QUEBEC CITY -- The Legault government will have had to spend close to $21 billion over the next four years just to counter the effects of the pandemic on Quebec's economy and its health care system. 

This is the conclusion of the auditor general in her 2020-2021 annual report, tabled Wednesday in the National Assembly.

With its 10,000 deaths, Quebec had already paid a heavy price for the health crisis, but all indications are that it will not be enough, as the virus has simultaneously weakened its public finances.

For the period indicated, by rounding the figures, an additional $8 billion is needed in the health network, for expenses closely related to the pandemic, half of which was spent on the purchase of personal protective equipment.

The advent of telehealth alone, a new service that allows doctors to treat patients remotely, generated a bill of half a billion dollars in a few months, from March to November 2020.

Faced with a critical shortage of employees to meet the needs, Quebec will also have spent more than $2 billion on hiring staff in the health care network, including thousands of catastrophically trained orderlies, as well as on salary increases.

To support the economy, which has been hit hard by the pandemic, about $8 billion in public funds have been provided, including about $2 billion in grants to businesses, $3 billion in loans and almost $3 billion in infrastructure projects.

The auditor recalls that from February to April 2020, the Institut de la statistique calculated that Quebec lost 825,900 jobs. The unemployment rate jumped from 4.5 per cent to 17.6 per cent, "a historic high." The budget envelope for workers and individuals is estimated at $2.5 billion.


In her report, Auditor General Guylaine Leclerc, notes that, in recent years, the Quebec government has tended to systematically underestimate its debt ratio, not favouring the best accounting practices.

She essentially criticizes the government for failing to include in its financial statements $12.4 billion in subsidies related to transfer payments made by the federal government.

In doing so, Quebec is "using erroneous financial and budgetary data, which embellishes its financial situation," according to the auditor.

On Tuesday, Finance Minister Eric Girard announced that he would comply with her recommendation to correct the situation by adding $12.4 billion to Quebec's net debt on the books.

The new picture that emerges once the change is made is that Quebec is now the second most indebted province in Canada, behind Newfoundland and Labrador, with a net debt equivalent to 39.9 per cent of its GDP, 10 points higher than the provincial average.

-- This report by The Canadian Press was first published on March 10, 2021.