Quebec snubs doctor who helped lead fight against Ebola

Dr. Joanne Liu, the former international president of Doctors Without Borders and a pediatrician at Montreal's Sainte-Justine Hospital, offered to help in Quebec's response to COVID-19, but was told her services weren't needed.

'It feels like being in a hockey game and being on the penalty bench,' Liu told Daybreak Friday

Dr. Joanne Liu, the former international president of Doctors Without Borders and a pediatrician at Montreal's Sainte-Justine Hospital, offered to help in Quebec's response to COVID-19, but was told her services weren't needed. (Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone/The Associated Press)

Dr. Joanne Liu, the former president of Doctors Without Borders who steered the organization through its Ebola response and has 25 years of experience in pandemic preparedness, says the Quebec government refused her offer to help with its planning. 

Liu says she has been part of a team of volunteer doctors advising the federal government in its fight against the spread of COVID-19, but that her proposals to assist the provincial one have gone unheeded. 

Liu says she also put her name in the hat of doctors the government requested to step in at the province's beleaguered long-term care homes. 

Finally, Friday evening, Health Minister Danielle McCann tweeted that her department would reach out to Liu so that she could help in the CHSLDs. 

But McCann ignored Liu's offer to help in planning. The doctor is already slated to help at Montreal's Geriatric Institute, which has been hard-hit by a COVID-19 outbreak that has infected at least 132 people and killed 33 between its two wings.

Liu is a pediatric emergency specialist at Montreal's Sainte-Justine Hospital. She has more than 25 years of experience in pandemic response, and was featured in TIME Magazine's 100 Most Influential People in 2015.

Under her leadership, Doctors Without Borders called for global action in response to the spread of Ebola, demanding stronger action.

In an interview on CBC Montreal's Daybreak Friday morning, Liu recounted how she and others had been in touch with Quebec officials suggesting she help out with the province's COVID-19 response.

Liu says she was told her services were not needed.

"It feels like being in a hockey game and being on the penalty bench, and waiting to jump in the ice, but your time is not up yet," Liu said. 

"I think I have something to offer and I think that me, and many other people, do. But right now, we have a government that's really, really overwhelmed by the situation and isn't able to take up the offer that everybody is giving."

Joanne Liu, former international president of Doctors Without Borders, at an Ebola centre in Sierra Leone. (Doctors Without Borders)

François Audet, the director of the Université du Québec à Montréal's international studies school, in another tweet, compared the situation to sidelining a world-renowned general in times of war. 

"When you have the best general in the world, you don't send them to the infantry," Audet said of Liu working in a CHSLD instead of providing expertise.

Quebec's response more 'reactive than anticipatory'

The Quebec government has been criticized for not acting swiftly enough when the virus began to spread in the province's seniors' and long-term care homes. 

Liu says she sees a number of missed opportunities in how the government attempted to prevent spread of the coronavirus inside the institutions, noting the strategy appeared more "reactive than anticipatory."

Stopping visitors from coming in was a good first step, Liu says, calling it "radical shielding," but it should have been accompanied by other measures. 

"[They] never inquired: was there enough people to care for them? Did they have enough infection and prevention control in place? Did they have the right [personal protection equipment] and did they know how to use them? We just put them apart," she said. 

"You need to do radical shielding but you need to be able as well to support the system in making sure there's enough care and there's enough protection."

Not having those things in place allowed the virus to enter the facilities unnoticed at first, and spread among the residents and staff, Liu explained.

She added she had sympathy for decision-makers because the pandemic is "unprecedented."

In their daily briefings to the media, Legault and McCann repeatedly said there was a shortfall of thousands of staff in the homes — which had been beset by shortages before the pandemic and are now missing even more people after hundreds had to go into isolation.

Earlier this week, Legault urged medical specialists to help nurses and orderlies in the homes. But the federation representing the specialists said they had been offering to help for weeks but hadn't received a response, nor instructions on where they were needed.

The government also set up a website for people with health care experience to volunteer to help in the province's fight against the pandemic.

Almost 52,000 people have offered their services, Legault said Friday, and the province has contacted nearly 30,000 of them. The province has hired 6,773 people — 4,676 of whom are already working — and a further 2,097 declined offers, Legault said.

With files from Radio-Canada and CBC Montreal's Daybreak

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