Quebec Under Curfew: Legault’s Performative Paternalistic Pandemic Management

Quebec is now officially under an 8pm to 5am curfew which began Saturday night and is scheduled to last for four weeks. This is the first time there has been a curfew here since the October Crisis of 1970.

While previous and current measures implemented by Premier François Legault’s government to slow the spread of COVID-19 have been about restricting what we can do (selected business closures and bans on gatherings) or hygiene (masks and hand sanitizers), this one is different. It’s not about what we can do, but when we can do it.

First, it’s important to stress that COVID-19 is a very real threat and Quebec’s numbers are the highest they have been since the start of the pandemic. Any measures that will significantly drop the spread of COVID are worth implementing. Full stop.

That said, will this new strategy work? I honestly don’t know, but I don’t think Legault does either.

Unlike the premier, or at least unlike what he says publicly, I have my doubts as to the effectiveness of fighting a virus that spreads at any hour, day or night, by restricting the specific hours we can be outside of our homes.

I wonder if it could end up having an opposite effect to what is intended. Well, let’s start with a hypothetical, though very plausible scenario…

For Your Consideration

Let’s say there are 100 people who all live in the same area and go for a walk each day. 70 of them take their walks during the daytime, while the other 30 prefer a quieter walk at night.

Now impose an 8pm to 5am curfew.

The 30 people who walked at night and want to keep active now have to take their strolls during the daytime to avoid breaking curfew and getting fined. The other 70, meanwhile, continue their daytime walks.

So, instead of 70 people out during one period of time and 30 during another, we now have 100 people on the streets of the same area in the same period of time. We now have crowded sidewalks where social distancing is more difficult.

Likewise, night time grocery shoppers in the same area now have to get their shopping done before 8pm alongside the daytime shoppers. There will be more people in the stores at the same time and when the store hits its limit of patrons, lines will form outside, creating additional obstacles for the increased number of people going for a walk.

Grocery store and depanneur employees will be exposed to more people seeing as the stores will have the same number of customers, but these will now be spread out over fewer shifts. Also, many of these employees will pack public transit at the same time to get home before curfew.

So, in this scenario, the risk of COVID-19 transmission actually increases, albeit minimally, even if everyone is wearing masks and trying to socially distance as much as possible.

Quebec’s Director of Public Health Dr. Horacio Arruda made the same argument I just did a lit quicker when asked about curfews in the March 16, 2020 presser (this video should start at the right spot, but if it doesn’t, skip ahead to 14:32):

A Very Real Problem For The Homeless

Meanwhile, Quebec’s homeless population faces a situation that is very much not hypothetical, nor is it just an inconvenience. Fining or even harassing someone who can’t afford a place to live for being outside past curfew is just plain cruel and appalling.

Legault’s claim that there “is enough room available” in shelters is out of touch at best and willfully ignorant at worst. The situation wasn’t great before the pandemic began and while shelters have been able to find some additional space in old hospitals, social distancing requirements offset quite a bit of that.

Also, there have been COVID outbreaks in shelters, prompting many this past summer to set up tents instead of taking the risk.

A petition demanding that homeless people be exempt from curfew enforcement and fines already has over 6500 signatures.

More Than An Inconvenience

When it comes to people who have homes, yes, for some, like me, the curfew is a mild inconvenience. Well, in my case it’s a mild inconvenience mixed with a bit of existential dread.

I have a roof over my head, set my own schedule and have access to friends and family via the internet. I don’t need to go for a walk or the dep after 8pm, but the fact that I am not allowed to scares me.

Others aren’t so fortunate:

  • People who work a standard 9-5 or 10-6 shift from home now have limited hours for exercise, grocery shopping or even a bit of fresh air.
  • People from visible minority communities who work at night and are legitimately heading home or to work may be disproportionately stopped and harassed by police who now have wild discretionary powers to enforce the curfew (and without the potential of a citizen journalist passing by and filming the encounter).
  • People in domestic abuse situations who minimize the risks by going for long walks at night when the abusive partner is home no longer can.
  • People who, for their own mental stability, just need to get out of the house at night (for whatever reason).

What the Government Actually Wants

One thing that became clear in the press conference announcing the curfew and in subsequent pressers by government officials is that people going for strolls or buying groceries at night as well as the homeless are just collateral damage. Their real target is people visiting friends or family at home in small gatherings that bend or slightly break the rules.

The government admitted that they didn’t see that many large parties (those get reported and shut down anyways), but knew there were many small gatherings (which are harder to track). A curfew may eliminate some of those, but the rest will just move to the daytime or have their friends stay over or catch the first metro home once the curfew lifts at 5am.

The curfew will also put an end to people gathering outdoors in parks at night. Now, if this was the summer, that would have a measurable impact, but it’s not. It’s frickin’ January in Montreal!

Sure, there may have been some people out there previously risking hypothermia along with COVID who now won’t be able to. So add them to the people who decide not to crash at their friends’ places or gather earlier.

Is that enough reduction in potential transmission to offset the potential increase by having everyone go for walks, buy groceries and take public transit at the same time? Best case scenario, (that I can see) yes, but not by much. Worst case: COVID numbers actually continue to rise more.

Curfew Success Stories

It’s true that curfews have been part of successful COVID fighting packages of measures. The key word here is packages.

In Italy, they went from nothing except maybe wash your hands more to a full-on lockdown that included a curfew. Yes, that worked, but going from nothing to everything doesn’t prove that one part of the everything, the curfew, solved the problem.

In Melbourne, they imposed a curfew along with several other measures. As a great editorial in The Gazette points out, though, their success wouldn’t have been possible without serious restrictions on the manufacturing sector, including meat packing plants, something Legault hasn’t done.

He isn’t even keeping the schools closed (there’s even a petition now to implement more safety measures in schools) or halting construction. It’s akin to fighting climate change by banning plastic bags and straws without doing anything to curb the giant corporate polluters.

Shock and Not Much Else

In the press conference, Legault and his colleagues referred to their move as “shock therapy” and shock is just what we have seen since the curfew took effect. Images of deserted Montreal streets and highways from Saturday night coupled with stories of large fines for people being outside their homes after 8pm filled our newsfeeds Sunday morning.

Given that last time we had a curfew here, it was for a terrorist threat, having one now, 50 years later, is most definitely a shock to the system.

Yes, it may shock some of the people visiting friends to stay home. It may also shock people like me, who have been following the rules and doing our best to fight the virus, while at the same time trying to retain some semblance of normalcy by not thinking about COVID 24/7, into being more perma-disturbed.

But the question remains: Will it shock the spread of COVID-19 so we also get the awe of the numbers going down significantly? Or is this just a bit of performative paternalistic pandemic management that will do much more harm than good?

While I hope it’s the former, I feel like it may be the latter.

Legault Knows Best?

While Legault’s initial reaction to the pandemic was swift and in line with nothing but the facts, it seems like since the fall, his government’s approach has been guided by a different principle: Protect the 9-5 economy as much as possible, it’s social gatherings that are to blame!

Now while the virus most definitely can spread when people from different households have dinner and drinks at home, it also can spread at school or in a manufacturing plant. For Legault, though, work is important, socialization with those you don’t live with isn’t.

It’s beyond capitalism, it’s the preservation of whatever the Quebec version of Norman Rockwell is at all costs. It even took a numbers spike too big to ignore to get them to cancel Christmas gatherings.

When the numbers kept going up, rather than re-think their strategy, Legault and his government decided to ignore other options like keeping schools closed or restricting manufacturing and construction and double-down on it. Instead of admitting their approach was wrong, they’re going to implement extreme measures to force it to be right.

It seems like the curfew is a strategy to prove Papa Legault knows best regardless of the consequences rather than one to effectively stop the spread of COVID-19.

For all our sakes, I hope I’m wrong.

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