Letter from Montreal: Life in isolation, April 13

Photo by Luca Sartoni on Flickr

With the passing of time, life seems to get stabilized in a new routine where a resemblance of normality is channeled through the surrogate digital tools that we use. Video-conferencing is becoming a regular fixture for many working in the so-called “immaterial economy.” As university courses are approaching their end soon, I find myself glued to my desk with a cascade of Zoom meetings, one after the other. I am lucky to be able to adhere to a certain self-discipline, dedicating my time just to one-on-one tutorials for students. Both McGill University and the Université de Montréal have established very reasonable online teaching protocols, taking into account the difficulties of many. But I have heard of colleagues elsewhere, dragged into endless meetings, conferences, and impromptu requests. A friend told me that it is quite clear who is stuck at home with young kids, juggling with complex timetables, and who is free of obligations, indulging in long explanations around their new project.

Universities in the USA—less so in Canada—are also nervous because their financial stability relies heavily on international students: if the Fall semesters won’t start, a main source of revenue will dry out. In 2016, several American universities found themselves in trouble when Trump’s bans on entry blocked hundreds of foreign students who had already paid their tuition. The outcome of a potential blockade on traveling, especially of Chinese students, will generate quite odd consequences: cut-backs may target course lecturers and younger staff, and so additional teaching duties might fall back on the shoulders of permanent faculty.

Parallel to this new scenario for universities, I have a general feeling about the field where I operate: architecture. In the current situation, our societies need other professionals, expertise and skills much more than they seem to need architects and urbanists. We are not “necessary,” besides offering our 3D printers to produce PPE equipment. Perhaps it would be a useful collective exercise to understand why the field has lost relevance over the past 50 years, and why our general aspiration is to have a post on Dezeen or three meters of wall at the next Biennale…

The world.
We often read an annoying slogan, “we are all in the same boat.” The only vessel that I can think of as an accurate metaphor of what is going on is the 18th and 19th century slave ship, where, yes, everyone was on board crossing the Atlantic, but under quite different conditions. While in the beginning, the spread of the infection was mostly due to affluent travellers—I am thinking of all of the examples of “rich” outbreaks, from the ski resort in Austria to the tennis club in Rio de Janeiro, from the art gallery opening in Santiago de Chile to the spike of cases in the Hamptons. Now, the people who are suffering more greatly are so-called “low-skill” workers—often immigrants who cannot afford not to be active. The impact, for instance, on public transport drivers and personnel is quite acute in many places. These citizens are more invisible to the media than the well-off, who always seem to have a friend-journalist. In any case, as spring approaches, the situation is also worrisome for migrant farmworkers, who are flown from Moldavia or Romania to Germany to pick asparagus, or from Central America to Canada for the next berry season.

The distribution of COVID-19 in New York City and across the African-American communities in the USA is a stark reminder that we might be on the same ship, but some travel in far better circumstances than others. Almost all medical personnel who died in the UK are immigrants.

Canada and Québec.
Both doing quite well, continuing to show a calm management of the situation. Data and numbers seem encouraging (with reference just to COVID-19 as a medical issue—unemployment and economic distress are a whole other story, yet good measures have been taken.) One slightly disturbing story has emerged: in 2006, a study about the future risks of pandemics was commissioned by the Canadian government, and among its authors was the current director of Health Canada. Since then, very few measures for public health or the stockpiling of medical supplies have been taken and so now the country is a little bit under stress, without sufficient capability for testing and with difficulties procuring masks, gloves and ventilators. That said, communication is very transparent, with chilling numbers about the future death projections publicly announced. Citizens are well-informed, without the contradictory messages seen in other places. No one has politicized the matter. Provinces are collaborating, sending medical material from one region to the other.

Here in Québec, there are two conflicting pieces of information and a disturbing detail. The premier announced last Thursday that kindergartens and schools might reopen before the official end of the lockdown, on the 4th of May. That declaration prompted a sudden response by civil society, with more than 150,000 signatories to a petition in a matter of hours, asking to consider a September reopening instead. In any case, the announcement is based on data that suggests that the situation is better than the predictive models. In general, it is interesting how Québec has taken a smart attitude regarding the timing of the quarantine. Instead of announcing a short period for the lockdown and then being forced to extend it over and over—as it is happening almost everywhere, think of Italy or the UK—it established a quite long period straight away, starting from the 21st of March, so as to have some leverage over public opinion and timing. Whether the lockdown will end earlier or not, citizens have prepared themselves for a long haul and the collective frustration is kept under control. The long long long long winter, of course, helps to keep us at home. On Thursday, it was snowing.

The less optimistic news is the fact that a third of all deaths in Quebec have occurred in nursing and retirement homes, hitting the most vulnerable citizens. That seems to be a recurrent pattern—it is also happening in France, Spain and Italy. It seems to demonstrate that where stronger actions were needed to protect the elderly, nothing was really done, or done properly. In the case of several private homes, horrific details are emerging about the living conditions there, and grave cases of negligence are being investigated. How our societies treat the weakest is just one more signal of the kind of “normality” that we hope won’t return after the pandemics.

And then the extremely annoying detail: a printed pamphlet with extended instructions about COVID-19 has been distributed across the province to everyone, delivered by mail. It is only in French, although 30% of the population is anglophone and there are innumerable immigrant communities. A responsible policy would have pushed for a multilingual document—yet that did not happen. This government is the same responsible for the law that forbids public employees to wear “religious” symbols, de facto marginalizing entire communities.

The weather is still slightly chilly, there are not many people in the streets, everyone is very respectful of rules. More and more people are wearing masks while they queue outside of stores. Inside stores, quite outstanding measures are taken to protect customers and workers.

The city has the highest number of cases across all of Canada. Two days ago, we drove across the city, a sort of dérive without direction, and passed through its downtown, which is spectrally empty, a quite strange sensation. Some shy buds are appearing on the trees, flowers are starting to peak out, and everyone dreams of warmer weather, though we still might be at home.

As with many other people, we are pretending to fix a stable routine—and then we are not following it at all. We are going for some walks in the neighbourhood, waving hello to people we know from 5 metres away. Some biking, especially for the younger one, happy to use the streets where there are no cars. A big buy per week at the supermarket, after 45 minutes of Soviet-like queue on the sidewalk, hoping it won’t rain. Yesterday, in the queue, a man was greeting everyone, asking for smiles, he was screaming “come on, smile, don’t be sad, this will last for ten more years, you’d better get used to it.” Another answered, “I am smiling, under the mask, don’t worry”.

Quite some cleaning, with too much Clorox, because it’s said that it kills 99% of bacteria and viruses—we’ll end up intoxicated by the fumes, like soldiers of the First World War. Throwing many unread and unreadable books in the garbage: in normal times, we would have brought them to someplace where they accept donations or left piles on the sidewalk where usually people pick them up, but during these times, who will do so? Hence they go into the recycling dumpster outside our building, where one also notices many latex gloves and masks. Of course, we crave to read what is not in our library, but we resist the temptation to use Amazon and so enrich Bezos.

We continue to cook a lot, now entering in the phase where every leftover has to be used, just to be trained for the future Greater Depression. A chicken was roasted and eaten, then the carcass slowly simmered with vegetable peels, resulting in what we call our “compost broth,” carefully kept in the freezer. The tiny bits of meat attached to the bones were carefully picked, then minced and mixed with other ingredients to also have fried meatballs. Any rendered fat was then kept in the fridge. Basically we spent 10 days with this chicken…!

Architect, writer and curator Fabrizio Gallanti is a lecturer at the Université de Montréal and the McGill University School of Architecture. He is co-founder of the interdisciplinary research collective FIG Projects.

You can find the previous week’s Letter from Montreal here.

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