With health care workers at the end of their rope, seniors dying in long-term care facilities and medical equipment in short supply, Quebec Premier François Legault has decided that now is the best time to end the confinement of the population.
For weeks, Legault and Dr. Horacio Arruda, national director of public health in Quebec, have been hammering home their message about the need to “flatten the curve” through containment and social distancing. Now they are prepared to sacrifice the health of workers on the altar of profit for the bosses. But fear not! “There will be outbreaks…there may even be people who will die,” Dr. Arruda reassured us.
Legault announced last Tuesday his plan to gradually reopen the Quebec economy: 500,000 workers will have to return to work in the retail, construction and manufacturing industries as of May 4 outside Montreal, and May 11 in Montreal proper.
The premier also announced on Monday that elementary schools will reopen on May 11 outside the greater Montreal area, and on May 18 in Montreal and the northern and southern suburban areas. The Quebec Employers Council is delighted with the reopening of primary schools and daycare centres. Parents will finally be able to get the economy moving again and make their bosses richer.
‘Herd immunity’… right?
On April 23, the government put the idea of “herd immunity” on the table to justify gradually ending the confinement, starting with young people. Between 60 per cent and 80 per cent of Quebecers would have to develop antibodies to COVID-19 by contracting the disease in order to have a “certain herd immunity” before a vaccine arrives, Dr. Arruda explained.
The response from scientists did not take long. “This is not a concept that should be supported,” said Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam. There is evidence that some patients have contracted the new coronavirus a second time. The World Health Organization (WHO) pointed in the same direction last Saturday. “What’s not clear at this point is whether the antibodies provide immunity and for how long,” added Dr. Tam’s assistant.
In addition, Legault is sending mixed messages. He tells us that we need to end the confinement of young adults and children so that they can catch the virus in order to become immune. But at the same time he tells us that everyone needs to maintain social distancing measures, respect the two-metre distance, avoid gatherings and wear a mask if they can’t practice distancing, such as on public transit. So following his logic, we must contract the virus to become immune, while keeping our distance so as not to contract the virus.
Furthermore, it seems as though COVID-19 can cause unusual blood clotting and result in sudden strokes in adults in their 30s or 40s who are not very sick.
And what about our infants? The UK Pediatric Intensive Care Society issued an “urgent alert” on Sunday about a significant increase in an inflammatory syndrome affecting children that may be linked to coronavirus.
Legault, however, was quickly slapped on the wrist after mentioning the idea of natural immunity, which he has since retracted:
Herd immunity, there are experts who think that having recovered from COVID-19 you could develop an immunity. This is what we want. …] However, this has not been proven. So we shouldn’t make this decision on that basis.
But when Legault announced on Monday the reopening of primary schools, he had to use another pretext: now it’s for the sake of children’s health and education! Legault’s pirouettes clearly show that for him the reasoning is not important, as long as he ends the confinement.
Deconfinement will overwhelm hospitals
On Monday, April 27 Legault announced that “the situation is under control, especially in our hospital system.” However, it had just been announced that the number of infected people had skyrocketed at Montreal’s Sacré-Coeur hospital. At the time of writing, five hospitals in the greater Montreal area are experiencing a major outbreak. In addition, 10,000 employees are absent from the Quebec health network, not to mention the shortage of employees in long-term care facilities. Nurses are exhausted and say they need a vacation. Were they consulted before it was proposed to reopen the economy?
And what about intensive care beds?
There are only 3,000 intensive care beds in Canada in normal times (885 in Quebec), with the capacity to increase to nearly 6,000 beds in times of crisis (1,300 in Quebec). As of last Sunday, 564 patients with COVID-19 were in intensive care across Canada. So if we deconfine, the epidemic worsens, 10 per cent of Canadians are affected and up to 10 times more patients would require intensive care, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. The maximum capacity of the health care system to handle these patients would be quickly exceeded.
The WHO called for massive testing at the start of the pandemic. However, the number of tests administered for COVID-19 is stagnating every day in Quebec and is even decreasing slightly. The drive-in testing site at the Quartier des spectacles has just closed its doors. The massive screening of symptomatic Montrealers has therefore just ended. There is no indication that the government has a clear plan for mass testing. Successful deconfinement cannot be achieved without mass testing of the population and tracing the movements and contacts of infected persons. Without this, deconfinement would be like groping around in the dark.
No deconfinement without the approval of the workers
But if herd immunity is not scientifically supported and potentially dangerous, if the healthcare system is not prepared to handle more sick people, if there is no clear plan to increase the number of tests, why does Legault want to end confinement?
The Minister of the Economy supplied the answer “Businesses, well, at a certain point, you can’t close them down forever”. And if there are deaths, too bad. What the bosses, shareholders and business owners whom Legault loves so much need is to quickly restart production, to start filling their pockets again. They can’t wait for the situation to improve.
For the ruling class of Quebec, the infection and death of workers is only collateral damage. In any case, it’s not so bad for them as they’re not the ones who are going to risk their lives on their way back to work. While the workers will be deconfined to relaunch the economy, the bosses will remain in quarantine, safe in their big houses, watching comfortably as their bank account balances grow.
It must be said: Legault’s deconfinement plan only serves the interests of the bosses, while risking workers’ lives. It was drawn up on a napkin, without consulting workers, especially those in health and education. There is no clear plan on how to protect the workers—we shouldn’t expect anything less from the CAQ, the party of the bosses. That is why the Fédération autonome de l’enseignement (teachers’ union) was categorical: teachers will not return to the classroom without protective equipment. This is the right answer to Legault’s plan. We must be clear: no deconfinement without protective equipment, no deconfinement without agreement from the workers.
Deconfinement is a class question. It is true that economic activity will have to start again some day. But if this is done under the control of the bosses, workers will inevitably die. Ultimately, it is the workers in each business who are in the best position to know what safety measures must be applied before reopening workplaces.
Only organized workers can ensure that they “flatten the curve” by controlling deconfinement based on the real needs of the population, not the profits of the bosses.