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Quebec premier takes lead on COVID as former foes rally behind him


MONTREAL — A few weeks ago, McGill University law professor Daniel Weinstock was considering suing the Quebec government for defamation, but today he's lauding Premier Francois Legault for his response to COVID-19.

Legault tended to be blustery and boastful during his first year in power, Weinstock said Wednesday, but since the public health crisis hit Quebec in earnest last week, the premier has set the right tone.

"As someone, who as you know, not even a month ago, had a bit of a run-in with this government, you have to give credit where credit is due," he said in an interview. "Even with respect to a government that, in general, I've had a lot of trouble with."

Legault was among the first leaders in Canada to take immediate steps to stop the spread of COVID-19. Last week, he prohibited all government workers from travelling abroad and banned all public gatherings of more than 250 people.

On Saturday, he urged everyone 70 years and older to stay indoors and cancelled visits to seniors centres and hospitals. The next day, he ordered all bars, gyms, theatres and cinemas to close. Other provinces have since followed suit.

Amy Swiffen, professor of sociology and anthropology at Concordia University, said Quebec "seems to be in the lead when it comes to responding" to the novel coronavirus.

Swiffen, who has been researching Canada's response to pandemics since the 2003 SARS outbreak, said in an interview, "it seems the measures were taken here a few days before other provinces."

On Monday, Legault took another novel approach, appealing to influencers in the entertainment and sports world to use their popularity among young people and warn them against congregating in groups. "This is not the time to party," Legault said.

Not long ago, the premier was facing attacks from minority community and civil rights activists for his government's approach to reducing immigration and banning some public servants from wearing religious symbols on the job.

In February, his Coalition Avenir Quebec government faced an uproar from the academic community when the education minister revoked Weinstock's invitation to speak at a public forum.

The move followed a newspaper column that falsely stated Weinstock had advocated the symbolic circumcision of young girls, and Education Minister Jean-Francois Roberge eventually apologized.

Today, Weinstock, who has been highly critical of the government's other policies, particularly around the secularism law, says the premier "has found the right balance of caution, concern, of assurance" during daily briefings to the media alongside the province's director of public health, Horacio Arruda.

"And it's important now, especially in an age where people have so many different sources of information coming at them — some reliable, some completely unreliable — to have a daily briefing that sets the tone for the next 24 hours ... and he's doing it very well."

Legault's political opponents have also noticed.

Gaetan Barrette, the former Liberal health minister known for his partisan sniping, tweeted Wednesday: "I am convinced that if there is one place where we will succeed in flattening the curve, it will be Quebec thanks to early government actions and the excellent response from all of society. The mistake would be to stop."

Flattening the curve refers to the principle of lengthening the period over which people become infected in order to ease pressure on the health care network.

In an interview, Barrette, a physician himself, said the COVID crisis is "apolitical." He said his background in science makes him particularly attuned to the need to enforce the concept of "social distancing" and to ensure that Quebecers are united.

The stakes are too high for political gamesmanship, he said.

"We need to have social cohesion," Barrette said. "It's at this time — and only at this time — when we can have an effect."

Quebec's entire political class has rallied around the premier, which telegraphs to the public the seriousness of the problem, Swiffen said.

"When political parties come together this way ... it of course has an effect on the public," she said.

Legault will need the goodwill he has built over the past week if the contagion worsens and he has to further limit Quebecers' civil liberties, Weinstock said. The public's patience with emergency measures could have its limits.

"When this drags out, this will test the capital that Mr. Legault is building up right now, he said.

"History will record whether he's been up to the task — not in terms of what he's been able to do in a week, but the degree to which he's been able to keep the population more or less in line to where his experts think we ought to go over six months."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 19, 2020.

Giuseppe Valiante, The Canadian Press

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