VANCOUVER—Last week, in defiance of all rules of civility, I called Myriam Larouche at 5:45 a.m.
It was gracious enough that she answered at that hour. Then, she proceeded to tell me cheerfully about her life. She told me of her study and travels during two planned years abroad, of her family back in Quebec, and of the city that had just begun to feel like home until it devolved into a near ghost town as it reckoned with a deadly virus outbreak.
Until Thursday night, Larouche was living in Wuhan, China — the epicentre of a coronavirus outbreak that has sickened more than 30,000 people, killed more than 625, and is still spreading.
“Everybody’s hiding, everybody’s staying home,” she said at that time. “All the days are quite similar, we try to stay busy studying or watching any TV, if it’s possible.”
This week, an evacuation flight carried Myriam and 175 other Canadians back to this country. It may have arrived early Friday morning, but she and her fellow evacuees still must endure 14 days in quarantine before they can go home to their families.
It’s an unenviable itinerary — spending day and night in a comfy but confined room at an air base, under advice that it’s really better not to get up and walk around.
I have a feeling she’ll face it undaunted, though.
In the days after our first conversation on the phone, Myriam and I kept up a game of chat-tag through time zones. You can follow some of that chat in our live blog of her journey back to Canada.
What struck me about talking to her was that, despite being at the very centre of a world news event causing all shades of ugliness in the forms of death, suffering and racism, she exuded qualities the rest of us seemed to have forgotten: Optimism. Joy. Calm amid the storm.
Maybe, while we’re all working out how to process our concerns and fears about the novel coronavirus, we could take her attitude as an example.
The 25-year-old from L’Ascension, Que., was in Wuhan to study tourism management at the Central China Normal University on a scholarship, and she had no intention of wasting any of her time there. Myriam had been in Wuhan five months and had spent her spare time exploring the city and country. She sent me smiling photos from a sunny trip to Guilin in the south of China.
When the outbreak started to get serious, Myriam wasn’t cavalier about it. She stayed in her dorm room, wearing a mask whenever she had to go out to get food, and spent time reassuring her mom back home, who was worried about her. Eventually, Myriam contacted her university and Global Affairs to ask for help to get back to Canada.
But neither did she let the outbreak entirely colour her experience of Wuhan. While confined to her room, she continued to chat and play games over the internet with the many other international students she had met there. She told me she wondered if there was a way she would be able to go back to the country to continue her studies, after the outbreak.
“I’m telling myself that this could have happened anywhere in the world,” she said, matter of factly on the phone. “I was supposed to be here for two years, but maybe I’m going to come back earlier.”
With officials and politicians focused on messages of getting Canadians out of Wuhan, there was something refreshing in hearing Myriam talk about, one day, going back, before she had even left.
Chatting with Myriam felt like chatting with any one of my friends. We’re the same age, and share a desire to seize opportunities to learn and see new parts of the world. She comes across warmly, often smiling, and texting fluently in the millennial language of emojis.
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None of that attitude seemed compromised by her circumstances. Prior to the flight to Canada, when Myriam had to go through the intense scrutiny of Chinese government checkpoints and sit in the airport for 10 hours with only instant noodles to eat. But for every time she confessed trepidation about the trip to come, she was as quick to say everything was great and that she was “so excited.”
I found myself drawn to Myriam, and invested in her journey. On Thursday night, though I had been up for 18 hours so that I could report when the evacuation flight took off from Wuhan, I was excited to message her to welcome her home to Canada, and to note that we were briefly in the same city as the flight stopped in Vancouver (she answered with emojis and thank you’s).
Reporting on this novel coronavirus from the West Coast, I’ve encountered a range of attitudes: cautious confidence in our public health system, panicked misconceptions and many, many painful memories of SARS. There is something primal about sickness and our fear of it. It brings out our worse instincts, when what’s needed most is logic and reason. It’s hard to be calm when people are dying in a global emergency.
Myriam’s approach was appealing. She’s taking the requisite precautions and staying safe. But as much as she’s thinking about coronavirus, she’s also thinking about what happens next.
We could do that, too.