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'We Should Have Expected This': Inside Canada's Coronavirus Epicentre

Montreal has been the epicentre of Canada's coronavirus outbreak. The neighbourhood with the highest number of cases is Montreal North, one of the poorest urban areas in the country.
May 8, 2020, 12:49pm
Guillaume Andre
Community organizer Guillaume André says the situation is "dire" in Montreal North. All photos by Jillian Kestler-D'Amours

Nargess Mustapha pulls the elastics behind her ears and positions a light blue, surgical mask over her nose and mouth. “We’re on the third day of distribution,” she said moments earlier, as three pairs of volunteers set out from the parking lot behind the Cultural and Community House in Montreal North.

As its name implies, the neighbourhood sits at the northern edge of the island of Montreal, which has emerged as Canada’s epicentre of the deadly novel coronavirus. And Montreal North has been hit harder by the virus than anywhere else in the city.

“We’re responding to an emergency,” Mustapha said.

Nargess Mustapha

Community organizer Nargess Mustapha has been handing out masks and gloves to Montreal North residents.

The volunteers spent the afternoon handing out COVID-19 protection kits made up of disposable masks and gloves to residents of the neighbourhood. “It’s not just about being in distribution mode,” said Mustapha, the co-founder of Hoodstock, a community group that works on social justice issues, about the outreach.

“But it’s also to provide a certain level of support: to speak to people, to see how they’re dealing with this quarantine, how they’re living through the reality that today is affecting everyone here in Montreal North.”

Over half of Canada’s 61,159 confirmed COVID-19 cases are in Quebec, and more than half of all those cases are in Montreal. As of May 6, Montreal North had 1,615 confirmed cases—the most in the city—and 102 deaths.

Community organizers point to a perfect storm of factors to explain why Montreal North has been so hard hit—many of which are not new. “We should have expected this, and we should have put structures in place to avoid this,” said Mustapha.

In Montreal North, one in six residents make less than $20,000 a year.

Montreal North is one of the poorest urban areas in Canada. Its median household income was $42,548 in 2015 and one in six residents made less than $20,000 a year, according to census data cited by the City of Montreal.

The neighbourhood has a large racialized and immigrant population: more than two-thirds of its 84,000-plus residents were born outside of Canada or have at least one parent who was, according to 2016 census figures.

Haitians figured atop the list of new immigrants to the area in 2016. More families from the Caribbean country have sought asylum in Quebec from the United States since then amid fears they would be deported by Donald Trump’s administration—and many have set down roots in Montreal North, drawn to the area’s relatively cheaper rents.

A lot of Montreal North’s residents hold public-facing jobs, from restaurant employees to taxi drivers, security guards and healthcare workers, and they have had to keep working during the pandemic to make ends meet.

Some are employed in long-term care facilities, known by their French acronym, CHSLDs, through which COVID-19 has run rampant. Nearly 64 percent of all COVID-19 deaths in Quebec have been in CHSLDs.

Berthony, a Montreal North resident who only gave VICE his first name to protect his identity, works as an auxiliary nurse in a CHSLD in the neighbourhood. Auxiliary nurses typically administer basic services, such as giving patients medication, shots, and other treatments, and preparing medical equipment for surgery.

He said residents are dying every day, and many of his colleagues have resigned. “Before, (the job) was just (giving residents) medication and taking blood pressure,” he said, wearing a coat over blue medical scrubs. “Now it’s feeding them, changing their diapers. We do everything.”

Berthony said he is too tired to think about the high rate of COVID-19 infections in Montreal North overall. But “you can feel it in the air,” he said, about the virus’ impact on the area. “Before more people would be outside, but now people stay home. People aren’t going out.”

A few streets over, community organizer Guillaume André was hopeful Montreal North would get through the crisis. But André, director of the Multiethnic Community Centre of Montreal North, acknowledged that “the situation is dire.”

Located in a strip mall next to a laundromat and a Creole restaurant, the centre helps needy local families and distributes free food baskets every Thursday.

In an interview in the group’s modest office, with bottles of hand sanitizer and a box of plastic gloves on the desk in front of him, André told VICE that high-density living was a factor for the area’s high COVID-19 infection rate.

"You can have three or four people in a bedroom."

Many people are living in overcrowded apartments in Montreal North, including the Haitian asylum seekers who moved to the area over the past few years, André said.

“We know some housing in Montreal North is overpopulated. You can have three or four people in a bedroom,” he said. “These are things we need to fix… Montreal North really needs social housing.”

But he said more data is needed to fully understand the problem around COVID-19. “What we’re missing is the number of deaths in Montreal North, we don’t have that. And the number of hospitalizations,” André said.

The Montreal-based Center for Research-Action on Race Relations also recently called on Quebec and Ottawa to collect data on race, language, and income for people infected with COVID-19 in Montreal. This week, Quebec’s public health director said the province would begin collecting race data, which is a start.

“Data will give you a better understanding, a profile of who is being affected, what the needs are and how to further develop (and) adapt programs and services for either care or prevention,” the group’s executive director, Fo Niemi, told VICE.

On an overcast day in early May, the area around the community centre was quiet.

Serge, a middle-aged resident, took brisk strides up the street on his way to work. “Right now, everyone is trying to take precautions,” he said, reaching into his pocket to pull out a disposable mask he said he would wear during his bus ride.

Widened sidewalk in Montreal North

Montreal North's sidewalks have been widened to allow residents to maintain physical distancing.

Nearby, shoppers lined up outside a grocery store. At the door, a masked employee squirted disinfecting soap into customers’ hands as they were let inside.

The city and borough mayors have acknowledged the situation in Montreal North. They are urging people to follow public health guidelines to protect themselves, and a public information blitz is underway.

A large sign near the community centre advised people to stay at least 2 metres from others, wash their hands, and avoid large gatherings. On other streets, sidewalks have been widened to allow residents to maintain physical distancing. Signs on schoolyard fences advise people that “all gatherings are prohibited.”

Montreal’s public health department and the local health authority recently opened a COVID-19 testing centre in the neighbourhood. The borough, along with elected representatives and community groups, is also distributing over 20,000 protective masks, as well as face shields.

It’s hard to imagine in this climate the city opening up. But that’s what is happening.

The province had planned to reopen daycares and elementary schools and some retail stores in the Montreal area in the third week of May, but Premier François Legault just pushed that back to May 25 after widespread criticism.

Even reopening at the end of May might still be too soon. Montreal's director of public health, Mylene Drouin, said earlier this week that the city is “not seeing a decrease” in its coronavirus curve.

In Montreal North, residents are still in crisis mode. André stressed that Montreal North needs more testing if it is going to beat COVID-19. The neighbourhood needs to “put strategies in place to beat the pandemic. We don't have any other choice. We have to act.”

Gladys, a Montreal North resident who only gave VICE her first name, volunteered to hand out masks and gloves with Hoodstock this week. “It affects me,” said the home care healthcare worker, wearing a mask over her nose and mouth, and a face shield.

She said she knows three people who have been infected with COVID-19, including a friend who worked at a local CHSLD. “I said to myself, by protecting people, I’ll also be protecting the elderly in CHSLDs,” she said. “That’s why I’m here today, to do my part as a citizen.”

For Mustapha, having Gladys and other residents come forward to help their neighbours through the crisis has been positive to see. The people of Montreal North, she said, are “conscious of the issues that affect their neighbourhood and want their neighbourhood to come out of this.”

“But the idea behind all of this is also to find permanent solutions,” Mustapha added. “We really need a long-term plan, a social plan, that will help Montreal-North climb out of these conditions.”

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