My daughter and two grandsons are in Montreal, where I lived for 26 years. I visit them four or five times a year. The most recent trip, March 14-17, was planned to coincide with her birthday. I planned a big dinner to celebrate that occasion. Also, my grandson, a recent law school graduate, had passed the bar on his first try.
Last week, coronavirus guru Dr. Anthony Fauci said the last thing an elderly (I’m 81) person should do is get on a plane for recreational purposes. But my only “underlying conditions” are arthritis and allergies. I humbly admit to an amazing immune system; haven’t had a cold in 20 years.
Dr. Fauci has always been my favorite; he seems to be a non-partisan truth-teller.
I went anyway.
This trip was different. On Saturday morning, the parking lot at Piedmont International Airport in Greensboro was blowing in the wind for lack of cars. The American Airlines agent changed my flight to avoid a long layover without a re-booking fee or considerable difference in fare. At a time when terminals are normally full of college kids headed for Florida in crazy T-shirts, the departure lounges were subdued. Nobody looked happy. Keeping “social distance” was easy. I never had a seatmate, on flights up and back.
However, I saw only a few masks and gloves.
At least 40 airlines fly into Pierre Elliot Trudeau airport in Montreal. Passengers from Europe, Asia, the Middle East and the U.S. funnel into a customs/immigration hall the size of a football field. It was empty. The only question I was asked: “Have you been to China, Italy or Iran in the past 14 days?”
Supermarkets were depleted but not stripped bare. I learned, however, that in ethnic neighborhoods — where residents had experienced war, food shortages and worse — the panic was palpable, evidenced by binge buying.
Coincidentally, I watched the Biden-Sanders debate in Canada, in which Bernie often referenced positively for their “Medicare for all.” The context was about whether anyone contracting the virus would receive “free” testing and care. This should be a given, worldwide. However, Canadian Medicare is not “free”: rather, it’s subsidized by heavy taxes on an income sliding scale. Doctors are in such short supply that, in a middle class suburb of 30,000, not one GP was taking new patients, forcing the government to open “doc-in-the-box” storefronts, where people line up on bitter cold mornings for first-come, first serve care. Why the shortage? Because doctors who want more than the government pays are allowed to opt out and set fees. Therefore, people who can afford it still buy medical insurance, which also covers X-rays. Otherwise, wait time for an MRI can be months. Also, residents may only go to hospitals in their district. Emergency rooms? From hell.
But I digress. By Monday morning I heard threats of closing borders, not necessarily for returning American citizens, but who knows once the swords start rattling?
I’m outta here. I left for the airport which, on the U.S. flights side, was empty. Air Canada had already canceled six flights to U.S. destinations. American Airlines gave me a choice; I chose one through Charlotte. While waiting in the departure lounge, a 76-seater bound for Dallas-Fort Worth left with six passengers. My seat was opposite a mother traveling with two boys, about 8 and 10. They all wore masks and gloves. She disinfected their entire seating area — even windows, call buttons and seat belt buckles — with wipes. The younger boy sat down next to me while waiting. His mother yanked him back. “Don’t touch that lady!”
He recoiled. Oh my. Then this thought: What about the 80 percent of people who contract the virus and recover? Will they be pariahs? Shunned like lepers? Nobody knows for sure how long an infected person is communicable or whether those who recover gain immunity. What about the airlines? Already they are canceling and consolidating flights. Will they go bankrupt along with thousands of businesses?
If so, when will I see my grandsons again?
This epidemic presents huge problems like hospital availability/readiness and little problems, like what will replace sports on TV. Why on earth would networks show “Contagion,” a disturbingly familiar film, with “Outbreak” soon to follow?
It was good to see my daughter. She had a rough winter, with a long hospitalization. I adore my grandchildren; their father, my son, died when they were small. From here to there and back, I practically washed the skin off my hands, ate no overpriced terminal food, touched only what was necessary in public places, and to my knowledge, did not encounter anyone with coronavirus symptoms. Nevertheless, I was selfish and will pay a price by staying close to home for a decent period.
If there is an upside, it is that our corner of N.C. is fairly self-contained with a relatively low population. Most important, we enjoy superior medical facilities and responsive residents. But life as we have enjoyed it for so long will change, perhaps not as severely as by the Spanish flu, or the London blitz. But changed.
Contact Deborah Salomon at firstname.lastname@example.org.