QUEBEC — Possible food and fuel shortages, a scramble to obtain personal protective equipment, a government blindsided by the nightmare of CHSLDs like Résidence Herron, muddled messaging on masks, chronic staff shortages, tensions with Ottawa over closing the borders.
The COVID-19 crisis was the perfect storm for all governments, and Quebec’s was no exception.
In an insider’s book to be published Monday, readers are offered a look at the roots of the COVID-19 crisis and the decision-making process of the Legault government in the bleak first six months of its year-long battle to fight the pandemic.
As of Sunday, COVID-19 has killed at least 10,393 Quebecers.
The book features interviews with the key players from the top down, including Premier François Legault and a raft of ministers and deputy ministers as they struggled daily to stop a pandemic that was sweeping the globe.
“Despite warning, the planet was poorly prepared to confront a devil of this nature,” award-winning L’actualité journalist Alec Castonguay writes in a forward to his book, Le Printemps le plus long: au coeur des batailles politiques contre la COVID-19.
“The alert systems failed. Adapting was difficult. And Quebec was no exception.”
As the March 12 anniversary of Quebec declaring a pandemic emergency nears, Castonguay reveals how poorly prepared Quebec was — across the board — despite such previous catastrophes as the 2013 Lac-Mégantic train derailment, 1998 ice storm and the H1N1 virus.
And while a well-intentioned Premier François Legault positioned himself as the general in the war in much the same way as his mentor Lucien Bouchard did in the ice storm, his efforts were hampered by a health-care bureaucracy totally unprepared to turn itself around on a dime even with the virus at the door.
The book says Legault himself was racked with doubt over many of his decisions to impose restrictions or call in the army for help at CHSLDs.
“I sometimes had the feeling of being alone,” Legault tells Castonguay. “We were constantly facing unknowns. We had to decide, but it was never black and white. We had to use our best judgment. There are people who think I am very sure of myself, but I have constant doubts.”
The crisis rocked the government machine.
While Quebecers were lining up in March 2020 at Costco to stock up on toilet paper, the book reveals Quebec’s top bureaucrat, Yves Ouellet, had a bigger problem: possible border closings disrupting the movement of essentials like food and medicine.
“Are we going to run out of food?” Ouellet asks the deputy minister of agriculture, René Dufresne, over the phone.
“We can hold on a long time eating lard and yellow potatoes,” Dufresne quips before turning serious.
The question of masks proved to be the first source of confusion in the government’s messaging to a people anxious for reassurance.
Early in the pandemic, the director of public health, Horacio Arruda, made a statement that would haunt him forever: Wearing face masks to fight COVID-19 is not recommended.
In the book, Arruda explains it only became clear later that the virus was spreading in the air. He said he has no regrets.
“I said this at the start: What I say today can change tomorrow,” Arruda tells Castonguay. “Science evolves. It was clear even if people want to go back in time and say I was wrong.”
There was a catastrophe over personal protective equipment (PPE). At first, Quebec’s leaders were told the province had a two-year supply of masks, gowns and gloves. Later, the bureaucrats downgraded that to an “estimate” before admitting the supply was good for four to six months under normal circumstances.
As the virus spread, consumption soared from 57,000 surgical masks a day province-wide to 550,000 a day, sending government officials into a round of panic buying on the black market where the price for one precious N95 mask had soared from $1 to $7.
And on many days, the person with the suitcase of cash on the airport tarmac got the goods.
In April, a desperate Quebec deputy minister leased four trucks from Groupe Robert Transport to travel to Toronto under Quebec police escort to pick up an order of N-95s coming in from China. When the trucks were finally opened, the boxes were empty.
On another occasion, a warehouse where Quebec was supposed to pick up goods turned out to be empty.
Quebec was equally frustrated with Ottawa’s slow action on closing borders despite the fact thousands of Canadians were returning from heavily infected countries like France, Spain and the U.S.
With an estimated 17 per cent of the travellers testing positive for COVID-19, they carried the lion’s share of the virus into their own backyard.
On April 10, another COVID-19 bomb landed at the government’s stoop in the form of an explosive article by Montreal Gazette reporter Aaron Derfel on the catastrophe unfolding at the private CHSLD Résidence Herron in Dorval. In the end, 30 people died there alone.
The book says the article was a “game changer” for the government, which realized its last-ditch efforts to free hospital space for COVID-19 patients by transferring other patients to CHSLDs was a disaster because they brought the virus with them into the least protected part of the health system.
“It was the worst moment of my career,” then-health minister Danielle McCann told Castonguay. “We had missed something.”
“It was then that we realized there were blind spots in the network,” added Legault’s chief of staff and right-hand man, Martin Koskinen. “After that we starting doubting constantly. What don’t we know? What is going to explode in our faces? The anxiety never went away.”
The book says the situation at Résidence Herron and other CHSLDs destabilized the government that, until then, believed it had the virus under control. While Quebec City was being told in April there were 200 deaths in CHSLDs, the real number was 390.
Its early decision to focus the offensive in hospitals, not seniors’ residences, proved fatal.
It also learned of the mess in CHSLDs in the media, not from the health network directors in the field, and by then it was too late to act as COVID-19 swept into the CHSLD network like a “brush fire,” the book says.
In the end, 85 per cent of Quebec COVID-19 deaths from March 23 to June 23 were in CHSLDs.
In May, Legault’s frustration with the bureaucracy of the health-care system came to a head after he held a private meeting with 16 directors of Montreal’s health-care networks only to discover they, too, could not provide him basic information.
“I would fire half of them,” an angry Legault told his crisis cell the day after, the book says.
Le Printemps le plus long: au coeur des batailles politiques contre la COVID 19, 392 pages, published by Québec Amérique, is available as of March 2.
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