Jordan: Funerals are supposed to be a place where we can collectively mourn the loss of a loved one. They’re supposed to be an outpouring of sorrow and remembrance and sometimes even happiness that can bring a community together. Think of the ones that you’ve been to, if you can. Think of the comfort that you gave and took from hugs and embraces, or even just an arm lately draped around a shoulder. Funerals right now, of course, are nothing like that. If they happen at all, they’re extremely small or more likely just virtual. There’s no hugging, there’s no arms around shoulders. Funerals are one of thousands of things that COVID-19 has changed. But in some places, we didn’t change fast enough. That’s not a statement intended to blame anyone. There’re just things that we know now that we didn’t a month ago. And so a month ago in Newfoundland, a young woman died, and a funeral was held, and there were, according to the mourners who were there, the typical things that you’d see at a typical funeral. And then a week later someone tested positive for COVID-19. And then others tested positive. And now instead of a community coming together in grief, a community has been torn apart by suspicion and blame. If you want a good picture of how profoundly this virus has changed human behaviour, this funeral home is the right place to start. Our guest today will take you through the story of this outbreak, as soon as Claire Brassard tells you quickly all the other news you need to know today about this virus in Canada.
Claire: Well, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says Canada will be producing up to 30,000 ventilators. He says, the country is teaming up with Canadian companies to get this done.
News Clip: We certainly hope that we won’t be needing all those ventilators. But we also know that there are countries around the world where they are not able to tool up local production to create more ventilators. They’re going to be reliant on a global supply that’s already stretched thin.
Claire: Right now, Canada has about 5,000 ventilators across the country. Public health officials in Quebec are predicting between 1,200 and 9,000 deaths from COVID-19 in that province by the end of the month. But to Premier Francois Legault says he does not want people to be alarmed by those numbers. It’s believed that with the current trajectory, they’ll be closer to the lower number of the two. In Alberta, Premier Jason Kenney says the province is on track to hit a 25% unemployment rate because of COVID-19. That’s at least half a million people. He said it would be the province’s most challenging economic periods since the Great Depression. Well, China was the first country to go into lockdown and it was among the strictest, and that locked down has now ended after 11 weeks. The residents of Wuhan are now allowed to travel in and out of the city, but they have to use a phone app that uses data tracking and government surveillance. As of Tuesday evening in Canada, we are now approaching 18,000 cases of COVID-19 with 405 deaths.
Jordan: I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. This is The Big Story. Greg Mercer is the Atlantic Canada reporter for the Globe and Mail, and he’s covered this funeral, this outbreak, and the fallout. Hi Greg.
Jordan: Why don’t you start by just telling me about Shannon Fleming’s funeral. Who was she? When and where was the funeral held? And that stuff.
Greg: Sure. So, so Shannon Fleming was a 36 year old woman from Newfoundland. She died March 12th. She was 36 years old, and it had been pretty seriously sick for a long time. She had diabetes and died actually in the dialysis unit at a hospital in St John’s. Her funeral was four days later, March 16th, at an old funeral home in St John’s, one of the oldest in the city called Caul’s Funeral Home. And, it was very well attended. She was a well known, well liked young woman. She had a lot of friends. She had a lot of family in the city and around the province. And by some accounts there were well over 150 people who went to her funeral that was held inside the chapel at the funeral home. So it was quite an event, and there were a lot of people there according to multiple reports.
Jordan: So what was the setup like then at the funeral, because this was March 16th. Were they taking any precautions? Were they social distancing? Were they doing extra sanitization? Or anything I guess that we wouldn’t see at a normal funeral?
Greg: So it depends on who you talk to. The funeral home says there were precautions being taken. They say that there were signs up asking mourners and guests to keep six feet from each other, to avoid hugging and kissing and to try to not shake hands. The funeral home says that the common area was closed to the public, that they did not allow outside food in, that they say they did what they could to keep the crowds limited. Then people who actually attended the funeral say, no, that’s not the case at all. They said that the common area was open. They said there was food brought in from outside that was shared widely. They said there were many people who were hugging and holding hands as you would at any funeral. Many of them told me this felt like any other funeral. There was not really any indication that this was happening at the outset of a pandemic.
Jordan: So what evidently happened there that started all this?
Greg: So what we believe happened, and we’re limited by privacy because public health has not confirmed the identity of the patient who, who started all this. But it’s believed that a woman from Ontario who was attending a funeral at Caul’s funeral home at the same time as the funeral for Shannon Fleming, she was there for a man named Edward Tobin, 78 year old St John’s man, it’s believed she brought the virus to the funeral home and unknowingly spread it to dozens of other people. And the story and the cluster just grew from there.
Jordan: When you say spread it to dozens of other people, how big has that outbreak become now?
Greg: Well, it’s become the largest cluster that we know of in Canada. At last count there were 167 cases linked to the funeral home cause that’s more than two thirds of all the cases in Newfoundland and Labrador right now, all connected back to one funeral home over three days.
Jordan: What was the reaction among, I guess what must be a relatively small community, as the news kind of spread? As people were informed?
Greg: I mean, I think panic is one way to describe it. Newfoundland and Labrador is a very small place. Even St John’s, you know, the biggest city on the island, is still a small town in a lot of ways. And so as word spread on social media about this suspected cluster, people began to worry about who had been there and where they had traveled since. And it really became a free for all in a lot of ways, of panic and anger and blame. And it got ugly. It really did. And they’re still dealing with that in Newfoundland, Labrador. There’s still a lot of finger pointing and blame going around. For some of the families who went to these funerals, they say they’ve become public enemies. And were at the point where they were being watched by their neighbours if they left their homes and had the police called on them. They were being threatened on social media. They were being accused of bringing the virus to Newfoundland, and basically being blamed for everything that has happened with the pandemic since then.
Jordan: When something like this happens at a funeral and then sort of the natural grieving process after the funeral is interrupted, what does that do to the people that were there to mourn a friend?
Greg: Well, this is it. I mean, these people, they really did a pretty natural thing. They went to a funeral for a loved one. Nobody knew at at that time, there’s certainly no indication that anyone knew that the virus was in the building, that someone was bringing it or spreading it around. And they have not been able to grieve because they have been on the defensive, they’ve really been attacked by a lot of people online. They’ve had their neighbours turn on them. They’ve been made to feel unwelcome in their own communities. Even within families it’s caused rifts and divisions and a lot of finger pointing and blame. And so the, the folks who I’ve talked to who went to those funerals who were on the receiving end of it, have really been scarred by how they have been treated in the fallout from these funerals.
Jordan: And just to make sure nobody exactly knows who it was that tested positive?
Greg: So the funeral home says that it was a family member of Edward Tobin, one of the other funerals that was happening at the same time as Shannon Fleming. They’re saying public health told them that, public health will not confirm that for privacy reasons. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter. I mean, to me the bigger story is what has happened since. Trying to figure out who brought this doesn’t seem to do a lot of good. It’s the how has the community and the province reacted since? That to me is the more interesting part.
Jordan: Well, what has the province done? What kind of things have been done in the way of contact tracing and in isolation? If this is the hugest outbreak in Canada, how are they trying to get a handle on this?
Greg: So they’re trying as hard as they can. I mean, I think they’ve been surprised at how quickly it has grown. You can imagine you have a building where there are dozens and dozens of people who are interacting. And then those people go back to their ordinary lives for more than a week where they’re going to work or they’re, you know, meeting friends or neighbours and traveling around the province. Trying to track down all those people, and then all of the coworkers that they worked with, has been a difficult task for public health officials. They believe they’re getting on top of it. But I don’t think they really know if they’re at the end yet, because more cases continue to come out every day. Anyone who’s known to have gone to those funerals during that three day period, they’ve been ordered into self isolation. They’ve been sent for testing, they’ve been doing everything that they can to try to stop this thing. But it so far has been a losing battle.
Jordan: Well, my next question is kind of, just to make sure that I’m doing the math right, if it was on the 16th and everybody self isolated, surely we should see it stop spreading by now? Like this is April 6th we’re talking.
Greg: Right. But they didn’t know there was exposure for a quite a few days until after. So that’s the problem. And it’s where people went after the funeral. You know, in one case, there were 13 postal workers who went to the funeral of Edward Tobin. They then went to back to work for a few days before public health realized they had been at that funeral. And so think of all the people they came into contact with. And we’re talking about medical workers who came to assist people who became ill after going to the funeral home and not knowing that they were infected with COVID. Those medical workers became ill. So it spread exponentially throughout the province before public health realized what was happening. So that’s why it’s been hard to get a lid on this.
Jordan: Has public health been able to learn any best practices from this? Is there anything they can take from this that the rest of Canada might look at?
Greg: I don’t know. I don’t know. I mean, this is so unprecedented that it’s hard to say. I mean, they certainly brought in a lot of restrictions and new regulations in response. I mean, for instance, funerals and wakes are now banned in Newfoundland. And they’re trying to figure this out as they go. But I don’t know what could have been done to prevent this, to be completely honest. This, I mean, and it’s not just Newfoundland. Public health officials around the world are scrambling to figure out how to stop this disease.
Jordan: Right, and at the time this funeral was held, it wasn’t against any regulations that had been released then, right?
Greg: No, funerals were perfectly legal. You, it was recommended that gatherings were limited to 50 people, and the funeral home says that it abided by that. Some of the funeral home goers say there were more than that at the funeral for Ms. Fleming. But no, the funeral home, by all indications didn’t do anything wrong. They weren’t reckless or irresponsible. It’s just that what is permissible now has evolved so much in the last few weeks that it’s been a dramatic change.
Jordan: You mentioned the owner of the funeral home. What does he say now and what does he see as the future of his business and his place in the community? I must imagine that this is a devastating thing to happen at one of the oldest ones in St John’s, as you mentioned.
Greg: Absolutely. Yeah. I don’t think he knows what it means for his business. He’s upset that his business is being linked with this cluster. You know, and then the few times I’ve interviewed him, he’s quick to say, we didn’t cause this. This didn’t come from our funeral home. It was brought to us. And his point is well taken. He is worried about what happens to his business after this. He told me one of the quotes he’d been given to clean his funeral home, to disinfect it was over $100,000. He doesn’t know how he’s going to pay that bill. He’s lost all business. People don’t want to hold their funerals there. I mean, you can’t have a conventional funeral now anyway. So he doesn’t know what it means for his business. And he’s been doing this for a long time and he’s never seen anything like this before. So there’s an awful lot of uncertainty for him and for really anyone in the funeral home business right now.
Jordan: You also talked to Ms Fleming’s boyfriend, Shannon Harris. How is he, how is he doing? How do you cope with something like this coming from the funeral of your partner?
Greg: I think it’s fair to say he’s angry. He told me he really feels, he had not had a chance to grieve. He was in St John’s taking care of his girlfriend’s affairs and didn’t get home for a few days until after the funeral, and by the time he arrived, news was already spreading around the province about this potential outbreak. And he was basically greeted in his village of of 600 people by a lot of animosity. And people told him they didn’t want him to be there. So suddenly he feels like the town that he grew up in turned its back on him. So, you know, he told me that hurt. And it’s been such a distraction that he says he has not been able to process, you know, going through the funeral or the loss of his girlfriend. He’s been dealing with being, you know, a public enemy in the eyes of some Newfoundlanders.
Jordan: How does a small village like that put the pieces back together and learn to trust one another again? What kind of discussions are happening there?
Greg: I don’t know how they put the pieces back together. It’s safe to say that the town of Buchans, like a lot of towns that have been visited by this virus, have never been through this before and they don’t know what the future looks like. This is the kind of place where, it’s a cliche, but everyone knows everyone and they know each other’s business. Shannon Harris told me he doesn’t feel welcome there anymore. He’s not sure he wants to live there anymore. You know, neighbours who he thought were his friends have turned on him. You know, this virus is really exposed an ugly and a hurtful side to the human nature because people are scared. And I don’t know how you begin to heal that.
Jordan: Has anybody stepped into a position of leadership to try to heal it? Has the mayor said anything? Anybody on the town council? I don’t know what’s going on there, but surely somebody can say like, stop vilifying the neighbours for something they didn’t know they were doing?
Greg: Yeah. So the mayor has tried to say what he can, he said, look, I mean we’re not out to vilify anybody, but we have to protect our citizens. He said he has some empathy for Mr. Harris and what he’s going through. And he says it’s unfortunate if he’s being ostracized cause he doesn’t want to see that happen. The director of a public health, the province’s, chief medical officer of health, she’s come out and addressed this head on and said, look, nobody went out and intentionally spread this. You know, this happened at a time before we had any of the measures that we have in place now. Nobody wanted this to happen and vilifying people and pointing the finger is not doing any good. So she has tried to address it, and getting Newfoundlanders to stop pointing the finger a little bit. But yeah, I don’t know. I don’t know what else people have done to try to calm things down, but it’s, you hope that at some point, cooler heads prevail.
Jordan: I guess we’ll find out in the months to come when this virus finally recedes, if people can trust one another again, I guess.
Greg: I think so. And that will be a big question. So we’ll all be watching to see what happens. Because this really, a lot of people told me this kind of changed the way they see themselves as Newfoundlanders. Right? And this, you know, Newfoundlanders have this public image as being just friendly, outgoing, warm people. And I think that’s true to a large extent. But there is a dark side to any place when people are scared and angry and I think this is exposed it.
Jordan: Thanks for helping walk us through the story, Greg.
Greg: Yeah my pleasure, Jordan.
Jordan: Greg Mercer, the Globe and Mail’s Atlantic Canada reporter. That was The Big Story, for more big stories, as always, head to thebigstorypodcast.ca. For more podcasts that are not The Big Story. You can head to a frequencypodcastnetwork.com. We’ve got a bunch of them, even a few new ones that you might’ve never heard before. You can talk to us on Twitter anytime, day or night, we’ll probably only respond in the day and we are @thebigstoryfpn. And if you’ve got something you want us to play, you can send it to us. Hit us up via email at email@example.com. You can record a voice memo or send us a video and we’ll try to keep our listeners in the loop as to how the rest of them are getting along. Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. We’ll talk tomorrow.
Kirsten: Hey everyone, this is Kirsten Haney contacting you from Cambridge, Ontario, directly from my home office. Which, in other words, would be my kitchen table. I have been working fully remote since March 13th. I am an HR professional. Luckily I am able to to work fully remotely. I’m also taking a French certificate program at Conestoga college, which also has been totally transitioned to a remote program. My gym has been closed, so I’ve been working out at home. So it feels like these days, everything is within the confinements of these four walls, which has been a little difficult. I would say I’m feeling a little cabin feverish. But one of the ways I’ve been able to navigate through that is by taking walks. I try to go for, you know, a 30 to 40 minute walk on my lunch hour every day. That’s usually when I’ll catch up with The Big Story podcast and to try to get some fresh air and a change of scenery for once. We’ve also set up our patio furniture outside and when it is warm, we try to get out there, even if it’s just to sit out there with a glass of wine or a pint of beer and try to unwind and forget about reality for a little bit, that seems to help as well. One of the strategies that I’ve found really helpful is to also limit exposure to news about two to three hours before bed. That’s been helping both my husband and I sleep a little bit better. So, I know this is a really difficult time. I just wanted to wish everybody the best of health and hope everybody stays safe and remember that although this is difficult, it is very necessary and it might be a long, couple of weeks, a long couple of months, but we will get through this and normal will be back sooner rather than later. So again, I hope everybody’s hanging in there and just keep hanging on. Just keep holding on. We will get through this.
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