Many living in Quebec experienced a sense of déjà vu when premier François Legault announced that his administration would once again impose a curfew in response to a shocking rise in cases of COVID-19. Put into effect Dec. 31, the move came just under one year after the province’s first curfew—which lasted for just over five months—which was put into place Jan. 9, 2021. Sharp criticism of the policy has been persistent and widespread since the announcement, with many questioning its effectiveness. While it remains crucial that Quebec residents band together to curb the spread of the highly transmissible Omicron variant, the curfew amounts to little more than political theatre that risks severely harming society’s most vulnerable.
There is no doubt that the rise in COVID-19 cases, along with associated hospitalizations and deaths, is serious. On Jan. 1, the province reported an all-time record of 17,122 new cases at a 31 per cent positivity rate. It is as important as ever to get vaccinated, wear proper masks, and minimize close contacts. However, a curfew is not the solution.
Being trapped in one’s home from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. is undoubtedly difficult for the majority of the population. Nearly two full years into the pandemic, many have given their all to do their part to prevent contracting the virus and infecting others. To be back in what feels like the same dark place as a year ago, even with huge swaths of the population vaccinated, can spur feelings of hopelessness amongst even the most privileged. Such a policy also serves to worsen the mental health crisis brought on by isolation.
That said, the curfew does not impact the population equally. Consider unhoused communities—last year, no exception was made for those living on the streets until courts decided otherwise almost three weeks in. Even with the exception, the situation remains critical: A lack of beds in shelters compounded by outbreaks among clients and staff is ravaging the shelter system in Montreal. The absence of support for unhoused people is iniquitous, especially when this group is more likely to contract and die from COVID-19 for a myriad of reasons out of their control. The curfew also allows for increased police surveillance and overreach, almost certainly impacting racialized and migrant communities at a disproportionate rate. Even one’s modes of transportation add a layer of privilege: Those with access to cars are generally less likely to be stopped than those travelling by foot or public transit.
What makes this current situation so egregious is that it could have been avoided. A proactive approach could have very likely lessened the blow of the current wave. The rollout of booster shots, for example, was far too slow compared to other countries with similar resources. Provinces across the country also dragged their feet on the distribution of rapid tests to the general population, despite the fact that the federal government began shipping them out well over a year ago. Even now, access to kits remains scarce and guidance on how to use them is confusing. And as cases and hospitalizations rise, the government has chosen to further restrict access to “gold standard” PCR tests and shorten the isolation period for those who test positive. Exhausted Quebecers have been left to deal with the consequences of the government’s poor crisis management with jarringly little support.
All the while, there remains no scientific proof that a curfew does anything in its own right to lessen transmission. This kind of restriction risks leading to a decrease of public trust in government, and science by extension—making it all the more difficult to get out of this pandemic.
The curfew and its consequences are symptoms of longstanding systemic problems, and it is easy to feel powerless as governments fail to keep their populations safe. While the onus is ultimately on those in power to do what is right, students and others with time and resources can take actionable steps like volunteering to help with the vaccination campaign and within the shelter system, and responding to calls for mutual aid. The only way to make it through the pandemic is together.