Last Friday, patios across Quebec reopened to customers for the first time since the fall. The curfew was also lifted.

Cases of COVID-19 have fallen across the province to levels not seen since last summer. More than half of the province has been vaccinated with at least one dose, with 75 per cent expected to be vaccinated by mid-June. Montreal, once the epicentre of Canada’s pandemic, managed to mostly avoid a third wave. Nationally, Quebec now has one of the lowest totals of infections per million people, at a level comparable to Nova Scotia.

Quebec Premier François Legault is almost beside himself with glee. His poll numbers have stayed high, almost to the point of absurdity: Throughout the pandemic, poll aggregator and analyst Philippe J. Fournier has never had the CAQ below a projected majority.

Looking at these numbers, you wouldn’t know Legault has overseen the worst mass death of the entire pandemic.

Quebec has suffered more than 11,000 COVID-19 deaths thus far. Until recently, the province made up for nearly half of the country’s death toll. (Quebec now accounts for about 44 per cent of total deaths.)

Some 9,200 people have died in long-term care (LTC) homes in the province, according to data compiled by Passage columnist Nora Loreto. Many of those died in the devastating first and second waves, before vaccines were available and the virus was free to run rampant.

The situation in LTC homes was horrific. In one Montreal home, things were “akin to a concentration camp” when public health authorities arrived, according to a Montreal Gazette report from last April.

“There were [two] patients who were dead in their beds,” a source told the newspaper. “Their deaths had not been recognized. There were patients who had fallen on the floor. There were patients who hadn’t had any basic care for a number of days, diapers that hadn’t been changed for three or four days, excrement that was covering their skin and patients who hadn’t been fed.”

Events like that one, with varying degrees of severity, took place at care homes across the province. All of them under Legault’s watch.

When the second wave began, the province made a point of leaving workplaces, such as  factories, food processing plants and construction sites, open. How many people were sacrificed to keep the economy going? How many have had their lives irreversibly altered through exposure to the virus?

When the province enacted a curfew, the cry went up for people living on the street to be exempted. It was denied. It took a man freezing to death inside a portable toilet, metres from a shelter, and more than a week of continual refusals, for the government to change course. 

Were it not for the arrival of vaccines, and the decision to prioritize giving everyone in LTCs a dose before anyone else, who knows how much worse it could have been.

And now, while the pandemic has yet to even end and restrictions are only just beginning to ease, the Quebec government is telling local health authorities to prepare for a round of deep cuts, demanding they find $150 million in budget reductions.

“We’re still spending a lot of extra money on things like setting up the vaccination centres, we’re still doing [COVID-19] testing and we’re still responsible for quality control in all the private long-term care centres,” a source told the Gazette. “But despite all that, last week they sent everybody a letter in the network, asking for X amount of dollars to be cut from our budgets.”

As things improve, some will be tempted to believe that the leaders who stayed in place throughout the pandemic successfully guided us to the finish line. That temptation will be particularly difficult to resist for those wanting to canonize Legault. 

He has, indeed, learned a few things. By not opening up the province as the second wave began to ease off, Quebec was spared a brutal third wave. But how much can Legault have really learned if he’s already looking to cut health care budgets?

And why did it take him so long to learn those lessons in the first place? Thousands of lives, and the enormous ripples throughout the province their loss has caused, are the price of his education.

There should be no reward for overseeing this level of suffering. There should be no congratulations for finally seeing the light. There should be only condemnation. 

Legault should carry the weight of Quebec’s pandemic deaths to his grave.

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