Lack of communication hinders testing in COVID-19 hot spot of Montreal North

Confusion around mobile screening clinic highlights communication struggles in a district where up to 30 per cent of residents do not have regular internet access and many people are more comfortable in Haitian Creole or Arabic than in French
Photo: Caribb

This article originally appeared in the French edition of Ricochet and has been translated.

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A mobile screening clinic for COVID-19 arrived in Montreal North on Thursday. This could mean the testing site recently opened at the local community services centre (CLSC) will close, according to the Canadian Press. So far, however, there has been no indication that the testing site will be temporary.

The scramble around maintaining the testing site at the Montreal North CLSC exposed serious communication issues between regional and provincial health authorities, elected officials and residents of the borough, according to stakeholders.

On May 4, 2020, a COVID-19 testing site was set up in front of the CLSC after several weeks of advocacy by elected officials and citizen groups. A week later, on May 11, the regional health authority announced the “temporary centre” would close.

That evening, when Paule Robitaille, the Liberal MNA for Montreal North, expressed her dismay at the news on a radio show, she was contradicted on the air by Chantal Rouleau, the CAQ minister responsible for the Montreal region, who said that the centre would remain open.

“I said that the centre was going to close, and she told me that it was not,” recalled Robitaille.

Rouleau then specified on Twitter that the centre would remain open until the mobile units were set up.

The next day, the regional health authority stated that the centre would remain open until further notice. “There will be no interruption in [screening] services in Montreal North," said spokesperson Émilie Jacob.

“In Montreal North, we do not have the same realities as in Quebec. We live in two worlds”

For Robitaille and for Renée-Chantal Belinga, a borough councillor in Montreal North, this episode is only one example among others of issues between Montreal North, one of the areas hardest hit by the pandemic, and the province.

“We have been denouncing the lack of information and the lack of transparency around screening for eight weeks,” said Belinga, noting that a visit from Quebec public health director Dr. Horacio Arruda and Mayor Valérie Plante did not provide clarification.

“When Dr. Arruda and Mayor Plante came to Montreal North to speak to the community, we were very disappointed with what they had to say. There was already a lack of information [on the offer of testing]. This situation confirms that we need a much clearer strategic plan.”

“It’s hard to understand the long-term strategy for the Montreal North screening clinic,” said Alejandra Zaga-Mendez, board member with the Paroles d’ExcluEs and communications officer at Hoodstock. “Two screening sites were announced [on May 11], but we also learned that the present one could close.”

A communication plan for everyone

According to the regional health authority, one of the reasons the centre almost closed was that “people were not there.”

The two elected officials are concerned that information about the importance and availability of screening has not been well communicated to citizens.

“We need this screening centre because it is an essential tool in our fight against the pandemic. There is also a need for better communication between public health and residents,” said Robitaille.

Dr. Mylène Drouin, Montreal public health director, said the hours and locations of the mobile clinics will be posted on the website of the regional public health authority. However, according to Robitaille, up to 30 per cent of residents in North Montreal do not have regular internet access.

What’s more, many people in Montreal North are more comfortable in Haitian Creole or Arabic than in French.

“When we are in an election campaign, there are polling stations everywhere, people who encourage others to go to vote, leaflets, posters, things that appear on the radio and in the newspapers,” said Robitaille. “Why can’t we do the same thing here?” She wants a crisis unit to coordinate screening and awareness-raising in Montreal North.

Montreal North, a special case?

Ousseynou Ndiaye is director of the community organization Un Itinéraire pour tous. When Dr. Arruda and Minister Rouleau came to Montreal North, his organization advocated for the establishment of a testing centre. “The important thing is that the centre is there, and I think it will be there for a while. Now we need to run a communication campaign on the ground, go talk to people on their balconies, boost our presence in their world,” he said.

“In Montreal North, we do not have the same realities as in Quebec. We live in two worlds, and the trust is not there [between residents and authorities].”

"These people went to look after our elders on the front lines. Then they brought the virus home. What is happening to them is infuriating."

Ndiaye cites as an example the impossibility of respecting distancing in some of the densely populated neighbourhoods of Montreal North. “If social distancing is impossible to respect, why not distribute masks from the start?”

Zaga Mendez sees a lot of anxiety in the borough. “Montreal North residents have growing concerns given the COVID-19 situation and the media emphasis on the current crisis in Montreal North”— hence the importance of a clear plan.

Dr. Drouin mentioned at a press conference that the city was going through an “adjustment phase” with the establishment of mobile testing clinics, and that its goal was to maintain an accessible screening service in Montreal North.

She also noted that neighbourhoods with a high proportion of healthcare workers are at higher risk of community transmission.

Twenty-three per cent of Montreal’s health workers live in the borough of Montreal North.

“These people went to look after our elders on the front lines. Then they brought the virus home. What is happening to them is infuriating. They deserve better,” said Robitaille.

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