Letter from Montreal: Life in isolation, April 6

Photo by Luca Sartoni on Flickr

The more time spent in quarantine or isolation, the fewer surprises one can narrate. We are mostly reduced to a routine that is getting stabilized, within which novel occurrences—a trip, an impromptu meeting, the discovery of an unknown corner of the place where we live—have disappeared.

The territory that we inhabit has shrunk, depending very much on the rules established by each authority we live under—just a walk to the grocery store or within a one-kilometre radius from home. It’s also expanded, virtually of course, as we get in touch with faraway friends, and the sensation of an overarching common experience is enlarging our geography.

I have an optimistic idea that it will be easier to relate to the pain and suffering of others that are not in our immediate proximity, because we will have lived it ourselves—with very different gradations, of course. Maybe we will get out of this capable of greater empathy. On the other hand, a darker side of humanity is seen in the bidding wars around scarce resources and the nonchalance with which the deaths of many are narrated as a normal counterpart of a good economy.

Among the tons of writings that have sprouted online—of various and dubious quality—I particularly appreciate the take from a Chilean primatologist, who very subtly considers the “animalesque” component of human life, and how this pandemic has to be considered within a general notion of ecosystemic devastation, where humans and viruses are equivalent. Her theoretical approach is not new nor original, yet she exposes very clearly a set of important concepts. She is a scientist and hence not a moralist, acutely observing how we all are good and bad at the same time. It is in Spanish, yet I believe it should be translated and added to the growing “canon” of COVID-19 theory, or that someone should ask her for more.

The world.
Our family is hooked to the news that crosses the digital filter around our bubble, managed by algorithms and our own digital preferences accumulated over time—which means that we have not the slightest idea of what Fox News or Le Figaro might say, nor do we care. Nevertheless, we sense a growing discomfort between raw data, statistics, expert analyses, and prospective visions that are proffered by the media—versus the reality on the ground, where many acquaintances and friends relate of situations, of course very local, that don’t make the cut of what is being published.

For instance, we hear terrifying stories from a friend in Ecuador, which are not necessarily are on the front page of the NYTimes. And the stories from friends and family in Lombardy, Italy are far worse than what we can possibly imagine through the press.

Language is more and more the tool of domination, and now language is mobilized around a set of very convenient tropes, “emergency”, “control” and the “market”. Some small details tell much more than others: one of Boris Jonhson’s cronies, the minister of health, said “four doctors and some nurses died”. Some?

The dangerous and dominant metaphor is the one of “war”—language that will sanction the worst nationalistic instincts and allow for censorship and repression. We start to see that nations are outbidding each other to purchase as many masks as possible, and that is worrying. One old adage is that the first victim in any war is truth, and this is precisely what we experience now: the daily press conferences by the Italian government, for instance, are characterized by blatant lies, omissions and failed promises.

Another aspect of the haze of uncertainty and doubt around us is the question of masks. The messages addressed to citizens seem not to depend on an objective and generally accepted truth, but rather result from a strategic calculation about what is available. If the country has plenty, masks are declared indispensable and everone should wear one, even at home while watching Netflix. If the country is rushing to find some for doctors, nurses and hospitals, official agencies will tell people not to buy them—and that they might even be dangerous.

In any case, the most terrifying word of them all is “could”—particularly when used with semi-scientific announcements not validated by serious research. The results are either terrifying (“COVID-19 ‘could’ live on surfaces for 100 years, researchers find”) or can create false hope (“Doctors say exposure to UV ‘could’ kill the virus”).

In general, the official response is fine and transparent: data indicate a rapid acceleration of cases, but the number of deaths is still below 1%. Several regions of the province are closed, the great North inhabited by First Nations is probably at extreme risk, because of a general “pre-existing condition”: poverty.

Another sad detail is the fact that a quarter of retirement and nursing homes across the province are experiencing outbreaks of COVID-19: the virus arrived precisely where it should not be, hence some mistakes happened in that specific sector. Also, it seems that there will be a shortage of medical equipment for the foreseeable future. On the other hand, there is a concerted, ongoing conversation between provinces and the Federal government to find mutual support and solutions.

All in all, Canada keeps on looking like an excellent place to be right now. One can just compare Justin Trudeau, self-quarantining with three kids and no personnel, versus the king of Thailand, with 20 concubines in a hotel in Bavaria (Bavaria, Ludwig II, history repeats itself). Canada shines in relation to our neighbour to the South, that just announced that it will stop the export of N95 protective masks manufactured by 3M [ed. note: the situation has since been resolved].

People are taking the quarantine seriously, with a few exceptions that might lead the mayor, Valerie Plante, to close public parks. The same mayor, remarkably, has declared a state of emergency, to be able to provide help and care to the homeless.

We are still allowed to go out for a walk, bike or jog, provided distance is kept. But one cannot fail to notice how we humans are social animals. When two friends meet in the open space, they are magnetically attracted to each other and stop short of kissing and hugging when they are already too close.

Only pharmacies and groceries are open, with very good policies put in place to protect customers and workers. The provincial alcohol and cannabis stores are also open: they provide relief, but also bring cash into the public coffers. While queuing outside of them, some may say it feels like the USSR. The Societé des Alcools du Québec has a bizarre online advertisement campaign, which essentially says that in these odd times, consuming wine is an even better choice than normal. I went to one store last Saturday. At the door, you get questioned. I told this to my brother, and he asked if the questions were about vintages and wine-pairings. That would be fun: if you know what goes well with Riesling, you get a discount and a bottle of hand sanitizer. In fact, they just ask you if you have recently returned from a trip abroad, or if you have any flu-like symptoms.

A bizarre normality is returning, with lots of online classes and online work. I resumed teaching architecture studios online through intensive meetings with students – they need the exchange more than I do, as they might have been alone since three weeks already. I realized that I always wear the same sweater and that my beard is scruffier and scruffier, and my glasses covered in dust. I look like the dude in the Big Lebowski—of course, I wear a tracksuit.

At the end of today’s session, after I switched off the Zoom application, one of my daughters told me that my sweater was inside-out the whole time, and that she and her sister were frantically texting me on my phone to tell me… so much for the myth of the Italian “bella figura”…

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 following week’s Letter from Montreal here.

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