Montreal·First Person

I'm tired of Quebec prioritizing the economy over our health and well-being

Legault's legislative distinction between consumption-based contact and personal contact clarifies a question that has become increasingly urgent to me as our physical, psychological and economic conditions continue to worsen: What does our government really prioritize?

We could put our basic need for connection ahead of consumption-based contact

People wear face masks as they wait to enter a store in a shopping mall in Montreal. While indoor gatherings are still banned in red zones, non-essential businesses are once again open. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

What forms of contact can be tolerated in Quebec, according to Premier François Legault?

Beauty care — hairstyling, esthetics and makeup can be tolerated. Shopping — retail stores and malls — can be tolerated. Museums can be tolerated.

High transmission zones such as schools, construction sites and factories can continue to be tolerated.

Still, the curfew and a ban on "private gatherings," a term used to describe seeing friends and family, persists.

When the change was first announced earlier this month, my roommate summarized, "Keep buying stuff but don't hug your mother! What's so hard to understand?"

Two weeks later, the sentiment still resonates with me. With the provincewide restrictions in place, I couldn't hand my dad a gift on his birthday last week, but I could go shopping at the mall to buy it.

To address this inconsistency, Legault has said outright that malls will be supervised to curb the risk of people gathering there. He is aware that socially isolated people have reached such a level of desperation that they are willing to risk illness or fines to congregate in a well-ventilated space deemed safe enough by the government.

This contradiction makes me angry. I'm angry because I see the sacrifices so many of us make to our mental health with no end in sight. I'm angry and worried that human life and human connection are being factored into the economic equation as "externalities" — sidelined casualties, rather than core priorities.

I'm angry because, 11 months into the pandemic, I badly want the government to create a plan, educate the public about that plan, and then execute it. If we can afford to pay people to supervise malls, we can afford to move beyond constant reactivity and communicate more detailed safety measures than simply wear a mask and keep your distance.

The clarity I'm describing creates accountability.

Pay people to stay home

We've been told that making sacrifices to preserve the economy is an investment in our future well-being once the pandemic passes. But the consequences of keeping high-transmission spots like schools and workplaces open have led the World Health Organization to classify COVID-19 as endemic: a disease we will have to live with long-term.

Legault's legislative distinction between consumption-based contact and personal contact clarifies a question that has become increasingly urgent to me as our physical, psychological and economic conditions continue to worsen: What does our government really prioritize?

We face an imminent economic recession on the back-burner, a health crisis at a rolling boil, and a mental health frittata in the frying pan.

I am of the generation that will inherit the debts acquired during this crisis. Still, there is no situation wherein the economy can take precedence over human wellbeing and life.

I'm asking that Legault's government create a plan that prioritizes the public's basic needs. We face a health crisis first, and an economic crisis second.

When the government hands out $1,550 tickets over private gatherings and simultaneously reopens private shopping malls, I become alert with a feeling of senseless personal sacrifice.

We need to truly shut down businesses and gathering places that needlessly endanger workers, including construction sites, factories and non-essential retail.

We need to pay people to stay home, not ticket them. We need to give essential workers hazard pay. We need meaningful consequences for unsafe work environments. We need creative childcare solutions that consider the actual needs of families rather than our hazardous but familiar education system.

We need to invest in public education about virus transmission, risk assessment and scientific literacy. We need to encourage and advocate for transparent, proactive conversations about exposure and teach the public about social bubbles so that we can support one another as safely as possible.

Structurally isolating people before shutting down high transmission zones tells the public that their interests come second to the interests of private industry. This is unacceptable.

I'm genuinely hopeful for the future, but I feel we need to start thinking about responsible contact in a world where COVID-19 will persist long past September. Demanding that people continue to sacrifice their basic psychological needs indefinitely will only exacerbate the crisis.

The CAQ government has a responsibility to equip us with clear instructions on how to have low-risk contact with our loved ones such as openly communicating the risk level and previous contacts, planning ahead for visits and self-isolating before and afterward.

This long-term problem will not be fixed with external force, but internal accountability. The government needs to play a larger role in education, so that we can both ensure our health and safety, and still see dad on his birthday.

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About the Author

Simona Rosenfield is a Montreal-based writer of current affairs, politics and comedy. Her work covers cultural, environmental and economic critique, as well as social and gender issues. Approaching the completion of her degree in journalism and creative writing at Concordia University, she savours her time working as a freelance journalist and writing political satire for The Concordian, which she assures pairs best with a Yiddish accent and a cup of tea.