There is no province in Canada that has done a perfect job of limiting the spread of the COVID-19 virus. But there is one province that stands out as having done the least perfect job of all, and that is Quebec.
As of Tuesday, Quebec had recorded 724 confirmed cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 people. The national average is 332 per 100,000. The province with the next highest rate, Alberta, stood at 295 on Tuesday.
The same gaps exist in the number of deaths per capita. Quebec has had 67 deaths per 100,000 people – one of the highest death rates in the world, and well above Italy, Spain or the United States. The next highest province, Ontario, is at 19 deaths per 100,000.
It may not be entirely fair to compare across jurisdictions, but Quebec Premier François Legault has invited such scrutiny by resorting to divisive tactics to distract from the painful reality of the crisis in his province.
Last week, he once again accused the veteran health reporter at The Gazette, Montreal’s English-language daily newspaper, of being biased. It was the third time he has claimed that Aaron Derfel is trying to undermine his government with false reporting.
The Premier also said that, if anglophones in Quebec are more worried about catching COVID-19 than francophones, as at least one poll suggests, it must be because they are spending their time reading Mr. Derfel’s tweets and watching CNN and other American news channels.
Attacking journalists and taking cheap shots at a minority group is no way to address a crisis that has claimed the lives of more than 5,700 Quebeckers. Columnists in the province’s French-language newspapers have rightfully pilloried Mr. Legault for trying to shoot the messenger.
Mr. Legault’s tactic has backfired in another way, too, by shining a spotlight on his government’s handling of the crisis. It’s fair to say the Premier has not had a good pandemic.
Not that it’s entirely his government’s fault. Quebec had the misfortune of scheduling its annual school spring break in late February, a week ahead of the rest of the country. Many Quebeckers holidayed in the United States and Europe just as the pandemic was picking up steam. Some experts believe Quebec’s early spike in cases was mostly bad luck.
But the curve of new cases continued to climb after lockdown was imposed in March. And Quebec’s outbreaks in long-term care homes were bigger, longer and deadlier than anywhere else in Canada.
The government’s most glaring misstep occurred on June 24, a provincial holiday, when Quebec’s public-health agency announced it would no longer release data about new cases and deaths on a daily basis – a practice common around the world – and would instead only make them public once a week.
The surprise decision came after Horacio Arruda, Quebec’s chief public-health officer, attended a provincial cabinet meeting at which the issue was discussed, raising concerns that Dr. Arruda had yielded to demands from the Legault government.
Dr. Arruda denied there was any political interference. But three days later, after much criticism from epidemiologists and francophone commentators, the decision was reversed.
In the midst of all that, Mr. Legault demoted his health minister, Danielle McCann, and replaced her with Treasury Board president Christian Dubé.
Firing your lead minister in the middle of a major crisis is never a good look, but Mr. Legault was reportedly fed up with the endless bad news battering his government.
The government has also come under fire for reopening bars in late June, causing a fresh spike in cases, and for raising the maximum number of people at an indoor public gathering to 250 from 50 as of Aug. 3, a move that has backfired in European countries and many American states.
This week it’s the government’s back-to-school plan that is drawing fire. Unlike most other provinces, Quebec students will not have to wear masks or physically distance in classrooms. And parents will not have the option of keeping their children at home to learn remotely, unless they provide a “valid medical note.”
Mr. Legault is not the only premier facing tough questions about their handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. But he’s the only one trying to make a farce of this tragedy, by blaming a reporter for reporting the news.
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