Covid-19 in Quebec: Legault Marches to his own Drummer

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On May 4, Quebec Premier Francois Legault rolled the dice. Outside of Montreal both manufacturing and construction projects were given the green light to resume operations, retail stores with street-front entrances and childcare facilities were allowed to re-open and children were sent back to school, albeit on a voluntary basis. Meanwhile QPP checkpoints set up to deter non-residents from entering Quebec were to be lifted on May 18. 

Originally Montreal, the nation’s hot spot for the Covid-19 outbreak, was expected to re-open on May 11, but cooler heads finally prevailed and the Montreal area was expected to remain in a virtual lockdown until May 25. Although it is unclear whether Legault will follow through on his pledge to loosen restrictions on Montreal at that time, recent comments by the premier and his ministers suggest this is likely, even though he has said he will delay again if necessary.

This decision to re-open Quebec’s economy and society is surprising to say the least, given that the province – with 22% of the population of Canada – accounts for more than half of all infections in the country and more than half of all deaths to date.  (By contrast Ontario, with 39% of the total population, accounts for 30% of total cases and 35% of fatalities, despite having the second-worst record among provinces.) Quebec is not only the hardest-hit province, resembling New York City in many respects, but it is the first province to announce a relaxation of the stringent measures that were adopted across the country to contain the disease. Unlike New York and its impressive Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has held the line on a lockdown with gratifying results despite massive pressure from within his borders and from an erratic president in Washington, Francois Legault appears to be taking a huge risk when little pressure has been exerted on him to lift these restrictions.

Nor is the situation under control in Quebec. According to figures released in early May, the rate of increase is declining but the curve has hardly flattened. Admittedly the picture is complicated by the overwhelming prevalence of cases in the urban Montreal area, where some 135 long-term care homes and seniors’ residences are at the epicentre of the virus and more than 1,000 members of the Canadian military have been sent in at the request of the premier to help deal with an overwhelming crisis. Nevertheless Legault’s argument that 97% of deaths in the provinces have occurred in those over age 60 – and that if one excludes those in nursing homes the overall numbers are much better – has reassured very few residents of Quebec or Canadians generally. His argument also flies in the face of the evidence as cases mount in low-income, hi-density neighbourhoods in the north and east of the city, already one of the poorest in the country. Montreal’s director of public health, Mylene Drouin, stated categorically on May 6 that “we are not lowering the epidemic curve.”  [1]

The decision to open up Quebec is even more troubling when one considers that the province has one of the weakest testing efforts, despite widespread consensus that massive testing and speedy contact tracing are essential to limit any flare-ups once restrictions are loosened. At 4,250 tests a day, Quebec’s testing rate falls woefully short of the estimated 15,000 to 20,000 daily tests recommended by the province’s own director of public health, Hector Arruda.

The obvious question is why Legault’s government is forging ahead with this risky plan.  Unfortunately, the answer appears to be that politics has trumped scientific evidence and common sense. Legault’s party, the Coalition Avenir Quebec, (CAQ), won its first election in October 2018 with a solid majority, taking 76 of the 125 seats in the National Assembly, but it won only two seats in the Montreal urban area. As one of Legault’s ministers explained to his federal counterpart, “The CAQ is a rural government. Rural areas want to open, so we’re opening.”[2] Legault himself offered another clue in a recent comment during a press conference announcing the loosening of economic restrictions. A millionaire entrepreneur himself, Legault told several astonished reporters “People who know me know how I love entrepreneurs. They are creative people who take risks, who lead the parade.” [3]

Worse still, although Legault initially received strong approval ratings from Quebecers for his steady and reassuring handling of the early days of the pandemic, his ratings since then have begun to drop precipitously with every announcement about opening up the economy. As a result, he has recently resorted to the old “fed-bashing” approach of his predecessors, in an apparent effort to deflect criticism and blame. For example he has bizarrely accused the Trudeau Liberals of reacting too slowly to his request for military assistance ( on the day he complained that only 350 soldiers had arrived the army confirmed that it had already deployed 760 and another 260 arrived the following day) and then decried federal funding for postsecondary students as being counterproductive to his plan to convince those students to replace absent foreign workers in the hard hit agricultural sector.        

Whether Legault will win his risky gamble with the lives of Quebeckers remains to be seen. If he loses, governments in Ontario and New Brunswick may soon be considering the possibility of setting up roadblocks to prevent Quebecers from fleeing to the relative sanity of neighbouring provinces.

[1] A. Picard. “Montreal’s High Covid-19 Rate Makes the City a Tragic Anomaly”. Globe and Mail. May 6, 2020. 

[2] C. Nardi. “Covid-19 Raises Tensions Between Trudeau Government and Quebec.” National Post. May 8, 2020.

[3] LPerreaux. “Legault Sees Support Declining as Quebec Re-opening Ramps Up”. Globe and Mail. May 12, 2020.