Ombudswoman gives Quebec a failing grade for COVID-19 performance

She said they took into account exceptional circumstances during the COVID-19 crisis

Findings in Quebec ombudswoman Marie Rinfret’s 2020-2021 annual report, which was tabled in the National Assembly last week, raise serious questions about the provincial government’s ability to ensure the quality and integrity of the services it provided in the past year during the COVID-19 crisis.

Action needed, said Rinfret

The Quebec ombudswoman’s office is mandated to act impartially and independently of the government to ensure that the rights of citizens are upheld in their dealings with publicly-provided services.

In a statement issued by the ombudswoman’s office, Rinfet suggested quick action will be absolutely necessary to correct known and recurrent problems in the system that compromise citizens’ rights.

“We think immediately of the full brunt of the tragedies in residential and long-term care centres during the first wave,” the ombudsman’s office said.

Impact of the pandemic

The provincial ombudswoman said the past year exposed an alarming society-wide situation affecting people who were severely impacted by the pandemic, who suffered physical and mental health problems, bereavement, loss of income, increased poverty, isolation, anxiety and violence.

At a press conference in Quebec City, Rinfret pleaded for Quebec public service providers to show more empathy to the public. They must learn “to deal with situations that are outside the rules, outside the framework,” she said.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only accentuated already problematic situations in the provision of public services, notes the ombudswoman.

Examples documented

Beyond the daily case statistics, she said the pandemic created and exacerbated many vulnerabilities for an incalculable number of individuals. Here are some examples cited by Rinfret’s office:

  • A student in an anglophone school was about to start her last year of secondary studies when she informed her that she no longer qualified for instruction in English. The reason: a change in her father’s immigration status. In June 2020, her father had approached the examining committee and the decision was cancelled. However, the department was sluggish to act on it. In late September, the ombudswoman intervened. The department immediately sent the family the authorization needed for the student to go back to her school.
  • The ombudswoman received complaints from the residents of a housing cooperative about, among other things, harassment and bullying by the administrator and the manager. The SHQ had refused to investigate on the pretext that it was not empowered to do this. The ombudswoman argued that the SHQ did have jurisdiction to intervene under the applicable act, and in the end, it agreed to do so.
  • Rinfret noted that in the past year, the Quebec Ministry of Work, Employment and Social Solidarity took measures to adjust to its clients’ difficulties during the COVID-19 crisis, for example suspending recovery measures and postponing sending out claim notices.
  • On the downside, however, the ombudswoman also pointed out that the Ministry of Immigration, Francization and Integration refused applications for the Quebec Selection Certificate because candidates had to be employed at the time of filing. She noted that in the wake of massive business closures because of COVID-19, many applicants were laid off temporarily. On the ombudswoman’s recommendation, the department agreed to review the requirement.
  • Provincial prison and correctional services tried to compensate for the suspension of family visits to detainees. As a result, the Ministry of Public Security decided to use videoconferencing so that detainees could maintain contact with the outside world, although the videoconferences were often cancelled because of staff shortages.
  • At the beginning of the pandemic, in accordance with a directive by the Ministry of Health and Social Services, family visits were allowed in hospital palliative care units and hospices. However, some hospitals didn’t comply, meaning that many people could not be with loved ones when they died.

Just one bath a week

In other issues raised by the ombudswoman, the quality of home care was denounced. Rinfret noted that a growing number of institutional care facilities now give patients and residents just one bath per week, instead of two or three as previously.

She said there are also disparities in the level of services provided depending on the region of the province. Rinfret also was concerned about the overcrowding of hospital emergency rooms, which she said could jeopardize the quality of care and the safety of patients.

‘CHSLDs had been grappling with staff shortages for a long time, but the authorities had put the problems on the back burner,’ said the ombudswoman

The private sector in Quebec’s health services network was not spared her criticisms. Among the shortcomings, she noted that private senior citizens’ retirement residences had staff shortages, medication mistakes were made and there was lack of supervision. Her office also received complaints about long-term care facilities.

Exceptional situation

Despite her criticisms about the provincial government’s oversights, Rinfret’s department said it took into account the exceptional circumstances brought about by the COVID-19 crisis.

“It would be unrealistic and unfair to disregard the enormous challenges for government departments, agencies and healthcare institutions posed by an ongoing unprecedented crisis,” the office said. “While respecting citizens’ rights requires that public services carry out their mission effectively, the Quebec ombudsman is aware of the enormous weight of this unfamiliar situation.

‘Gov’t not exempted’

“However,” the office added, “This does not exempt government from listening to the people who come to it and [from] responding with understanding, openness, creativity and compassion so that these citizens receive the public services to which they have a right.” The ombudswoman’s office said it handled 21,803 requests over the past year, received 42,038 phone calls, answered 66 per cent of these in under 20 seconds, and had 98 per cent of recommendations accepted by the government’s various departments.