Montreal

Quebec government faces backlash for 2nd curfew

Quebecers generally believe in a strong provincial government, but some experts say a second curfew in just under a year may be testing that trust.

Critics say there is little evidence curfews slow transmission of COVID-19

Police detain a man in Montreal who ran from them at the start of a curfew in Quebec on Dec. 31, 2021. The 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew is intended to help stem the rise of COVID-19 infections. (Peter McCabe/The Canadian Press)

Quebec is one of the few jurisdictions in the world to impose a curfew in the pandemic — let alone do it twice. 

Thanks to a belief in a strong provincial government, the first curfew was generally accepted by the population, according to McGill University political science Prof. Daniel Béland. 

But since Premier François Legault announced Thursday that Quebecers would once again be prevented from leaving their homes between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. starting Dec. 31, he appears to be receiving more criticism this time around. 

The strict public health measure was criticized by 13 academics and public health experts in an open letter published on the website Pivot the same day Legault made the announcement. Members of all three opposition parties in Quebec have also denounced the curfew since then.

The open letter noted that most outbreaks throughout the pandemic in the province have taken place in schools, daycares and workplaces. 

"At best, the curfew is a spectacle," the letter said. "At worst, it is a punishment on individuals to mask the negligence and systemic inaction in managing the pandemic."

One of the letter's signatories, Jean-Sébastien Fallu, a Université de Montréal professor, said the curfew may do more harm than good, especially for marginalized populations.

"It has an impact, even at 10 p.m., for many people: sex workers, people on the street, people living with violence at home," Fallu said.

Béland, who was not one of the people who signed the letter, said the criticism has come from beyond experts and general opponents of public health measures.

"People, who may have even supported the first curfew or were a bit neutral about it, now they're coming out swinging, saying, 'Well, you never showed us the evidence that the first curfew made a positive difference in the first place,'" Béland said. 

Last curfew longer than expected

Legault first imposed a curfew Jan. 9, 2021, when hospitalizations in the province were last above 1,000, and it lasted until May 28, 2021, "way longer than expected," Béland said. The province currently has 1,396 people in hospital with COVID.

When reporters asked Legault on Thursday what evidence there was to justify imposing a curfew a second time, he replied that it was "du gros bon sens," or common sense, since limiting people's movements after dark discourages indoor gatherings. 

Quebec's Health Ministry sent journalists a news release that evening claiming the decision to reinstate the curfew was backed by science. It shared three preliminary studies examining the effects of curfews in France, Jordan and Quebec. 

The study looking into the effects of the curfew in Quebec was conducted by a Public Health Ontario team and compared the impact of lockdown restrictions in Quebec and Ontario, which did not impose a nighttime curfew, on the level of mobility happening in both places. 

The study found that an overnight curfew was effective at reducing people's movements at night by 31 per cent in Quebec and 39 per cent in Montreal. It did not examine the impact on virus transmission.

'Police repression' not the solution, doctor says

It can be difficult to isolate a curfew's impact on virus transmission because it is just one of many public health restrictions, according to Dr. Nazila Bettache, a member of the Caring for Social Justice Collective.

Evaluating its effectiveness is complicated by the fact that, at the same time, the government closed restaurant dining rooms, prohibited indoor gatherings and moved schooling online.

Bettache sees the curfew as another way the Legault government is managing the pandemic with a "logic of oppression" rather than prevention. 

Instead, the government should provide people and workers access to quality masks, testing, ventilation in schools and financial support to be able to quarantine, Bettache said. 

Physician and member of Caring for Social Justic Collective Nazila Bettache says a curfew is not the right solution to the Omicron wave of coronavirus cases in Quebec. (CBC)

Getting a test in a short amount of time in Quebec has become virtually impossible in the past two weeks, with clinics being overrun and at-home rapid tests getting scooped up from pharmacies within minutes of being made available. 

Quebec has also been slower than other provinces to roll out booster shots to the general population, blaming a lack of vaccinators for the delays. 

"We really shouldn't be here," Bettache said, citing the 15,293 new cases reported in Quebec on Monday and the nearly 1,400 hospitalizations.

"Police repression and population control is not going to get us out of this pandemic," she said. "We need solutions that take into consideration those who are most affected, whether it's front-line workers or people living in precarious social situations."

Curfew testing Legault's popularity

Despite inflicting a curfew on Quebecers for nearly five months last year, Legault remains the Canadian premier with the most popular support in the polls, said Béland. 

The province's leaders and residents tend to follow the news in France more closely than the rest of the country, which may explain not only why the curfew was imposed in the first place, but also why people were accepting of it, he explained. From October 2020 to June 2021, France had a curfew in the regions hardest hit by COVID.

McGill University Prof. Daniel Béland says the curfew may hurt Premier François Legault's popularity in the polls. (Victoria Dinh/CBC)

"The provincial state is perceived as the protector or the defender of not just Quebec's identity, but also the health and the wealth of the nation," Béland said.

"There is this sense in Quebec that under some circumstances individuals have to make some sacrifices for the common good and in the name of this strong role of the state, which is itself justified by Quebec nationalism."

All that may have held true a year ago, but things could be different this time, the political scientist said.

Two weeks ago, the premier was still in favour of allowing holiday gatherings of up to 10 people indoors.

Legault may have made a calculation to reinstate the curfew as a way of countering criticism that his government had not done enough to prevent the overwhelming surge in cases and hospitalizations.

The fact that the government hasn't conducted its own study on the impacts of the curfew may speak for itself, Béland said. 

"It may indicate that … the main objective of the curfew was more political, was more about optics, telling people that the situation was really serious," he said. 

"Rather than being effective from a public health standpoint."

With files from Valeria Cori-Mannochio

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