"Reopening" Quebec and the Need to Give Working People the Decisive Say on Working Conditions

The Quebec government's recurring theme is to "reopen Quebec." Talk over recent weeks has been all about reopening elementary schools, daycare services and businesses previously considered non-essential that have been shut down. The "reopening of Quebec" is to be different in Montreal than in the regions. According to the Legault government, the situation in the regions, particularly in remote areas, is completely under control, while Montreal was declared to be close to being under control. However, data started to emerge showing an increasing number of cases and deaths in Montreal, Laval, and Montérégie administrative region, on Montreal's South Shore. A projection by the National Public Health Institute of Québec at the end of April showed that the number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths would increase rapidly if confinement measures were to be relaxed too fast in the Montreal region. Also, a serious outbreak of COVID-19 was reported in the poorest neighbourhoods of Montreal, especially in Montreal North where a large number of low paid health care workers live, many of them asylum seekers, many working as orderlies in long-term care homes. It was reported that the outbreak was mainly due to the spread of the virus between long-term care homes, where workers work with seriously inadequate protective equipment, and that in these neighbourhoods people live in cramped dwellings. On May 4, Public Health Director Mylène Drouin declared that the situation is actually getting worse in Montreal. "We are not lowering the epidemic curve," she said. "We can see a plateau and even an increase in cases." As a result, the reopening of elementary schools in the Montreal region, which had been announced for May 11, was postponed to September.

What is striking about the government's statement on "reopening" is the disconnect between government statements and the reality on the ground. For example, in order to address the problem of patients in residential and long-term care homes (CHSLDs) and seniors' residences being left alone in their rooms when a regular worker is not with them, a family caregiver is now allowed to visit them. However, it was decided that the caregivers would first have to be tested for COVID-19 before being allowed into the centres and the residences. This caused an uproar and extreme anxiety because caregivers were not warned that they had to be tested. Then, suddenly, on May 8, it was announced that they would not need to be tested, without any explanation of why the policy was changed overnight.

Another disconnect is the clash between the claim that currently all the necessary protective gear is fully available for front-line health care workers and the reality that this is not the case. The situation in the CHSLDs, seniors' homes and home care is still the worst in this regard.

The arrogance of the government in the face of justified demands is such that a member of the Premier's executive team coined the slanderous expression "armchair critics" to dismiss those raising demands.

Another striking characteristic of the statements made by the government team is the pragmatic nature of the arguments put forward. For example, the executive team first excluded people aged 60-69 from those having to return to work as elementary schools and daycare centres reopen, because of the serious danger posed to their health if they are infected with the virus. On May 7, without warning, Premier Legault, in his usual cavalier fashion, said that decision has been reversed and now people between the ages of 60 and 69 will also  have to report to work.

To justify the change to this decision, Premier Legault provided a chart that detailed the percentage of COVID-19-related deaths based on age, which reveals that people aged 60-69 represent over six per cent of those who have died from the virus, while people 70 and over represent 90 per cent of the deceased. The chart also shows that no one below the age of 30 has died. This is intolerable, as it ignores the complexities of the propagation of the virus, noted by Public Health authorities, which is precisely one of the main concerns about having kids return to school en masse to interact with teachers and staff of all ages, including those over the age of 60. What we are witnessing here is the authority operating on the basis of nothing other than pragmatism and a disconnect with and disregard for the people. Authority should be principled and deeply connected to those who are doing the work and who must have a decisive say in how that work should be carried out, in a safe and healthy way, especially within such a crisis as the COVID-19 pandemic.

People were also incensed when it was revealed in the media that the Executive Council Office, which is under the direct authority of the Quebec Premier, hired the U.S.-based global private consulting firm McKinsey, to provide models of deconfinement and the reopening of Quebec. Among other things, this firm is known for its links with the U.S. military and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for which it did "consulting work," that resulted in cuts to spending on food and medical care for migrants and the acceleration of the deportation process.

This shows that not only does this government not rely on the concerns, views and demands of workers for what it calls the reopening of Quebec, but neither does it rely on the Quebec scientists, civil servants and Members of the National Assembly to deal with the problem.

Meanwhile, polls have also started to appear in the media, assessing the "popularity" of the Legault government and this or that measure regarding the reopening of Quebec.

People are rightly asking if this crisis is going to be dealt with as a kind of election campaign, with private marketing agencies in command, as is the case in "normal times" when people are treated as "consumers" and not decision-makers on matters that directly affect their lives. Are we going to see the usual kind of corruption? This situation is dangerous and requires the mobilization and organization of the people speaking in their own name and asserting their rights to decide society's affairs.

Workers are not stepping up to the plate to protect all the members of the society, including themselves, just to be treated in such an undignified and disrespectful way. It is the workers who have to determine their working conditions and the measures that are needed to get through this crisis in a way that is beneficial to the people.

This article was published in

Volume 50 Number 17 - May 16, 2020

Article Link:
"Reopening" Quebec and the Need to Give Working People the Decisive Say on Working Conditions - Pierre Chénier


Website:  www.cpcml.ca   Email:  editor@cpcml.ca