With more than a thousand confirmed cases and an infection rate of 1,318 per 100,000 inhabitants, Montreal North is the new epicentre of coronavirus in Montreal. But many local activists and elected officials think these figures are low, because the borough has no screening centre.

In an open letter, they denounce a situation that, according to them, could put the already marginalized communities of Montreal North “at greater risk than ever.”

“Our borough is characterized by social problems that should have alerted the authorities much sooner: insufficient resources in health and social services, food deserts, underfunded community organizations, lack of alternatives to public transportation, lack of Internet access [and] unhealthy housing,” they write. “In addition, Montreal North is marked by an exceptionally high population density, which promotes the spread of the virus.”

“We have to tackle these systemic problems, whether it be access to health, access to housing or decent working conditions”

Renée-Chantal Belinga, an independent borough councillor for Montreal North and signatory of the letter, explains that the goal for the document is to open dialogue with the city in order to create a strategic plan to lift the lockdown that also ensures access to services and information for residents. “We are not against ending the lockdown, but we want it to be safe for everyone,” she said.

Ousseynou Ndiaye, director general of a local NGO called Un Itinéraire pour Tous, is one of the co-authors of the letter.

“Montreal North is the poorest neighbourhood in Quebec and one of the most densely populated. Large buildings where numerous families live in 4 1/2 or 5 1/2’s [small units] become places of transmission. In addition, we know the problem in long-term care homes, yet many caregivers and other health care workers live in Montreal North.”

According to Ndiaye, the COVID-19 crisis aggravates existing problems. “We are left to our own devices,” he said. “Our NGOs do a great job, but they are often the least subsidized.”

He deplored the fact that thousands of people have no health clinic, metro station or supermarket nearby. “People here can’t always afford breakfast, and they don’t always have the money to take public transportation.”

Access to information is also an issue. With the closure of libraries, many families have lost access to the Internet, and people who linger on the sidewalk to get Wi-Fi from a public network are at risk of getting a ticket for gathering. Ndiaye and his colleagues have trouble finding a place to print information, so they roam the streets with a pickup truck used to make multilingual announcements. Activists have demanded the installation of free Wi-Fi hotspots, without success.

Jeff Begley, president of the FSSS-CSN, the union that represents the majority of care workers in Quebec, said the crisis caused by the pandemic throws light on systemic problems that have existed for at least 15 years in the work environment at Quebec’s now infamous long-term care homes. In Montreal North too, under the radar, the shortcomings of inadequate healthcare systems become all the more serious and obvious in times of crisis.

“We have to tackle these systemic problems, whether it be access to health, access to housing or decent working conditions,” concludes Belinga. “We are a united and resilient community and we want to work constructively. I dare to believe that we will be heard.”