Managing Quebec when you are going through a social or political crisis? In recent history, all prime ministers have encountered significant pitfalls. But no crisis has even approached in severity the one that François Legault has been going through since March.
(Quebec) From the start of the pandemic, the warning came in a loud and clear voice from the World Health Organization. One of its leaders, the Dr Michael Ryan, urged policy makers not to procrastinate in their fight against COVID-19. “You have to move quickly. If you wait for the perfect decision, you will lose the battle, ”warned the Irish epidemiologist, who became known in the Ebola war.
We did not need to say it twice to François Legault: paralysis is the worst enemy, he concluded, we must decide even on the basis of imperfect information. Already, as a politician, he was the impatient type, the one who always wanted to step up. Throughout the unprecedented crisis that his government is going through today, he is the one who prefers to take action than to wait until all the conditions are met to the taste of scientists.
During morning meetings with public health physicians, Horacio Arruda, Richard Massé or Eric Ritvak, we quickly see that scientists’ knowledge is slowly progressing with regard to this new virus, hitherto unknown. Information is often fragmented or simply does not reach consensus. Public health officials refuse to comment until the information is absolutely complete. However, if we had had to wait for a written notice before putting Quebec “on hiatus”, we might still be waiting for it.
This is why, last spring, François Legault put 40% of Quebec’s economy on hold, even before the machine, his administration, was ready – the announcement was made and we were still looking, at the Executive Council, the list of sectors deemed essential and businesses affected. The “machine” had asked him 24 or 48 hours before making this announcement.
PHOTO MARCO CAMPANOZZI, ARCHIVES THE PRESS
François Legault, Premier of Quebec
Always thinking of the Dr Ryan, François Legault decided on the contrary to close immediately, even if it means adjusting thereafter. Anyway, we were going to see that this list was gradually adjusted over the days. Shutting down the economy was quite a decision for this apostle of business development.
François Legault had a moment of doubt, especially when he realized that Quebec stood out with this strategy; the support of other governments later allayed these fears.
Same uncertainty, same doubt when we asked ourselves whether schools should be reopened in May; very few states in North America had done the same. Despite the magnitude of the second wave, the atmosphere was different this fall at François Legault’s office. In the spring, the COVID-19 commando felt they had little control over the evolution of the pandemic. There was a lack of screening kits, and François Legault was hit like a punch by the disaster at the Herron private CHSLD in the West Island.
Since then, the interim report of the Ombudsperson, Marie Rinfret, has brought to light the atrocity of the conditions experienced by residents of CHSLDs last spring. “In the spring, we had a great feeling of helplessness, we had a lot of problems in our blind spot that we were not informed of,” explains his right-hand man, Martin Koskinen.
In the entourage of the Prime Minister, it is stressed that Mr. Legault did not lose sleep, this fall, because of the anti-mask demonstrations and the ultimatums of owners of training centers, convinced from the start that these movements would remain marginal. .
Month after month, the decision-making circle narrowed; in December, the actions were decreed by François Legault and his chief of staff Martin Koskinen. The erosion of the ascendancy of the health authorities has progressed inexorably.
Horacio Arruda’s office was a stone’s throw from François Legault’s until the summer. He has since returned to his lands at the Ministry.
Yves Gendron, Deputy Minister of Health, was replaced by Dominique Savoie, who had never worked in this ministry. Danielle McCann also left the network where she had spent her entire career. François Legault’s first daily meetings with Public Health became sporadic this fall. The ditch clearly appeared in early December; Horacio Arruda revealed that the closure of restaurant dining rooms, decreed by François Legault, had not been requested by Public Health.
Mr. Legault is eager for information on the situation, on the state of the pandemic in the United States and in Europe. Every day, he carefully reads the newsletter distributed by New York Times on COVID-19. He listens to CNN and European news bulletins. This easily accessible information is the source of François Legault’s nagging frustration. From the start he was quite irritated by the lack of clairvoyance, of “sanitary intelligence” of the federal authorities.
In the weekly telephone exchanges, from a scientific point of view, Justin Trudeau, leader of a G7 country, has not often been at the head of the parade; François Legault learned more by going through the foreign press. Illustration of this indolence of Ottawa: the federal reluctance to close the border with the United States, and the delays tolerated before strict rules are established on the return of Canadian nationals.
Mr. Legault showed the same eagerness when it came time to close the schools. Still in early December, he decided to move ahead with the decision on the holiday plan. After dangling four days of rallies, then reducing the number of possible rallies to two, he double-closed the door, a week before the December 11 deadline published by Public Health. Scientists would have preferred to wait, to have a complete picture.
PHOTO EDOUARD PLANTE-FRÉCHETTE, ARCHIVES THE PRESS
Horacio Arruda and François Legault
This sense of urgency has been the source of embarrassing about-faces. For weeks, with Horacio Arruda, François Legault neglected the importance of wearing a mask as a barrier gesture. It must be said that at the time, the American immunologist Anthony Fauci held the same speech. Another round trip? Quebec did not believe in community contamination before realizing that it was an important vector for the transmission of the disease. Montreal Public Health espouses the thesis of the possible propagation by aerosols, while in Quebec, we remain in the dogma of droplets. Also in the chapter of trial and error: Quebec said it did not believe in the virtues of the application COVID alert proposed by the Trudeau government. He has since changed his mind.
Then there was the trial and error: the 28-day challenge, which became 56, the moral contract with the population that the government had to reluctantly tear up itself. He defends himself by explaining that he followed the path traced by Public Health, but the course of recent months shows that François Legault draws his own conclusions, often even before the Dr Arruda drew the line. Quickly, moreover, he qualified these ultimatums, ideas of communicators more than doctors. But François Legault and Martin Koskinen have been keeping their eyes on the polls from the start, which the government and the CAQ have increased since the start of the pandemic.
On several occasions, in an interview, Mr. Legault said he was literally obsessed with this crisis, by the importance of the impact of his decisions, for citizens, for merchants, for students.
Insomnia and doubts; his close advisers, including Martin Koskinen, chief of staff to the Prime Minister, do not hide the fact that decisions, leaps into the void, often without a safety net, are a source of insomnia.
“Humanly, it’s very trying to see the number of deaths every day. It undermines morale and we always have a moment of anxiety before receiving the daily report from Public Health, ”summarized Mr. Koskinen a few days ago.
Fruit of these nocturnal reflections, remind his advisers: one morning, François Legault surprised his entourage by arguing that it was necessary to recruit 10,000 new beneficiary attendants, an objective that many found downright utopian. Often at the morning meeting, Mr. Legault arrives with a list of questions on squared paper, the fruit of his cogitations of the day before and even of the night before.
This feeling of urgency, François Legault had it well before the pandemic. In a few hours, at the beginning of 2019, he decided to withdraw his portfolio from the Minister of the Environment MarieChantale Chassé. We had thought of Ian Lafrenière for Indigenous issues when the government was formed in October 2018, but the demotion of the incumbent Sylvie D’Amours was decided in less than a week. Ditto for the reshuffle that moved Danielle McCann from Health to Higher Education. Even before becoming prime minister, he had taken barely a few minutes to dismiss the CAQ candidate in a partial in Louis-Hébert. He wanted to put Geneviève Guilbault instead; the victory of the young candidate was the spark for the party’s victory in the general election a year later.