We are now entering a critical phase of the pandemic, but the fifth wave carried by Omicron did not come unexpectedly. Events in the United Kingdom had already offered an idea of what was to come, yet the Quebec government failed to make wise use of this warning.
It seems that 21 months of public health crisis were not sufficient for the government to learn how to predict, plan, prevent and mitigate the pandemic. In mid-December, even when the number of daily cases jumped to multiple thousands, Quebec Premier Francois Legault maintained his promise to allow 20 guests at Christmas gatherings. When the number of cases skyrocketed further, his government was forced to put in place certain restrictions, and brandished the prospect of a new curfew. We have now reached this point—with a curfew of 10 p.m. being imposed on December 31, with no set end date.
The difficult and often traumatic collective experience of the last curfew, in force between January 9 and May 28, 2021, pushed us to write this to denounce the current situation. Regardless of what Legault’s cabinet, Quebec’s public health director Horacio Arruda and their expert collaborators say in the media, there are many reasons to question whether the curfew is an appropriate way to manage a pandemic, even if its “sledgehammer effect” gives the impression that the government is taking action. Last year during the curfew, the provincial government issued 31 million dollars in fines.
The government has, however, never demonstrated the effectiveness of the curfew. Instead, it has carefully avoided discussing numbers, and has instead used sophistry: the curfew, it claims, worked because the number of cases dwindled as fewer people went out at night according to mobility data. But correlation does not equal causation.
As attested by a study by the National Public Health Institute of Quebec (INSPQ), the numbers of contacts in households remained largely stable between the spring of 2020 and the spring of 2021, except for the summer of 2020. The peak of the second wave was reached in the first days of 2021, long before the curfew could have had any impact.
The reproduction number, which represents the number of new infections estimated to be caused by a single case, had even passed under one as early as December 29, 2020. In addition, the epidemiological curves in Quebec followed roughly the same course as in other Canadian provinces, where there was no curfew. In short, the government’s own data does not allow them to assert that the curfew had any measurable effect.
“A punishment imposed to distract from the government’s systematic neglect”
Most variations in contacts, according to this data, took place at work and at schools. Unsurprisingly, on mid-December, nearly 93 per cent of outbreaks during the first half of the fifth wave took place in elementary schools, workplaces, daycares, high schools and higher education. Since Legault’s government did nearly nothing to solve the problem of the poor ventilation and air quality in these environments, we should not be surprised that they became infection foci for the airborne virus in the fall of 2021.
Faced with this predictable catastrophe, we agree that the increase in contagion calls for greater caution regarding social contacts. Yet the government has no right to determine whether or not its citizens can visit close ones. Mitigating outbreaks, harm reduction, education about the risks of meeting people indoors, providing equipment—N95 masks, rapid tests, air purifiers—and favoring autonomy should take precedence over control, repression and drastic measures, which can potentially create effects more adverse than expected, and cause collateral damage for certain segments of the population.
Authoritarian stances do not help the population make informed decisions, but rather undermine their adherence to effective public health measures. Will the government continue to pull Quebec apart from the rest of Canada every winter by prohibiting the free circulation of people when it gets dark?
After nearly two years of living through this public health crisis, other urgent health issues have also been exacerbated. There is of course the mental health of the population, notably among the youth, heavily strained by the lack of social opportunities. One can also think of the increase in domestic violence, the isolation, the difficult living conditions of ageing people, homeless people, sex workers, disabled persons, racialized communities, non-status people, people who use drugs, the interpersonal violence and tensions experienced by queer people, teenagers, and children. One does not have to be inclined toward doom and gloom to see that a second curfew could prove dangerous, perhaps even fatal, to people who belong to these social groups.
Because the government does not seem willing to take the needed public health measures, the collective effort to curtail the curve of the fifth wave will have to allow people to enjoy life in one way or another, with activities and walks in small groups in safe outdoor settings. Omicron does not seem to propagate outdoors more than the other variants. According to an Irish study, the outdoors transmission of COVID-19 amounts to only 0.1 per cent of total contaminations. If the objective is to reduce contaminations, depriving Quebeckers of the possibility of being outdoors in the evening and at night, after work or school, is a very bad idea, as it could encourage people to take clandestine risks indoors.
In short, to ensure the population’s collaboration in this fight against an invisible virus in the medium and long-term, it is essential to put in place effective and non-detrimental measures that are based on science and that allow for a minimum of stability in our social activities. We will most likely experience other pandemics in our lifetime. Implementing sustainable, flexible and effective public health measures is long past due. Yet Legault’s government stubbornly refuses to commit to it, preferring shortsighted management and indicting “private gatherings” for all the ensuing chaos.
As the police will be busy distributing fines to people taking walks outside at night and cracking down on people reacting to unbearable conditions, Quebeckers will continue to spread contagion at school, at work, at hospitals, and at daycares. At best, the curfew is a “spectacular” measure, as medical anthropologist Vincent Duclos has suggested. At worst, it is a punishment imposed on individuals to distract from the government’s systematic neglect and inaction in managing the pandemic. In either case, however, the curfew will bring more harm than good. We will not accept to bear the brunt of this political manipulation a second time.
Julien Simard, Ph.D. Postdoctoral fellow, McGill School of Social Work, Social gerontology and medical anthropology
Jonathan Durand Folco, Adjunct professor, Élisabeth-Bruyère School of Social Innovation, Saint-Paul University
Jean-Sébastien Fallu, Ph.D., Associate professor, School of psychoeducation, Université de Montréal, Regular researcher at the Centre de recherche en santé publique
Chantal Montmorency, Coordinator, Association Québécoise pour la Promotion de la Santé des Personnes Utilisatrices de drogues
Vincent Duclos, Professor, Social and Public Communications Department, UQAM
Emma Jean, PhD Candidate, Sociology Department, Université de Montréal
Philippe Néméh-Nombré, Vice-President, Ligue des droits et libertés, PhD Candidate, Sociology Department, Université de Montréal
Camille Robert, PhD Candidate, History Department, UQAM
Émilie Dubois, Lawyer, Association des juristes progressistes
Alexandra Pierre, President, Ligue des droits et libertés
Philippe Blouin, PhD Candidate, Anthropology Department, McGill
Isabelle Larrivée, PhD Candidate, Sociology Department, UQAM
Yan Grenier, Post-Doctoral Fellow, Center for Disability Studies / Department of Anthropology, New York University
Jade Bourdages, Associate Professor, École de travail Social, UQAM
Erica Lagalisse, Anthropologist, Visiting Researcher at the International Inequalities Institute of the London School of Economics
Jessica Dolan, Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Geography, Environment, and Geomatics, University of Guelph, and Ethnobotanist, Saint-Regis Mohawk Tribe Environment Division
Émilie E. Joly, lawyer
Remy-Paulin Twahirwa, PhD Candidate, Department of Sociology, London School of Economics
Anna Kruzynski, Professor, School of Community and Public Affairs, Concordia University
Adam Fleischmann, PhD Candidate, Department of Anthropology, McGill University
Nicolas Rasiulis, PhD Candidate, Department of Anthropology, McGill University
Alex Megelas, PhD student, Department of Integrated Studies in Education, McGill University
A version of this open letter was originally published in French by Pivot.