Susan D’Antoni in Ottawa, Canada: Isolation

17 July 2020

The solitude of my initial isolation was quite pleasant as I prepared the rental house for our granddaughters, and ranged through a too large selection of books culled from the many not-read options in my library.  In the end, I read When We Were Orphans by Kasuro Ishiguro (acquired from the sale of books at our local library), The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (bought because I wanted to know whether I agreed with the award of a Pulitzer prize) and Factfulness: Ten Reasons we’re wrong about the world – and why things are better than you think, by the wonderful Swede, Hans Rosling.  The first I found a beautifully written story.  The second I found a gripping page turner, much to my surprise.  And the last I loved; I had truly saved the best for last.  I bought the book when it was released after Rosling died, but being quite familiar with his work I had never read it.  Our current worldwide situation, made it rather attractive: the title promised a more optimistic reading and thinking than current events, and it more than fulfilled the promise.

I came upon the work of Hans Rosling while working at the Paris based UNESCO International Institute for Educational Planning (better known as IIEP).  He used software called Gapminder to graphically convey his messages about the state of the world over time.  In those days when graphics were not so well used as now, I found it very powerful and potentially interesting for the educational planners studying at IIEP.  Rosling himself was a very powerful and entertaining communicator.  As a youngster he had wanted to become a circus artist – his parents preferred that he get an education and so he became a medical doctor and eventually professor of international health at the Svenska Institute in Sweden.  There he set himself the task of sharing and explaining a worldview gained from analysis of large data sets – that things are getting better in the world – even though we tend to think they are getting worse.  Through his many presentations and TED Talks he energetically shared this vision, and occasionally gave a sword swallowing performance at the end.  Before he died, he worked along with his son and daughter-in-law to put his messages in a book.  His heartfelt address to the reader is on the fly leaf, and concludes thus:

This book is my last battle in my lifelong mission to fight devastating ignorance …Previously I armed myself with huge data sets, eye-opening software and energetic lecturing style, and a Swedish bayonet for sword swallowing.  It wasn’t enough.  But I hope this book will be. *

Then two weeks ago, our granddaughters finally arrived in Ottawa from Florida.  Heart could be removed from mouth and put back where it belonged.  As pre-arranged, they phoned when they had crossed the US/Canada border that is currently closed to all non-essential travel and there was relief for everyone watching the progress of their three-day journey north.  They were very well prepared for the border crossing with a folder of documentation, including negative test results.  The official just stuck to a series of questions, and satisfied with their answers he sent them on their way with the specifics of the required fourteen-day self-isolation.  They were directed to stay in the house or in the garden.  No one could come on the property except for deliveries.  And they were contacted by telephone to ensure they were complying with the rules. They have worked, gardened, cooked and today their period of self-isolation ended. We are celebrating with dinner together in our garden.

And to conclude, I would not be a Canadian if there was no mention of our foe, the weather.  We have been having extremely long heat spells, even the mornings and evenings, that keep us indoors most of the time.  Even with a spacious home, this additional restriction weighs on one, and is yet another unpleasant indicator of advancing years.  Heat that was once bearable, now saps all energy and turns me into a limp, lethargic lump.  Nonetheless, I am continually heartened to see the smiling faces of our granddaughters across the street, safe from the rising numbers of COVID cases in Florida.

* Hans Rosling. February 2017

from Susan A. in Ottawa: A Dire Communication

5 April. The communication from the Premier was dire.  Without measures in Ontario – no self-isolation, no physical distancing, no 20-second hand washing –an estimated 100,000 would die over the course of the pandemic, which could last as long as two years.  With those measures plus some even tougher ones, the death toll could be brought down to between 3,000 and 15,000.  That is a relatively clear message – one hundred thousand, or 3,000 to 15,000 will die, and the number depends on all of us behaving as we are told. 

The Premier ended his message: “So please, this weekend will be nice outside, and I know it’s hard to do, I know how difficult it is, but please, stay home. Help us write an ending to our story that we can look back on, that our future generations can look back on and be proud of.”

The weather on Saturday was indeed lovely, sunny and warm.  Did people stay home?  No, our street had many walkers, runners and bikers, and the little park behind us had just a little less of the usual dog walkers.  So the message was either not heard, or heard and not heeded.  Nothing to be proud about.

3 April. Today we await the press conference of the Premier of the province to give us the straight news about how bad it is likely to be.  I will not watch, but will read it after the event.  Video is too hot for me these days; print is a gentler mode of communicating unpleasant information.  But I did make one exception – the recent speech of Angela Merkel to the nation, apparently a rare occurrence and therefore all the more powerful.  To me her words seemed informative enough, instructive enough and calm enough not to be terrifying, although the speech was criticised by the Czech Prime Minister for risking panic.  Compared to some of the incomplete, incomprehensible, erroneous communication on the virus, on the numbers and on the likely outcomes, her message sounded just fine to me.  While on the subject of effective communication, Jacinda Ardern is notable for holding a special press conference just for the children of New Zealand to help them understand the global coronavirus pandemic.  And still on the subject of communication, the repeated warnings about the need to “flatten the curve” could surely be improved upon for clearer, more forceful messaging.