Quebec COVID

Horacio Arruda and Christian Dubé

Quebec COVID measures are random and inadequate

“Are Premier Legault’s decisions based on science or a desire to stay popular with his base?”

After months of daily coronavirus updates, one hardly needs to be an investigative journalist to realize that a 5 p.m. Sunday public health briefing is highly unusual. Something was clearly up when Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé announced a COVID press conference this past Sunday.

He quickly confirmed what had been circulating as a scoop on social media earlier that morning. Montreal, along with Quebec City and the Chaudière-Appalaches region, was passing from yellow to orange on the province’s colour-coded regional system that categorizes the level of danger COVID-19 poses to us. Orange is the second-highest, followed by red. In other words, not good.

The following day, Quebec Public Health Director Horacio Arruda announced what many of us have been fearing for a while: with a worrying uptick in COVID outbreaks and deaths, the province is now entering a second wave.

Quebecers have been asked to limit their social activities or face another shutdown. New restrictions were immediately announced by the government. They, unfortunately, feel like closing the barn door after all the horses have bolted.

Timid half-measures won’t do

I’m all for new measures, but can we take a crack at some real ones for a change? Considering Quebec is the province with the highest number — by far — of COVID cases and deaths in the country, and the lowest percentage of people taking the pandemic threat seriously, I really wish the government would stop doling out measures in tiny little increments and just hope for the best.

This is no time to treat the public like a temperamental two-year-old that might overreact to having a toy taken away. This is the time to just send Timmy to his room. With our physical and emotional well-being hanging in the balance, random, ineffective half-measures, while some people and some businesses are openly disregarding public health directives, simply won’t do anymore. We need science-based, evidence-based decisive action, followed swiftly by fines for those who don’t comply, that will collectively protect us and prevent another lockdown and more preventable deaths.

Let me put it another way: It feels utterly useless to lower the maximum number of people allowed at a private gathering to 6 from 10 (although two different families can exceed the six-person maximum), while bars continue to remain open, while children are stuck in poorly ventilated classrooms without masks, while organized sports for kids continue uninterrupted and while the CAQ refuses to use the federal government’s tracing app because “the pandemic is under control.” Is it, though?

If Premier Legault can ask for the Canadian Army’s help in dealing with the mess that was the CHSLD disaster this past spring, it can certainly use the federal tracing app to help us curb infection and control outbreaks, especially as the province is finding it harder and harder to retrace contacts as they continue to climb. And I really don’t want to hear about privacy concerns when my iPhone knows what I had for breakfast this morning.

Places of worship or rented halls are now being asked to decrease the maximum number of people to only 50, from 250. I don’t understand why that wasn’t always the case from the get-go. Why are we not giving ourselves a fighting chance?

Is midnight magic hour?

Another half-measure introduced: Bars, restaurants and casinos will now have to close at midnight and stop serving alcohol at 11 p.m. In explaining this decision, Minister Dubé said that they observed most of the worrisome behaviour after midnight. Just like Cinderella’s carriage, it apparently all falls apart after the clock strikes midnight.

What happens next week when they see that measure didn’t work either? Will they advance closing time to 10:30 p.m. and hope for the best once again? Their earlier decision to stop serving food at bars after midnight was equally questionable. Was the virus suddenly less likely to spread because patrons couldn’t order nachos in a bar after 11:59 p.m.?

The decision to limit the hours serving alcohol hardly seems like an improvement. All that will manage to do is speed up last call, forcing those intent on drinking to drink more and earlier. And once midnight hits, do you really think that people who are already feeling happy and buzzed are going to go home? No, they are going to go to each other’s homes and continue drinking privately. It’s human nature to circumvent and bypass the rules when the rules appear so random and flexible and ever-changing.

Every decision the government seems to make appears half-hearted, and a few days later, when the number of COVID cases spike, they follow up with another, slightly stricter measure that never seems to stop the bleeding. Unable or unwilling to cauterize and seal a wound, they just keep slapping on one, then, five, then twenty Band-aids while the patient is shouting for a doctor because they’re bleeding out.

It’s hard to justify keeping casinos, bars, cinemas and gyms open when the Health Minister is asking us to “avoid seeing each other” and “avoid dinners with family and friends.”

We need real measures that will tackle the virus before we’re neck-deep in another complete shutdown that will have dire consequences — both psychologically and economically — and before people are dying by the dozen again in long-term care facilities.

Right now, the government insists that it’s making its decisions based on public health guidelines and the evidence-based pattern and sources of current outbreaks, but one can’t help but feel that many of these restrictions are limited in nature and seem to be motivated by a desire to keep things open for as long as possible. Are Premier Legault’s decisions based on science and experts’ opinions, or just wishful thinking to keep the economy running and a desire to stay popular with his base? Is public health at risk as a result?

Why aren’t we enforcing masks in schools?

The latest findings on COVID transmission specify that ventilation is extremely important because airborne is now considered the primary way the virus spreads. If Health Canada already acknowledges that closed spaces with poor ventilation and crowded spaces, where the two-metre rule cannot possibly be applied, increase the risk of contracting the virus, how are we justifying keeping schools open? When children have not been instructed to wear masks in classrooms, is it really any wonder that at last count 383 Quebec schools have confirmed at least one case of COVID, and some have been forced to close because of outbreaks?

Gazette health reporter Aaron Derfel tweeted out on Sunday, “Given the rising community transmission of the coronavirus, the easiest, cheapest and simplest thing that can be done to protect our children is to require that they wear masks in the classroom, at least for the next little while.”

I find it utterly baffling that this is even debatable. We already know that, just like our healthcare system, the education system in Quebec is another Achilles heel in our defence against COVID. We are throwing far too many kids together in poorly ventilated rooms with no masks and no chance at protection and then sending them home to their parents and grandparents.

What is even more shocking to me is that this government is not only unwilling to mandate masks in classrooms, it has gone out of its way to block certain school boards, like the Lester B. Pearson School Board, from enforcing masks in their schools. As if an educational establishment doing everything it can to protect its students and staff should be frowned upon! A “crabs in the bucket” approach or mentality is certainly not helpful during a pandemic and a public health emergency. We should collectively be striving to work together to do everything we can to increase everyone’s safety. If some establishments want to go above and beyond the recommended safety measures, we should encourage them, not legally prevent them.

The government insists it is taking calculated risks to keep the province running while trying to keep us safe and stave off another shutdown. But taking calculated risks still involves paying attention to the latest science and what countries with a far better track record than us are doing to fight this virus. Taking calculated risks still means assessing probable outcomes and taking concrete measures — even uncomfortable and unpopular ones — to place the odds in our favour. What is currently happening feels more like a dangerous gamble. ■

Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.