I would certainly not trade what I am asked to do, say, to hurtle old-fashioned biplanes in northern Europe in the early 1940s – which my grandfather signed 80 years ago. But as Canadian cities increasingly restrict the freedoms of their citizens – padlocking sports fields, barricading parking lots in popular recreational areas, threatening to arrest those who recklessly wander – I have the impression that we are in danger of underestimating what is asked of many Canadians. “We are all in the same boat,” I always hear. But “this” is not the same from a distance for everyone who is there.
I am employed. I have everything I need in my apartment. I don’t have as many dogs to walk, too bad the children not to go crazy. I am not complaining. But this apartment has 500 square feet and two small windows. When I think of staying here until July – a timeline that Canadian politicians don’t want to dismiss, and that may turn out to be optimistic – it fills me with nothing but real terror.
I would just kill for access to an office elsewhere or the balcony I had in my previous apartment, not to mention the semi-detached house I grew up in Midtown Toronto which is probably worth $ 2 million right now. I know what it would be like to mount this thing on Heath Street East – having a barbecue every night, chatting safely with neighbors over the fence – as opposed to apartment 301. It’s night and day.
Now think of the people in the basement apartments or the shabby social housing. Imagine when it’s hot and people don’t have air conditioning. Imagine being locked up 23 hours a day with your children in a stuffy shoebox, relying on the same federal government that cannot manage its own pay system to accompany you in an economic disaster. Keeping people in such circumstances inside by force, even denouncing them for having taken a walk, closing schoolyards where children could ride bikes and scooters in relative safety is to risk mental and physical health outcomes that should certainly be weighed against the risks of COVID-19 itself.
Here in Toronto, people shamelessly access the officially closed running tracks and sports fields. On Wednesday, a local news station showed a waterfront parking lot full of cars; their occupants likely enjoyed a sunny stroll along the lakeside path. Mayor John Tory announced on Thursday that giant concrete blocks that had previously been used to barricade illegal marijuana dispensaries will be deployed to close the parking lot and all other necessities. He again warned of fines of $ 750 for those accessing closed facilities. And he decreed a fine of $ 5,000 for being less than two meters from an unrelated person in a public square or park.
We have no reason to believe that this is overkill. But at the same time, city staff demonstrated their utter lack of imagination and scarred by rejecting the idea of closing two lanes of Yonge Street in Toronto – in the densely populated but strangely quiet downtown area – so that pedestrians can move around using compulsory social networks distances. “The open streets” are designed “to bring people together,” said a director of transportation services for the Toronto Star, “which is exactly the opposite of what we need to see right now.”
Funny thing about it: Yonge Street was designed so that cars could drive – yet, strangely, almost no one drives cars on it. Perhaps we could trust pedestrians who need or want to get out a bit so as not to use the space as originally intended? Calgary closed a whole series of lanes and entire streets for pedestrians this past weekend. There have been no reports of dirty dancing, kissing booths, or other high-risk behaviors. Effective Monday, Winnipeg will designate four sections of road as “Designated Cycle Lanes / Active Transportation Lanes”. These nods to basic human needs should not be seen as careless, but as acts of mere compassion.
Calgary closed entire streets for pedestrians this past weekend. There have been no reports of dirty dancing, kissing booths, or other high-risk behavior
Much of it comes down to how long it will last, and at the moment it is unknowable. But if municipal governments in particular are planning months and months of these kinds of restrictions, then they have to start thinking about the relief valves. There is surely more than enough room even in Canada’s largest cities to allow people to get out of the house for a bike ride or a jog or a lakeside walk, with an appropriate social distancing in place , without significantly increasing the risk of exposure to COVID-19.
If this is not the case, the weeks being spread over months, the risk of cure is worse than the disease. All the more reason for our governments to put us at the level of the assumptions on which they work. We cannot all be “in the same boat” as long as governments keep their constituents in the dark.
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