calgary bar, is declining such offers from well-meaning patrons out of fear he might not be in business to redeem them. “I would hate to be taking money out of people’s pockets that they may need,” he says.
He quickly laid off his entire staff so they could sign up for EI before the rush; at least that way they’d have some sort of income. There’s optimism among some of them that everyone will be hired back as soon as Broken City reopens. Maybe a big-name comic like Zach Galifianakis or Nick Offerman will show up unannounced and perform a set on comedy night, just like old times.
Some days, Brassard shares their optimism. Other times he’s glum. Each passing week of warm weather is another the patio stays closed—lost time during a season when his bar makes the bulk of its money. He has no other income and the business must still pay rent. But there’s a bigger picture, he keeps reminding himself. “Should I really be complaining?” he asks. “If Broken City opens again or not, that’s not really the world’s biggest problem.”
Chapter 6: Justice in a pandemic
Ines Gavran’s office is located conveniently close to the courthouse in Toronto, but for this bail review she wasn’t making the 10-minute walk. Instead, at her downtown office on March 20, the criminal defence lawyer and her client’s family huddled around her cellphone, which was set to speaker mode. Because of the pandemic, this would be one of the first bail hearings conducted remotely by Ontario’s Superior Court of Justice. And because of the coronavirus, among other factors, Gavran would argue that her 20-year-old client facing drug trafficking charges should be released.
“There is an increased risk of the virus being spread in areas that are overcrowded and generally unsanitary such as detention centres,” Gavran told Maclean’s via email. “Inmates and staff cannot distance themselves, as is now required, and there are often two to three inmates bunking in a single cell. They are forced to share common areas such as bathrooms, dining areas and even telephones.”
The Crown acknowledged the risk posed by the virus, but nonetheless opposed bail. In her ruling, though, Justice Jill Copeland wrote: “The greatly elevated risk posed to detained inmates from the coronavirus, as compared to being at home on house arrest, is a factor that must be considered.” She stressed that she wasn’t suggesting correctional authorities weren’t taking appropriate steps. But the likelihood of getting the virus is higher in a crowded place like a jail, she observed; not only was the health of the accused at risk, “but also the preservation of scarce hospital resources to treat patients.”
So, factoring in a new release plan proposed by the defence, the judge granted bail. And with that, Canada had coronavirus case law—a ruling that will almost certainly be deployed regularly by defence counsel for the remainder of the pandemic.
But it’s not all good news for those facing charges, especially those waiting in jail for their day in court. As courts across the country move toward hearing only urgent matters, those on bail may have to live under their restrictions for longer, without resolution. Same goes for anyone already in detention. And the entire justice system must walk a tightrope between protecting the public from criminals, both alleged and convicted, while safeguarding the health of inmates and preventing the virus from spreading.
To help slow the outbreak in federal prisons, the Correctional Service of Canada has suspended all visits from the public and volunteers, put a hold on work releases for offenders and stopped temporary absences for inmates—unless someone needs medical attention. Some provinces have taken up temporary measures to release those who serve time only on weekends and instruct them to stay home on house arrest. Public Safety Minister Bill Blair has called on Corrections Canada and the national parole board to look into measures that would allow certain offenders early release—against the wishes, notably, of many whose job it is to protect the public.
“The reason we have bail and release conditions is to protect the public, so is this flying in the face of that?” says Toronto Police Association president Mike McCormack. Letting people out compounds the risk to officers already worried about being infected by the virus, he says: “When our people are doing search warrants or making arrests, criminals are saying, ‘I’ve got COVID-19! I’ve got COVID-19!’ to cause mischief.”
McCormack cites a recent case north of Toronto, in which a York Region police officer was beaten with his own baton. The accused is a 22-year-old who had been scheduled to appear in a bail hearing that wasn’t held due to the coronavirus. The suspect is now charged with attempted murder.
But what about justice for the accused—the innocent-until-proven-guilty? On a typical day in Canada, according to Statistics Canada data, there are 15,000 adults in remand—meaning they are detained while awaiting trial or sentencing. That’s about 50 per cent more than the number in sentenced custody, according to 2017-18 data. “Most people sleeping in a jail cell tonight haven’t been convicted of anything,” says Howard Sapers, Canada’s former federal correctional investigator. “They are awaiting trial and were denied bail.”
They’ll wait longer—despite the Supreme Court of Canada’s R v. Jordan decision of 2016, which ruled that provincial court trials should occur within 18 months, while those in superior courts should happen within 30 months. The high court clearly specified in Jordan that the timelines would not apply in the case of “discrete events and exceptional circumstances.” As a result, says Ottawa-based defence lawyer Michael Spratt, no decisions are likely to be thrown out under Jordan while the coronavirus spreads: “There can be no more unexpected and exceptional event than a global pandemic.”
And worried as police might be, and however many court hearings are done by phone or video-conferencing, prisoners don’t have the ability to properly social distance, says Sapers. Jails are known to be overcrowded. Many inmates share cells. Rooms aren’t the cleanest, to say the least.
If anyone starts to show symptoms, “jails don’t have isolation wards for sick people,” he adds. “They have segregation cells. These are cells the size of a bathroom with no comforts or amenities. They are designed to be punitive. So we hold people who are sick and need medical attention in the most punishing form of incarceration in law.”
Worse, many inmates already have compromised heath, or mental health issues. And in federal prisons, more than a quarter of the population is older than 50, while one out of every 20 inmates is older than 65—a concern given that coronavirus fatalities skew heavily toward the elderly.
“I hope Canadians realize that when we separate people from society for the harm that they’ve caused, we didn’t give them a death sentence. We no longer have the death penalty in Canada,” says Emilie Coyle, director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, which focuses on issues facing women and girls in the justice system. “If someone is going to die from COVID-19 in prison because we didn’t do something about it, that’s a much harsher punishment.”
Still, with parole hearings now being conducted by video or in writing, the system is facing pushback from victims who are excluded from proceedings—including a B.C. woman recently denied the opportunity, because of coronavirus fears, to be present at a parole hearing for the man who murdered her father.
Heidi Illingworth, the federal ombudsman for victims of crime, says her office is receiving many such complaints. “They are concerned about public safety. They are concerned about their safety. Every victim worries the offender will commit the same crime again and they don’t want anybody else to be hurt the way they were,” she says.
Back in bail court, 27-year-old Nathaniel Nelson is in custody for allegedly robbing a Toronto jewellery store and trafficking a loaded firearm. His defence sought a bail review because of the heightened risk of Nelson contracting the virus while inside—but would learn that the coronavirus is no get-out-of-jail-free card.
“Given the seriousness of the charges; Mr. Nelson’s prior criminal record; the weakness of the proposed plan of release; and the absence of medical evidence demonstrating that Mr. Nelson may be more susceptible to contracting the virus and/or a heightened risk of symptomology, I am not satisfied that there would be confidence in the administration of justice if Mr. Nelson was released from jail,” the judge wrote, dismissing the application for bail.
Meanwhile, in Winnipeg, Judge Lindy Choy of the Provincial Court of Manitoba had a case that she called “very close to the line.”
The accused, 21-year-old Devan Gudmundson, was charged in March with child-luring after allegedly trying in online chats to arrange sex with a 14-year-old girl (police had run an online sting operation). The allegations came four months after Gudmundson was charged with child pornography offences and released on bail with a requirement to not use the internet.
His defence sought bail again, offering sureties from his parents, an absolute curfew and a promise that the house would be emptied of all internet-enabled devices. His lawyers also raised the coronavirus, noting health concerns amid the pandemic and the importance of social distancing.
The Crown opposed, arguing self-isolation in this instance would have the opposite effect of keeping the public safe. “Because we’re dealing with an online offender, I would suggest he actually poses more of a risk,” argued prosecutor Katie Dojack, adding that a decision in favour of social distancing and self-isolation “would actually increase the chance that more children are victimized. More kids are out of school now and more kids are online.” She pointedly noted that Gudmundson’s previous release terms included him being blocked from the internet.
Judge Choy agreed that the charges against Gudmundson were “extremely concerning,” telling him the nature of the evidence from the Crown “seems to demonstrate at face value a very strong case”—adding that’s not to say he wouldn’t have a strong defence.
Still, there was the coronavirus. It was already the cause of great strain on overcrowded prisons and their staffs, the judge noted, telling Gudmundson: “It’s really these extraordinary circumstances that society finds itself in right now that is leaning in your favour.
“While I think the public would be very concerned with respect to your release given allegations of your prior behaviour with respect to the child-luring,” Choy continued, “there are conditions upon which I can release you that will assuage the public concerns of the confidence of the administration of justice. And that, I repeat, is in the context of the pandemic that we find ourselves in right now.”
Gudmundson was released on bail.
Chapter 7: The better angels of our nation
Last year, Dakota Jeffrey-Petts, a 22-year-old line cook at a Montana’s restaurant, was living in a bachelor apartment with his pregnant fiancée and his 50-year-old mother. Being the sole breadwinner in the family wasn’t easy—rent was $1,200 a month and Jeffrey-Petts made minimum wage. His mother was diagnosed with lung cancer in January 2020, and the cost of her medication, ranging from $50 to $100 a month, put added strain on their finances. In February, the family decided to move to Toronto, where Jeffrey-Petts hoped to find a higher-paying job. But none of his applications came through.
In late March, as the novel coronavirus began spreading in Canada, Jeffrey-Petts found himself living in a 15-by-10-foot room at a family homeless shelter in Scarborough, Ont., with his fiancée, his now four-month-old daughter and immunocompromised mother. He’s been following the coronavirus outbreak since he first saw reports from Wuhan back in January. But it’s hard to keep to themselves, he says. He’s in a cramped shelter that houses more than 60 families, where some 40 people share a kitchen on every floor.
When Jeffrey-Petts realized he was running short on basic supplies for the month, like toilet paper and baby wipes for his child, he put up a post on the CareMongering-TO Facebook group, which sprung up on March 11 just as “social distancing” entered the Canadian lexicon.
“Our local food banks are either closed or are unable to accommodate our family size,” Jeffrey-Petts wrote. “My mom has cancer and I have a number of health issues so this virus could very well prove fatal to us. Please, if you can help in any capacity it would be greatly appreciated.”
Two couples offered to drop off food—milk, bread and rice. Others asked for his email so they could e-transfer him money: one person sent $15; another $20; and another $50. “The help that we’ve received has done a lot for us,” he says, “and put a lot into perspective, in terms of what our society can do for each other.”
It’s true that there are coronavirus crooks who have been spotlighted in the media—those profiting off of selling surgical masks at public parks and the upmarket Toronto grocery chain caught charging $29.99 for Lysol wipes (management of the store group, Pusateri’s, said it was a pricing mistake after being called out at a press conference by Premier Doug Ford). But for a lot of people, the default mechanism that has prevailed though the coronavirus crisis has been kindness.
People across the country have rallied to help one another during this time of need. Quebec’s Fédération des centres d’action bénévole du Québec (FCABQ) launched JeBenevole.ca, a site devoted to recruiting volunteers for COVID-19. By late March, about 12,000 had already signed up to do everything from providing transport to hospitals to dropping groceries off to disabled people. A group of University of Toronto medical students formed a childcare scheme for front-line workers, where students would babysit while the parents worked (the model has been rolled out to other medical schools and tailored to fit the needs of other communities across the country). Homegrown Canadian companies like Knix, a women’s leak-proof underwear brand with a cult-like following, leveraged their customer base and manufacturing connections in China to raise $150,000 through a GoFundMe campaign, allowing the company to buy $200,000 worth of medical-grade masks and gloves for health care workers. And three twentysomethings in Halifax launched a “letters against loneliness” campaign, calling on locals to write personal letters to the thousands living in Nova Scotia nursing homes and long-term care facilities who aren’t allowed to see their family members.
Since the outbreak, the elderly have been flagged as the most susceptible to COVID-19. And the aging community on the fringes—low-income, non-English-speaking seniors—is left particularly exposed.
Kevin Huang, a 34-year-old Vancouverite and the executive director of the Hua Foundation, which encourages Asian youth to participate in social-change initiatives, realized that Chinese elders are often left behind. Agencies in the city, Huang says, often support new immigrants or refugees. But what about the poor, monolingual seniors who have no access to social services?
Huang partnered with Yarrow Intergenerational Society for Justice—its mandate is to build a thriving and equitable community in Vancouver’s Chinatown—and with local restaurateurs at buzzy, foodie-favourite joints Bao Bei and Kissa Tanto, to plan, organize and implement a food-box service for the 60-plus age group in Chinatown. “We’re linking up with Chinatown grocery stores because they often provide low-cost, accessible food, and also culturally appropriate food that’s fresh and healthy,” Huang says.
Each crate contains a week’s worth of vegetables and fruit—bok choy, Napa cabbage, garlic, bananas and more—for $10. The idea is to encourage seniors to stay home instead of going outside to shop for groceries. By late March, the service was delivering produce to 50 people.
Huang plans to add more to the box, like tofu, fish and meats, and also hopes to expand the network by reaching out to building managers at seniors’ residences.
In some cases, kindness initiatives have caught on to the point they become unmanageable. Alison Van Rosendaal, a 47-year-old teacher and Ph.D. candidate in education at the University of Calgary, was looking for a way to help those in need. Every day, as she watched updates on TV, she marvelled at Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about how shallow, political and unkind politics and leadership have become in recent years,” says Van Rosendaal. The public health physician, she says, struck her as “somebody who is non-partisan, managing the massive amounts of information and giving careful consideration to the needs of every single person in our province.” She was, she acknowledges, “having a little crush on Dr. Hinshaw and her amazing leadership.”
On March 16, the day Hinshaw announced she would begin self-isolation herself due to a sore throat, Van Rosendaal couldn’t sleep. She got up at 2:30 a.m., and in a burst of creative energy, took out a paper and Sharpie and made a likeness of Hinshaw by tracing a screen-grab. Under it she wrote, “What would Dr. Hinshaw do?”
She took the drawing to a T-shirt maker at a local mall and printed 10 shirts, which she planned to auction off to raise funds for food banks across Alberta. After an image of the T-shirt began circulating on Twitter, a man from Red Deer contacted her. He owned a company called 72 Clothing, and he could help produce her T-shirts and set up a site where she could sell them.
After obtaining Hinshaw’s permission to use her image, Van Rosendaal and her T-shirt producer launched WhatWouldDrHinshawDo.ca on March 19. Within 24 hours, she had sold 1,000 shirts, and over the course of a week had raised just over $20,000 for food banks in 10 Alberta locations, including four First Nations communities.
But the popularity of the design meant that other people would copy it and begin selling it on other sites for profit, which neither Van Rosendaal nor Hinshaw wanted to happen. So after seven days, worried she would lose control of the project, Van Rosendaal decided to pull the plug.
Even disheartened Olympians are helping out. Phylicia George, a 32-year-old track and bobsleigh athlete, got the bad news on Twitter that the 2020 Tokyo Olympics were being postponed. She won bronze at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang in the two-woman bobsleigh, and had podium aspirations this summer in the 100-metre hurdles.
She was training in Finland when she began hearing about a potential Canadian border closure, so she made a quick decision to fly home. George usually stays with her dad in Markham, Ont., where she grew up, but instead she called up Ese Omene, a long-time friend and ex-track-training partner. Omene is a full-time web development student with two-year-old twin girls. It made sense for George to care for the kids, while Omene and her partner studied and worked. It wasn’t even a question, George says, not to help out.
While there is disappointment over the loss of an Olympic year, and doubts that even outdoor training will take place this summer, George is quick to note that there is “something much bigger happening in the world right now,” adding: “We’ve been given the opportunity to help save people’s lives by doing our part. I think it’s really calling into place the thought of ‘Team Canada.’ ”
Chapter 8: Fear, suspicion and the weight of tragedy
Andy Letham wakes up every morning dreading his email. As mayor of the city of Kawartha Lakes, Ont., he gets constant updates on how many new confirmed cases of coronavirus are in his region—and how many of his constituents have died.
Within two weeks starting in late March, the coronavirus death toll linked to an outbreak inside the Pinecrest Nursing Home—located in the quaint cottage-country town of Bobcaygeon, Ont. (pop. 3,500), part of his municipality—went from zero to 28. One fatality included the 82-year-old wife of a man who lived at the facility, and for Letham, each day brings the prospect of more tragic news. Half of those living at the 65-bed residence had symptoms of coronavirus. So did dozens of staffers.
“It’s a feeling of helplessness. We all wonder, what more could we have done? What did we do wrong? What did we miss?” he says. “People are dying and people will continue to die. This is real.”
Locals and community groups call Letham daily asking how they can help. He gives them the usual advice: wash your hands, don’t go out for groceries unless you have to. Stay home. “There’s nothing you can do–and that’s a hard thing to say to people,” he says. In a tight-knit community, he explains, people’s instincts are to act. Staying home feels unnatural.
And frightening. Letham admits to feeling afraid, and he’s not alone. “I’m scared,” says Michael Warner, the Toronto critical care physician on the front lines of the pandemic. “That’s a new experience, and everyone is in the same boat. There’s no way to escape it unless you fly to another planet,” he says. “What is that collective fear and anxiety going to do to us as a society? If we social-distance for four months, will we ever be able to be close again?”
It’s the sort of question only an unprecedented event brings, and one that experts are only starting to consider. After the SARS outbreak in Toronto in 2003, University of Toronto researchers surveyed the psychological effects of those in quarantine. “They tended to be more hyper-vigilant. They tended to have more anxiety. They had a lot of fear for one’s life,” says psychiatry professor Rima Styra, one of the study’s co-authors. “There was a much bigger sense of abandonment. People had survivor’s guilt sometimes. They were scared of infecting other people.”
Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder were observed in more than a quarter of respondents after their quarantine ended, according to the study, and nearly a third reported symptoms of depression.
“I would suspect the people who get COVID-19 will develop those symptoms,” Styra now warns. If that wasn’t sobering enough, consider that the median length of voluntary quarantines in her study was 10 days. That’s less time than many COVID-19 patients are spending in mandatory quarantine, and far less than most Canadians are about to spend largely confined to their homes.
Taken together, it is a recipe for collective anxiety, fear, sorrow and—potentially—anger on a scale unknown in living memory. It will reach across the country and around the world, and at this stage we can only guess at the social and political effects. What’s safe to assume is that things will never be the same.
“People’s fears are related to infection, xenophobia and societal breakdown,” says Gordon Asmundson, a psychology professor at the University of Regina who is receiving federal funding to study the effects of COVID-19. “It may be the latter that lingers the most. I’m thinking about things like some businesses not surviving. People may start to rethink travelling afar. The stress of health care workers to those supplying goods may leave lasting scars for some.”
Even the relatively healthy are not mentally equipped to live in isolation for long. “Social interaction is a basic human requirement—like food, drink, sleep and sex,” says Susan Pinker, a Montreal-based psychologist and author of The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier and Happier. “We need it to survive and we’ve evolved as social animals to crave it. The cost of not having it is great, especially to the most vulnerable members of society—children and seniors.”
While the digital world can be helpful, she says, it cannot completely replace the interaction we crave. “If it could, then the Spaniards wouldn’t be out on their balconies playing bingo and the Italians wouldn’t be singing in harmony.”
Pinker suggests interacting with your neighbours from across the street, which stimulates a part of your brain that YouTube or Snapchat can’t. To satisfy a need for what Pinker calls “joint attention”—as when a parent walks down the street with their toddler pointing out trees or flowers, both sets of eyes fixed on the same thing—she joined an online book group that meets via video chat: everyone will focus on the literature. Finally, there’s “synchrony”: doing things at the same time, like those condo-dwellers coming out on their balconies each evening to applaud health care workers.
Still, even as famous musicians set up free online concerts, or kindly neighbours pick up groceries for the elderly, the “all in this together” sentiment competes in a world where people put the blame on others for spreading the virus; where national borders are closed to foreigners; where international cruise ships are prevented from docking out of fear of letting in scores of unwell passengers.
“We’re seeing a combination of altruism and xenophobia. That’s not contradictory,” says Steven Taylor, a professor of psychiatry at the University of British Columbia and author of The Psychology of Pandemics. “People are tribalistic in nature and so they’ll reach out to other people in their own communities, while also maintaining xenophobic attitudes.”
In the U.S., that can take the form of blaming China for the virus—led by Trump administration officials who insist on calling it the “Wuhan virus.” In China, it appears as conspiracy theories, circulated by state media, that the U.S. military brought the virus to Wuhan. For Canadians, it could be deepened anti-Americanism after Trump downplayed the severity of the virus for weeks until it was too late to stop its spread—then vapidly floated the idea of putting U.S. troops at the Canadian border.
“With walls going up, I worry people can get used to this very quickly,” says Kerry Bowman, a University of Toronto bioethicist. “We can now see the physical threat of global integration. I’m not saying [integration] is wrong or we should stop. But it’s a tremendous physical threat and I think that may become internalized with people.”
Taylor offers an alternative scenario: “From past pandemics, people tend to be forgetful,” he says. “They want to put it behind them and get on with their lives.”
Will that be the case with COVID-19? “I suspect many people will go on with their lives, start socializing and go on cruise ships. But I wonder if we’ll see more people with a shutting mentality, or a Great Depression-era mentality, where they become more frugal,” Taylor says.
He also wonders whether this experience will accelerate the trends of working from home, staying in to watch Netflix instead of going to the cinema or ordering takeout instead of dining in a restaurant. He points to a Japanese culture-bound psychiatric syndrome called hikikomori, a shut-in syndrome observed particularly among young adults. “They feel safe in their homes and retreat from the world around them,” he explains. “I wonder if this protracted social isolation will facilitate the development of more cases of people shut in.”
As the psychological fallout reveals itself in real time and Canadians find ways to adapt—the city of Newmarket, Ont., for one, named a “chief positivity officer” to pick up spirits in the community—the imperatives of social distancing and self-isolation may become habits for some.
Until, at least, there is a vaccine, which experts keep saying is at least a year to 18 months off. The alternative is taking a chance on new coronavirus outbreaks, and waiting to see how many more lives they claim. For Canadians—for now—that is not an acceptable option.
So changed or unchanged, we stay home, for the sake of a better future.
Chapter 9: How does this end?
There’s an emotional cycle to life in quarantine, according to Jerilyn Gabruck, the nurse in Vegreville, Alta.—at least for those whose symptoms are mild enough not to hinder their productivity.
Stage one is a sense of opportunity, of motivation. “You think, ‘I have all the time in the world, so let’s be productive at home,’ ” she says. There are plans for baking, cleaning the house, painting the walls and doing every renovation project long left undone.
Stage two is incredulity, to the point that you just have to laugh. “You just can’t possibly believe this is your life right now,” she says. “You give up on being productive because this can’t be real.”
Next, says Gabruck, “you cry.” On these days you don’t feel like even looking in the mirror, she says, let alone getting out of your pyjamas. You might lie on the couch all day watching Netflix. Nothing gets accomplished. And there’s frustration among those you live with. The realization sets in of how long it’s been since you’ve seen friends.
Finally, there is an awful recognition that life might be like this for a long time—a really long time. This is not the same as the acceptance known from the stages of grief, says Gabruck. It’s something more terrifying: “Panic starts to set in a bit.”
The cycle repeats itself—she’s gone through it a few times during her three weeks and counting in quarantine. But 10 days after being diagnosed positive for coronavirus in early March, Gabruck was feeling symptom-free, and the required waiting period for re-testing had elapsed. She felt like an escaped convict as she drove out of town toward the testing centre in Camrose, Alta., thinking if anyone saw her, they would think she was breaking quarantine.
Normally the results come back in 24 hours, but not surprisingly, there was now a backlog. Three days later, Gabruck got the good news: she was negative. But to be free from quarantine, she needed two negative results at least 24 hours apart. It meant another two hours back and forth on the road to Camrose, and this time during the drive she felt truly great. She felt great the next day, too. And the day after that.
Finally, 18 days after she went into quarantine, and more than a week from her first negative test result, Gabruck got the verdict she was expecting during her daily call from provincial health officials: she had tested negative again. But the next part caught her off guard.
As they always did during their daily check-ins, the officials on the line asked Gabruck if she was experiencing any symptoms. And, as she did every day, Gabruck spoke the truth: she had a cough and a stuffy nose. It was likely a cold, she suggested, probably picked up from her kids. Then, to her dismay, Gabruck was told that, because she was now showing symptoms of coronavirus, she would have to self-isolate for at least another 10 days, just in case. She got it. She is a nurse. But that didn’t make the news any easier to swallow.
Canadians who get through this pandemic with their health intact will soon have to come to terms with a similar fate: being forced into home isolation multiple times; returning to work and school and the joy of human company, only to be told weeks later to go back home. Epidemiologists speak of the virus returning in waves until humanity develops a vaccine to vanquish it for good. Even before this country began to flatten its curve, doctors, economists and politicians were giving voice to the painful truth. All that talk of the danger passing by mid-April? The end of April? The end of summer? Don’t count on it.
Susy Hota’s reference point is the 2003 SARS outbreak, when she was a medical student. Now the director of infection prevention and control at the University Health Network in Toronto, Hota recalls her roommate at the time getting out of quarantine, only to be sent back just 10 days later. “This can go on for months,” she says. “So that is something people need to be aware of.”
The cruel irony, of course, is that the entire point of isolation and social distancing is to lengthen that initial period of spread—to save the health care system from being overwhelmed, leaving people without treatment that could save their lives. “If you think of a forest fire, this is a controlled burn,” says Ashleigh Tuite, an epidemiologist at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto. “But that requires a mastery of infectious disease spread, which we don’t have.”
While the exact length of this controlled burn is unknown, it’s hard to imagine a parade or a party or a Rolling Stones concert, à la SARS, to celebrate its end. “I have a friend who was asking me about her wedding in October,” Tuite says ruefully. “I told her: ‘I don’t know if you’re going to have a wedding in October.’ Not that she won’t get married. Maybe her guests dial in on their phones for a video stream.
“It’s quite possible we have disrupted life for at least a year and potentially longer.”
As Gabruck absorbs such hard truths, and waits out what she hopes will be her last stretch of confinement, she’s come up with suitably modest plans for her first days of freedom. She wants to go for a walk. She wants to do the grocery shopping.
But most importantly—with some of her colleagues already in isolation due to potential exposure to the virus—she wants to get back to nursing. Her neighbours, her province and her country have never needed her more.
—with files from Alanna Mitchell and Ishani Nath
We hope you enjoyed reading this article, and that it added to your understanding of the ordinary and extraordinary ways Canadians are staring down this pandemic.
But quality journalism is not free. It’s built on the hard work and dedication of professional reporters, editors and production staff. We understand this crisis is likely taking a financial toll on you and your family, so we do not make this ask lightly. If you are able to afford it, a Maclean’s print subscription costs $6 for the first six months — and in supporting us, you will help fund quality Canadian journalism in this historic moment.
Our magazine has endured for 115 years by investing in important stories and great writing. If you can, please make a contribution to our continued future and subscribe here.