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OPINION: The Quebec curfew is authoritarian theatre

We can beat COVID-19 with social solidarity, mutual aid and massive public funding, not curfews, cops and snitching.

“Stricter” public health pandemic guidelines in Quebec make a lot of sense, and would have made a lot of sense back in November. But effective public health prioritizes providing material resources, particularly to marginalized populations, and to all who have limited incomes. It also means substantive and significant increases in resources and funding to key sectors like health and education. There are many examples of measures that would help build social solidarity and mitigate the pandemic: pay increases, smaller classroom sizes, free laptops/tablets for every kid in school in Quebec as well as free internet at home, expenditures to improve ventilation in schools and workplaces, and much more.

In contrast, authoritarian approaches — like increased policing, encouraging snitching, and blanket curfews — are not necessarily rooted in actually improving public health. Moreover, these measures, like increased ticketing and police surveillance, can actually undermine necessary pandemic mitigation measures like contact tracing

Authoritarian and paternalistic approaches backfire in working class communities, where we don’t like being condescended to, particularly by cops and discredited politicians (or petty neighbourhood snitches). These cop-centred approaches are antithetical to collective solidarity and health, and end up promoting communities that turn on each other, rather than identifying and attacking structural reasons for the failure of our pandemic response. Those structural reasons include the gross underfunding of the health care sector over the past 30 years by successive Quebec governments that have pursued a neo-liberal capitalist economic model.

The curfew announced by the Legault government that is taking effect on Saturday will reinforce the constant seeking of scapegoats — invariably by laterally blaming other members of society — and continued reliance on cops. Meanwhile the truly pernicious actors in our society — primarily the unapologetic capitalists who have promoted austerity and corporate welfare for the past generations — get a get-out-of-jail free card. It’s no secret that the Legault pandemic response has insisted on keeping manufacturing functioning, despite the clear evidence of virus spread in large workplaces.

The virus does not act differently at night, and there are plenty of reasons to be out after 8 p.m. without in any way compromising collective public health goals, and without being harassed by cops demanding to know what exactly you are doing and with whom. Getting out of the home, spontaneously, at any hour, is a harm reduction strategy, particularly in crowded households which exist disproportionately in poor and immigrant neighbourhoods.

As grassroots frontline community workers and activists have pointed out, the curfew will have horrible implications for the homeless, for people in distress, for people in abusive relationships and for the undocumented. The police will be enabled to demand people’s personal information in the context of the curfew and related repressive measures, including undocumented essential workers, meaning more potential detentions and deportations.

Seemingly more mundane, but still important to our mental health, are the walks, exercise or all the other things we do and have done safely outdoors after 8 p.m. True to Legault’s management of the pandemic, the curfew is authoritarian and meant to scare people, not to actually improve our collective health. It’s also something that makes no sense to the cosmopolitan reality of urban areas like Montreal, which is also true to the Legault brand.

Bizarrely, at a press conference this week about the curfew, Public Safety Minister Geneviève Guilbault singled out the police for praise for their help during the pandemic, urging them to use their “good judgment” and discretion in enforcing the curfew. At the same time, she refused to be critical of many examples of the lack of judgment by police all over Quebec during this pandemic, and seemed oblivious to the realities of racial and social profiling. To recall, the same minister urged Quebecers to be “docile” and “obedient” back in April. 

Guilbault’s comments add to the contradictions and cognitive dissonance of the pandemic response by the Legault government and their cherry-picked health experts. This dissonance includes: arguing vigorously against masks earlier in the pandemic, to finally getting around to mandate masks in indoor locations; correctly emphasizing a few months ago the importance of social interactions outdoors, masked and distanced, to mental health, to now subjecting those safe interactions to fines and police harassment; and the continued refusal to consider spending the money to improve and overhaul ventilation systems in schools and workplaces.

It’s hard to respect the Legault government taking science, facts and reason seriously when they remain in constant denial, almost like a conspiracy theorist, of the inescapable reality of systemic racism in Quebec.

There is a vigorous debate amongst public health professionals and experts about the necessity of curfews to mitigate this pandemic. And, like much of the response to COVID-19, those debates are inevitably very political, breaking along typical divisions: those who defer to authority versus those who emphasize providing people with information, resources and services; those who practise blame and scapegoating versus those who practice harm reduction, support and mutual aid; those who punch down and blame the poor and marginalized for their condition versus those who punch up against structural and systemic problems.

We need to be punching up.

There is a left, progressive, pro-science position that both advocates for taking the pandemic and public health measures seriously, and refuses to pander to unnecessary and counterproductive authoritarian measures that end up centering (and praising) the police. Such a position needs to continue to take up more space publicly, and uncompromisingly oppose curfews and cops while promoting effective pandemic responses that create long-term social justice and solidarity. ■

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