Madam Speaker, it is always a pleasure to rise on behalf of the Bloc Québécois and the people of Avignon—La Mitis—Matane—Matapédia.
I must say that there are a number of worthwhile points in the Conservatives' motion. It is true that the COVID‑19 restrictions have had serious economic and mental health impacts on Canadians and Quebeckers. Governments around the world, in Quebec, in Canada, in the United States and in the United Kingdom had no choice but to implement increasingly severe restrictions to protect people from the spread of COVID‑19. Some of the restrictions were questionable, but the majority of them were necessary. I am absolutely not trying to defend the government; I am simply trying to put things in perspective.
Yes, COVID‑19 has had and continues to have some serious economic and mental health impacts. I read something on Twitter yesterday that really stuck with me. Jean‑Marc Léger, an economist and the founding president of Quebec polling firm Leger, said, “The 1st wave was a health crisis and seniors were hardest hit. The 2nd wave was an economic crisis and companies, businesses and workers were hardest hit. The 3rd wave is a mental health crisis and young people are being hardest hit.”
He was referring to an article in Time about the deterioration of the mental health of youth in the United States. We can say that the situation is similar in Canada. According to one poll, psychological distress among young people 18 to 34 is greater than in other age groups. The social and emotional development of youth and the establishment of romantic relationships results from socialization with their peers. Restrictions that were designed to reduce gatherings, for example, have had a significant impact on youth. Experts say that the mental health of youth was already an issue before the pandemic. Today, 26% of millennials say they have suffered from depression. That is a very high percentage. There is a lot of talk about the economic cost of this pandemic, but, unfortunately, there will also be an extremely high cost in terms of mental health.
This is not the focus of my speech today because, as we know, health is a provincial jurisdiction. Quebec has everything at hand to efficiently manage its health system. All that is missing is the federal government's financial assistance, which it is still waiting for.
Certainly, governments had to respond to COVID‑19 and rapidly institute temporary restrictions. These restrictions are temporary, not permanent, and that is an important distinction. Although some are more drastic than others, these measures are in place for a reason. As the motion states, the temporary measures were put in place primarily to alleviate pressure on health care systems. I think it is premature to lift some of those restrictions before the crisis is under control. The Conservative motion specifically targets restrictions in areas of federal competency, such as air travel and border restrictions. It calls for a clear, data-driven plan to support safely, gradually and permanently lifting these restrictions.
Thinking about lifting these restrictions makes me think of when they were put in place not that long ago. Today I would like to share with the House some particularly interesting tidbits I read in a very relevant book by the journalist Alec Castonguay entitled Le Printemps le plus long: au cœur des batailles politiques contre la COVID‑19, a behind-the-scenes look at the politics of fighting COVID‑19. The author interviewed dozens of key actors, politicians, bureaucrats and scientists who played a role in managing the crisis in Quebec and Canada. I learned a lot of things that are probably already public knowledge, but that I feel it is appropriate to mention here and now.
First of all, I was surprised to learn that the Global Public Health Intelligence Network did not detect any signals of the emergence of the COVID-19 virus in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. GPHIN, which is a unit of the Public Health Agency of Canada, acts like a smoke detector and was created in the late 1990s so that countries would not be taken by surprise by new fatal viruses, particularly following the SARS outbreak in the early 2000s.
I was surprised because, over the years, GPHIN had become the main early warning system for emerging infectious diseases for 85 countries. Normally, the World Health Organization relies on GPHIN for approximately 20% of its reports of new viruses in the world every year. That is quite a lot. However, in the case of COVID-19, GPHIN was apparently unable to sound the alarm earlier, mostly because of a lack of staff and funding. In fact, it seems that GPHIN's role was called into question by Stephen Harper's Conservative government in 2014 and that, since then, the work of its scientists has been valued less highly. Unfortunately, the arrival of a Liberal government in 2015 did nothing to change that. GPHIN scientists stopped issuing alerts in May 2019, seven months before the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 in China. Even the Minister of Health said that she did not know that GPHIN had ceased normal operations.
I may be droning on a bit about this, but I do have a point to make.
Scientists have been predicting a pandemic for decades, but we were not ready. The federal government was clearly not ready. The cuts to health care obviously did not help. One of the most overlooked aspects was the procurement of personal protective equipment, but that is a subject for another day.
According to the book, the Liberal cabinet first learned about the existence of the Chinese virus on January 18, 2020.
Let me briefly lay out the timeline of events. The WHO declared an international public health emergency a few days later, on January 30. As Mr. Castonguay put it, the alarm went off, but no one woke up. In late February 2020, Canadians returning from all over the world—not necessarily from China—began bringing the virus home to Canada. While public health experts around the world believed that all suspected travellers should be tested, not just those returning from China, the Public Health Agency of Canada maintained its risk level in Canada at “low”. With the exception of travel to China, Global Affairs Canada was not discouraging Canadians from leaving the country.
On March 11, the WHO officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic. On March 16, a team from the Government of Quebec and Montreal public health went to the Montreal-Trudeau airport to inform travellers, since, strangely enough, the federal government had yet to put strict screening and information measures in place. Let us not forget that the government had been aware of the virus for two months by then.
Between March 1 and March 21, 42,000 foreign travellers and nearly 250,000 Canadians arrived at the Montreal-Trudeau airport from all over the world, including several countries that had major outbreaks.
In addition, 157,000 Quebeckers returned home by land, and nearly 37,000 Americans drove in from especially hard-hit states, including New York and Massachusetts. Travellers brought back nearly 250 different strains of the virus to Quebec alone.
Looking back, it is clear that a travel ban should have been instituted in mid-February in order to have an impact on transmission. Canada had just a few cases at the time, and Quebec did not have any. We know that it would have been hard for the government to justify such a measure.
Could we have done better with the little information available to us? That is a good question.
Border restrictions could certainly have been implemented more quickly. I am convinced that more could have been done, and more quickly, whether it was checking travellers' temperature, requiring rapid tests before boarding, or banning non-essential travel.
There was a delay between the time when GPHIN and the Public Health Agency of Canada started to become increasingly concerned and the time when the Liberal government finally decided to act. Had there not been this delay, things could have been very different.
Delaying traveller screening may possibly have allowed the variants to spread more easily within our borders. This recent experience has shown us that it is never too early to make plans to better prepare for the future. However, as we enter the third wave of the virus, lifting restrictions appears to be premature.
Right now, vaccination is the best way to get out of this pandemic. Until the majority of Canadians and Quebeckers are vaccinated, it would be completely irresponsible to allow people to travel freely again. Vaccinations are finally happening, but there have been delays.
If the Liberal government had been more proactive, it would not have waited until June to create a vaccine task force. Because the government failed to be proactive, no vaccines will be manufactured here until the end of the year and, more importantly, Canada is fully reliant on foreign manufacturers for its vaccine supply.
I appreciate the Conservatives' motion and sincerely believe that the government must present some kind of plan for getting out of this crisis. I honestly do not think the government has had a plan all along. The government is acting blindly and focusing more on its election platform than on getting us out of this crisis.
However, before suggesting that the temporary COVID‑19 restrictions be lifted, both the Conservative Party and the Liberal Party should take the time to look back and admit that measures were too slow to be implemented and that if the government had acted more quickly, we could have saved thousands of lives. This is about lives lost. Just a few days ago, we paid tribute to the more than 22,000 lives lost, including 10,000 in Quebec.
I think that we have a short memory. We know that the financial and mental health consequences are enormous, but we have to remember that these measures are in place to protect our people's health and safety. I think that is what matters most during a pandemic.
There were definitely problems with the mandatory hotel quarantine, but we must remember that, before and during the holidays, the government was unable to make sure that returning travellers were actually quarantining. With variants surfacing around the world, I think self-isolating for 14 days upon arrival is still essential. The same goes for land border restrictions. People who do not have an essential reason to travel should stay home. That is part of the effort we must all make to combat this accursed virus.
The government could certainly be more understanding and more flexible in some situations, such as family reunification or if a person has proof of vaccination. However, given that managing travellers and borders was such a mess from the start, I feel it is all the more urgent that everything be in order before we consider lifting restrictions.