Support Local – Quebec has recently declared new emergency measures banning gatherings of 2 or more people, giving the police the power to intervene if citizens don’t toe the line. Acknowledging that people are stressed and there is potential for ”social chaos” Premier François Legault said, ” drastic measures are needed.” Certain exemptions will apply, for example, families of 2 or more people may gather in their homes. Under the public health emergency declared by the province on March 14th and renewed on March 21st, police have the authority to carry out warrants issued by public health authorities, bypassing the usual judicial process. However, the no-holds-barred measures to flatten the curve of the deadly global pandemic Coronavirus have been put into effect with little regard for civil liberties. ”That’s why for the moment, and for the foreseeable future, we’ve asked the police to inform [the public of the public health directives], Legault said. ”It’s important that there is no chaos.”
The new emergency measures are sweeping: face-to-face commerce must grind to a halt and stores that do not provide essential services will not reopen until April 13th. Restaurant dining rooms and shopping malls will all be closed until at least May 1st. Schools, CEGEPs, and universities are closed and exams canceled. Quebec has stopped all business activity unless it can be done from home or is an essential service. Downtown Montreal has been a ghost town for two weeks as large and small firms alike had already emptied their offices before this latest edict. On an ironic note, SAQ outlets will remain open like grocery stores and pharmacies because the sale of alcoholic beverages is considered an essential service. Ditto, for the SQDC which dispenses cannabis.
Every day since the news of the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed Premier Legault has been speaking to Quebecers exhorting them to pull together for the greater good much the same way that then-Premier Lucien Bouchard spoke to the ”nation” during the Ice Storm of 1998. ”We’re all in this together,” Legault says, like any good “père de Famille”. At the outset, the premier’s messages were intended to reassure and get everyone on track with social distancing and public health recommendations. However, the goalposts have been changing from week to week. Social distancing has given way to instructions to stay at home, voluntary self-isolation to a draconian ban on gatherings of two or more people under threat of arrest for non-compliance.
Freedom of association and peaceful assembly are fundamental rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. However, all religious services and community events were canceled ten days ago. Grieving families haven’t been allowed to hold a funeral to say goodbye to their loved ones and weddings will have to be postponed. The elderly, the infirm, and those with mental health problems have been shut off from their caregivers without any real plan for how vulnerable individuals will manage. Children won’t even be able to play outside. Montreal has closed all playgrounds and other municipalities will likely soon follow suit.
Quebec is not alone in implementing stringent measures to control the spread of the novel coronavirus. The Government of British Columbia declared a state of emergency six days ago giving the province sweeping powers to implement any emergency measures required to manage the crisis including access to land and human resources. The state of emergency in BC is initially in effect for 14 days and may be extended or rescinded. The Government of Ontario enacted a declaration of emergency on March 17th giving that province every power possible to protect public health and safety. Premier Ford justified the order on the grounds that we are facing, ”an unprecedented time in our history.”
There has been a spike in COVID-19 cases in Quebec in a matter of days. Some would argue that the number of reported cases of COVID-19 has been inflated with confirmed and presumptive cases being lumped together. The actual death toll in Canada is low. To date, there have been 18,895 deaths worldwide and 24 in Canada. China, Italy, Iran, and Spain have all had a heavy death toll. Naturally, Canadian health authorities want to ensure that those fatal results aren’t replicated here. However, no thought has been given to the potential detrimental social impacts of self-isolation.
The Internet has been abuzz with photos and stories of people partying on beaches and gathering in large groups ignoring health warnings to practice social distancing. Prime Minister Trudeau said there is no tolerance for those flouting orders to socially distance to help stem the spread of the novel coronavirus. “Enough is enough,” he said in an address to Canadians from Rideau Cottage, where he is in self-isolation. “Go home and stay home.” Canada’s Health Minister Patty Hajdu said the government is looking at a variety of stricter measures and did not rule out the use of police to enforce orders. In Quebec, the police have been given extraordinary powers to arrest citizens who don’t comply with social distancing, and not simply because they break quarantine. There have already been a few dust-ups raising the specter of overzealous policing.
Canada’s chief medical health officer Dr. Theresa Tam has been giving daily updates on the novel coronavirus continually repeating the same message to wash your hands frequently, practice social distancing, and where there has been any possible exposure to COVID-19, to self-isolate. Yet, beyond these common-sense measures, the medical experts don’t agree on what constitutes best practices and frankly acknowledge that we are in unchartered territory.
The assumption seems to be that everyone can communicate virtually to mitigate the crisis. Technocrats who live behind the screen may see this as a no-brainer, an effective one-size-fits-all solution that allows the health system to buy time and save lives while research is being done to develop a vaccine. One public health service announcement tells kids to stay at home and watch TV, play video games, and call their grandmothers. Of course, Grandma may be clueless about how to navigate video platforms like FaceTime, Skype, and WhatsApp. Many older adults aren’t digitally savvy while people on the margins of society often don’t have access to computers or mobile devices. Without a debit or credit card, the homeless won’t be skipping the dishes and ordering online. Not too many own a vehicle either so they won’t be doing the drive-thru for take-out.
It is starting to dawn on the powers-that-be there has to be some kind of outreach to shut-ins. Premier Legault is now urging young adults who aren’t infected to step up and replace older volunteers who are being urged to stay at home although no clear protocol is in place to make this happen. Some employees and self-employed individuals may be able to work from home so long as their business continues as usual, but that’s not the case as Quebec is ”on pause” for three weeks, Legault says. Many distraught Canadians are already bracing to receive their pink slips. Prime Minister Trudeau has promised financial assistance but it’s not clear how this will benefit the self-employed. It’s unrealistic to think that overwhelmed and financially stressed parents will have any appetite to homeschool their children anyway, despite the technical feasibility of long-distance learning.
Surveys have polled respondents on whether they intend to consume more alcohol and/or increase their use of cannabis because of COVID-19. One survey by a well-known polling and market research firm also asked respondents how COVID-19 might affect their sex lives. This type of question suggests the novel coronavirus outbreak may be related to sexual behavior although there are no official pronouncements on the matter. This might account for the ban on private as well as public gatherings of two or more people and the swift closure of bars and pubs – major cruising grounds – before restrictions on restaurants were put in place.
Meanwhile, there has been an uptick in crime. Major news outlets have reported an increase in crime especially cybercrime and sex-trafficking, as more young people stay at home and hang out in chat rooms. The potential for violence is great as large numbers of young adults, especially young men, are on lockdown. In a restless and intoxicated state, they might be tempted to revolt. Possible scenarios include vandalism, looting of stores, and raids on grocery stores and pharmacies if there is a protracted lockdown. The food supply chain had already been disrupted because of the rail blockades before panic set in and hoarding started. Lockdown is especially dangerous for victims of domestic violence with no escape route in a shuttered city.
Hopefully, cooler heads will prevail. On a positive note, On Tuesday, March 24th Mayor Valérie Plante tweeted (in English), ”We are teaming up with @CentraideMtl to speed up operations and to ensure that the organizations working with the most vulnerable members of our society are heard and that we can meet their needs. We want to leave no one behind.”
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