Michaëlle Jean was the 27th governor-general of Canada (2005-10) and the third secretary-general of the International Organization of la Francophonie (2014-2018).
When my aunt died, alone, in a long-term care centre for the elderly in Montreal a few days ago, I experienced the fright that so many dread or live already. The call to my cousin telling him that his mother had been taken away by the coronavirus, and asking him to arrange for the body to be cremated, was brutal.
None of my aunt’s children were allowed to visit. They could not assist nor accompany her in her final moments. Even with all the required precautions, an allowance could not be made for two of them to take turns at her bedside. Not a precious moment of prayer. Not a loving memory that could be shared with the rest of the family.
All members of the family had to sit in solitary confinement with their grief. Not the slightest accommodation could be made for a remembrance, either.
Every time one of our elders passes away, a piece of us goes with them. Especially for those of us in exile, those of us in the diaspora and our dispersed families, these moments are integral to our memories, to relations weakened by the separations we suffered, the ordeals we withstood. Through time and across all civilizations, the ritual of mourning marks a passage that defines our humanity. We must be able to honour this human trait while we fight the pandemic vigorously.
When I shared a few words about my aunt’s death on social networks, thousands of comforting messages came sweeping in. Immense empathy – this human quality of feeling and identifying with what others are going through – washed over me and my family. Between the lines, though, I could also read some people’s own distress, vulnerability and utter solitude.
In the data counts and balance sheets being kept on the impact of the coronavirus, there are so many souls and so many life stories that aren’t being counted. I resist the idea that we can be reduced to numbers, lined up in columns like so many cold chambers.
We must also confront with courage the glaring horror that has now come into view: the creeping scandal of long-term care facilities for the elderly that have become money-making schemes in our countries with aging populations. For years, these were allowed to proliferate without adequate government oversight. We now see their flagrant neglect and lack of equipment, care and basic hygiene, the incessant turnover of staff because they are poorly respected and inadequately paid.
An unbearable reality has burst open, with patients who are malnourished and left unattended, lying in their bed sores, urine and excrement. For years, families’ complaints have been put on mute. Government departments reacted on a case-by-case basis, without a comprehensive overview, as each case was reported in the media. Trivialized despite its magnitude, the problem has been compounded by severe cuts to essential services, particularly health services.
I witnessed the same horrendous reality in Montreal 20 years ago with my poor mother, who had Alzheimer’s disease. I saw, up close, some seemingly well-run places, expertly dangling the promise of quality care with inflated accommodation costs that, under scrutiny, turned out to be dangerously wanting. It took tremendous strength and perseverance for me to rescue my mother from this trap, and then to navigate the maze of public services, with long waiting lists for a paucity of spaces and installations.
Authorities and political leaders have said how difficult it is for them to hear these horrifying stories. But their follow-ups – that they will now have to examine the problem, think of solutions and change the system – are clear admissions that they had been oblivious.
We have failed our elders by isolating them without protection, just as we have left behind and overlooked so many others in our society. And now comes a moment of truth: Will we reassess our precarious lives, our selfish ways, our choices, our dysfunctions?
Obviously, we need to invest in human capital, use all of our collective intelligence to think differently about essential services, accommodation and housing, collective spaces, so we can live better and more dignified lives, by strengthening the supply chains of solidarity.
Even our advanced nations now realize that they have erred, that they have been caught short, that they have failed to anticipate in a responsible, sensible, inclusive and comprehensive manner. This crisis – dramatic as it is from a sanitary, social, economic and financial point of view – reveals all our imbalances. But we will emerge stronger if we turn the lockdown into a time to reflect on the need to take action on our blind spots, and shift away from every-man-for-himself attitudes.
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