Legault’s first big fail


Sunday,  April 5, 2020 COVID-19 journal entry:  

At 1 p.m. this afternoon,  François Legault hit his first false note when he announced a three-week extension (until May 4) of the forced closure of all businesses deemed non-essential.

Until today, Legault led the country and the continent in his measured response to the developing coronavirus pandemic. Quebec was the first jurisdiction in North America to tighten the net on public gatherings, then lock down most public activities in mid-March, when the rates of infection, hospitalization and deaths continued to accelerate. Legault waited until March 23 before ordering non-essential commerces and businesses to shut down until April 13. He was careful to characterize measures taken to overcome community resistence as being required for the common good. Political peers from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to Doug Ford and Jason Kenney listened to what Quebec’s premier had to say.

At every step, Legault and his team had the unquestioning support of the majority of Quebeckers, a big reason why Google Analytics credits Quebec with leading the continent in containment measures.

I have no doubt Legault’s lockdown extension is based on good medicine. With 94 deaths and almost 8,000 confirmed cases, Quebec’s curve is showing no sign of flattening. With more than 500 COVID-19 patients (154 in intensive care), Quebec’s emergency care system is nearing its capacity to cope, especially if a significant percentage of the population refuses to take basic precautions — distancing, remaining at home, wearing masks, hand-washing, etc.

Yes, Legault has good reasons to extend the lockdown — but only if he and his staff redefine what’s essential and what isn’t.

Is Pratt & Whitney’s South-shore turbine plant essential? Why? To whom? The private jet industry and the holy grail of nonstop flights anywhere on the planet to protect the ultra-rich from the grubbiness of people suffering? Why are the SAQ and cannabis outlets essential?  Why are some workers deemed essential enough to have to struggle into work while others in the same office can work from home? Why are big-box home improvement franchises essential but my neighbourhood garage isn’t? The essential/non-essential designations need rebalancing in light of what we now know about this virus and society’s reaction to it.

A month into this nightmare, I’m seeing governments assisting the monopolies at the expense of small and medium-sized businesses. Consider Ottawa’s measures to encourage businesses not to lay off their employees. How does that help any business that isn’t on the essential list and thus can’t open for business? How does that help a business whose clients are themselves having to close up shop or work from home? Will Ottawa cover the mortgage, the business loan, the rent? Will the banks defer payment on the commercial landlord’s mortgage? Talk to your bank, not to your politicians.

I’m seeing our supply chains being altered, possibly for good. Our local IGA struggles with the volume of shoppers, including people from out of town who shop in Hudson because they think small towns are safer. My daughter, who lives in a COVID red zone in Montreal, shops in Ile Perrot for exactly that reason. After our phoned-in order was delivered half-filled, with wierd substitutes (tangerine-flavoured IPA?) our neighbours suggested we try the Vaudreuil Walmart. I’ve always shunned Walmart because of the impact it has had on local business but this pandemic has that effect on principle. South of us, most Americans think Trump did the right thing in ordering 3M to stop exporting masks to us. Most Canadians think we should retaliate by cutting off 3M’s crucial supply of wood pulp required for N95 masks.

In a pandemic, do two wrongs make a right?

A new definition of irony: national governments bailing out the airlines, who allowed this pestilence to invade our homelands at the speed of jet travel and assigned their untrained employees the responsibility of deciding who should be allowed to infect a planeload of passengers. It’s no different than the 2007 bank bailout after their dodgy practices destroyed the economy and shattered the social contract. Why are we not billing the feckless cruise industry with the cost of repatriating the nationals their lax hygiene measures aboard their horizontal hotels made sick? Why are people being repatriated to Canada by the feds and their airline buddies not being tracked by provincial health authorities? Instead they’re being asked to honour a promise to self-isolate, which from what I’ve seen in my home town, means diddly squat. When did the Privacy Act trump my right to life? Pure political bullshit. South Korea requires these repatriates to wear electronic tracking devices — and bills them.

At today’s briefing Legault was joined by Industry Minister Pierre Fitzgibbon, who touted his Panier bleu campaign to encourage Quebeckers to shop chez nous before buying imports. Fitzgibbons’s prescription was more political fabulation. Listening to his quackery,  one might believe the salvation of our local economies lies in more bureaucracy.

As I rode through Hudson this afternoon, the streets were empty except for a handful of diehard exercisers and a Manoir resident tottering down the centre of Main Road. I wondered how many of the shuttered businesses will survive. Much is made of the generosity of those who buy meals at the local frites joint with a Post-it note but the truth is that an extended lockdown until May 4 may mean the difference between life and death for our local businesses. It is immoral to pretend they’re not as deserving of help as a salaried employee.

People are trying to work around Legault’s edicts. I ran into a Hudson contractor whose phone never stops ringing with work. Word of mouth. He told me he’s chosen to stop working. The $10,000 fine has a lot to do with it. I saw others still at work, perhaps in violation of the decree. On a Sunday, when the COVID cops are taking a break.

On Sandy Beach, a couple of young women were distancing themselves from a trio of young men ignoring the town’s six-foot distancing edict. SEPAQ, Valerie Plante and the forces of quarantine have shut down Mount Royal, Ile Notre Dame and all but a handful of the island’s greenspaces. I can only imagine what our town will look like if this slow-motion disaster lives on into the summer and four million people desperately seek somewhere to breathe. Will Hudson be able to open its municipal pool, operate its day camp and proceed with our usual calendar of public events? Montreal has already cancelled the Tour de l’Ile, the Francofolies, the Jazz Festival, Osheaga and rescheduled Just for Laughs to the fall. What do you think?

I guess I can’t burden Legault with all this. I think he’s doing his best and I hope this was a one-day slip. But it would have helped if he had announced a proposal that would ask all 125 National Assembly members to take a 50% pay cut for the duration. Symbolic, but in light of the sacrifices the rest of us are making, significant. It might even trigger a similar action in Ottawa and the other provinces.

This coming Tuesday, Legault will be giving Quebeckers the long-term prognosis on how he and his experts see the pandemic playing itself out. We’ll get death estimates, just as Doug Ford shared last week. It was the only time in the past month that someone upstaged Quebec’s premier. I hope it’s the last.

To remind us of how things have evolved, here’s my March 23 journal entry:

March 23, 2020: Today I’m loving my country. Team Canada led the world in announcing we won’t be sending our athletes to Tokyo in July. The PM has just announced $192M for research into vaccines. Research teams across Canada are experimenting with antivirals and compounds to calm the human immune system’s reaction to the coronavirus. The pandemic has our politicians working hand in glove with doctors, scientists, business, industry and unions as each new day brings new challenges and the need to make the right choices.

We need good news. Economically, Canada was already fighting stiff headwinds when the COVID-19 tsunami hit us. Pipeline protests cost billions and cost jobs. Two major fossil-fuel megaprojects were cancelled or lost partners. Parliament resumes tomorrow for emergency debate on financial relief; here’s fervently hoping our MPs remember they’re there for Canadians, not politics. Will the money go to help working Canadians already struggling in a shifting economy? Will it be used to offset new fiscal challenges facing Canadian municipalities?

We’re seeing signals of bailouts to industry. From the scramble to repatriate stranded Canadian, you know Air Canada, WestJet and their affiliates are on the list. Banks, too. Manufacturers are jostling in the rush to board the medical-supplies gravy train. Some sectors of the Canadian economy may even profit from coronavirus.

There seems to be a dawning awareness in government that the measures required to reverse the rate of infection may end up killing small business. Anything which impedes consumers from consuming targets the service sector and their employees. That’s why it’s not enough to offer wage subsidies and worksharing to businesses that can’t operate. What good is filing a BDC loan application when one’s bank won’t extend a business’s line of credit? Who has to swallow the cost of cancelled contracts, of unsold inventory, of unfilled seats? If the aviation industry is offered a bailout, why not the hotel and restaurant sectors?

I dare to hope this is the crisis that will force us to rethink how wealth is distributed in a capitalist democracy.  One of the first acts of the Ford Conservatives in Ontario was to scrap a guaranteed-minimum-salary pilot project that would have helped its participants cope with the cost of social distancing. All levels of government need to keep in mind how the coronavirus ignores equal-opportunity guidelines.

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