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Crisis policing in Québec is shifting blame to vulnerable people

COVID-19Canadian PoliticsQuebec

With its latest lockdown, the Québec government has introduced authoritarian measures that are disproportionately affecting vulnerable people. Photo courtesy the Montréal Gazette/YouTube.

On January 8, Québec entered a strict second lockdown, becoming the first province in Canada to enact a nighttime curfew to stem community transmission of the COVID-19 virus. Responding to an increase in cases throughout the province, Premier François Legault declared the need for “shock therapy” to enforce social distancing. Under the curfew, citizens caught outside of their residence for any unauthorized reason between the hours of 8 pm and 5 am (in red zones) face fines ranging from $1,000 to $6,000.

While it is undeniable that the virus has reached a critical stage in recent weeks, the adoption of authoritarian measures ought to be viewed critically. With this latest lockdown, the Québec government has failed to show humanity by policing the health crisis and putting vulnerable people at increased risk. In particular, Legault’s refusal to exempt unhoused people from the curfew only accentuated the inequities spawned by the pandemic.

Authoritarian curfew

Under the province-wide curfew, only those who have explicit written permission are allowed to be outside their homes after 8 pm. Starting on January 8, police presence was heightened throughout Québec as officers began to hand out fines to anyone caught outdoors.

Controversially, Legault announced that unhoused people would not be exempted from this measure, stating that there are “enough beds in shelters for everyone who needs one.” There is in fact a severe shortage of shelter beds in Québec, and access to this limited capacity is often impeded due to mental health issues such as addiction.

Moreover, the government’s curfew measure effectively punishes the unhoused for their lack of shelter, forcing them to submit to additional policing or else suffer the imposition of impossible financial penalties.

Ten days after the curfew was enacted, the body of an unhoused Innu man, Raphael André, was found in a chemical toilet. Having been turned away from an overcrowded shelter, André attempted to hide from police by squeezing into the toilet. Following his death, a Superior Court judge ruled on January 26 that unhoused people be temporarily exempted from the curfew.

Precariously housed populations are not the only group to face discrimination through this measure. Predictably, police are using their bolstered powers to target the poor and marginalized, and reports of abuse were reported within days of the curfew taking effect.

Severe lockdown measures are also systematically harsher for those who live in smaller dwellings, especially when they house multiple people—as is the case for many multigenerational homes in poor and racialized urban areas throughout the province. Curfew measures are also dangerous for people (mostly women) who live in homes experiencing domestic violence.

There is also a lack of evidence for the effectiveness of curfews in reducing community transmission. It is well known that the main sites of community transmission are schools and workplaces, making the 8 pm to 5 am curfew ineffective. Several health experts have criticized the measure, noting the negative impacts on mental health.

Raphael André in an undated photo. Photo courtesy of Jimmy Vollant.

A political crisis masquerading as a health crisis?

Montréal community activist Jaggi Singh recently published an open letter in which he condemned Québec’s new lockdown measures as a form of misdirected punishment for a crisis effectively caused by years of austerity and cutbacks to the healthcare sector. Rather than acknowledge the consequences of successive spending cuts, the government has taken to lecturing the public about their individual behaviour. Legault’s willingness to police citizens shows that his government has turned away from a path of crisis management founded on collective solidarity and the re-allocation of much needed resources.

The crux of this crisis is not the novel coronavirus—rather it is the incapacity of the healthcare system to deal with a sudden increase in hospital admissions. Québec’s hospitals are notoriously understaffed and have been for years. The situation is now so dire that an increasing number of healthcare workers are quitting the province’s public healthcare system in droves because they are too burned out to continue. According to a report by La Presse, 4,000 nurses have quit their positions, a 43 percent increase over previous years. Recently, an urgent care doctor took her own life because of the stress and pain of working through the pandemic.

These outcomes are the direct result of years of austerity imposed by previous right-wing governments. Under the Liberal government of Jean Charest (2003-2012), Québec began to centralize public health resources in an effort to optimize costs and cut middle management. However, the effect of this centralization was the loss of autonomy and agency within regions and communities. As a result, resources were redirected to hospitals to the detriment of community healthcare centers and long-term care institutions such as the now infamous CHSLD (Centres hospitaliers de soins de longue durée).

Under Philippe Couillard’s leadership (2015-2018), Québec instituted the Barrette health reform initiative (named after then Health Minister Gaetan Barrette). With the goal of optimizing and cutting the supposedly bloated healthcare system, these reforms introduced timed limits for each service rendered and largely dehumanized care. Many practitioners denounced the reforms, stressing that they placed healthcare workers under extreme pressure to rapidly dispense with patients, thus undermining the quality of administered care.

Another crucial component of this reform was the cutting of superfluous expenses, such as the partial dismantling of the Public Health Agency, the entity responsible for crisis preparedness and response. Under Legault’s leadership, the agency suffered even more cutbacks.

The ugly truth is that Québec’s healthcare system has struggled to meet public needs for decades. Conversations surrounding the impossible workloads of carers, excessive wait times and the appalling conditions of those living in long-term care have blighted public discourse for years. Québec entered this crisis with an already weakened healthcare system and under the leadership of a neoliberal government acting to undermine public sector institutions. This is a political crisis masquerading as a health crisis.

Shifting the blame

The turn to policing signals the government’s desire to place blame on individual citizens. Despite the clear political origins of this crisis, we are increasingly told that our individual actions are driving the pandemic. A study conducted by the University of Toronto and Montréal’s HEC shows that, in Canada, the government’s discourse progressively changed its focus from calling on communities and organizations, to calling on individuals to “do their part.”

Legault’s government is not alone here. Recently, the British government attracted criticism for a condescending advertising campaign which has been criticized for appearing to blame individuals for the uncontrolled spread of the virus. Just as we have seen here, the government apparently wishes to direct public attention away from its culpability towards individualizing responsibility for the rise in infections.

By shaming individuals for engaging in low-risk behaviours such as outdoor walks with friends, Legault is attempting to shield his government from criticism. Rather than acknowledge their responsibility as leaders and experts, officials are choosing to add to the already heavy psychological burden this pandemic has wrought on citizens by refusing to take ownership for their failures.

The decision to police the COVID crisis goes a step further. Beyond assigning blame, measures such as the curfew now impose legal penalties on citizens. This is significant, given the lack of evidence to back up the policy in the first place. While the curfew may have some effect in reducing the spread of the virus—though this is questionable given that most outbreaks are directly linked to schools and workplaces—it will likely have a detrimental and asymmetrical impact on the most vulnerable Québec residents. It also constitutes a worrying shift towards the collective acceptance of authoritarian policies in times of crisis. This curfew is amplifying the suffering of the poorest and most vulnerable citizens; in other words, those who have already faced increased hardship because of the pandemic.

It is of critical importance, therefore, that the public hold the government to account for its political failings and decisions. This is unlikely to be the last crisis we face, given that climate change is gradually increasing the likelihood of future pandemics. If we let officials off the hook for their clear mismanagement, we risk setting a disastrous precedent, one that will lead to further suffering and loss. The death of elders during the first wave of the pandemic, combined with the avoidable lethality of the second wave, demonstrates this clearly, yet there have been few calls for accountability and reform. This needs to change.

Elizabeth Leier is a freelance journalist and graduate student at Concordia University in Montreal. Her interests include international politics, foreign policy and climate justice. Follow her on Twitter @ElizabethELeier.

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