On Saturday Jan. 9, in an unprecedented move since the beginning of the pandemic, a curfew was imposed in Quebec. Quebec premier François Legault presented this measure as “shock treatment” to curb the spread of COVID-19. However, this curfew is just the most recent in the long line of measures aimed against individuals while leaving businesses free to make profits and spread the virus.

Fighting COVID with repression?

On the first night of curfew, some 300 fines were distributed across Quebec. When asked if curfew applied to the homeless, Legault replied that it did, saying that “There is room in the shelters.” Piling up homeless people in shelters is a unique way to fight a pandemic where homeless people are five times more likely to catch the virus. At the very least, Public Safety Minister Geneviève Guilbault called on police officers to show “tolerance”—but the Service de police de la Ville de Montréal, not missing an opportunity to show off its reputation, fined a homeless person $1,500 on the second night of curfew. 

As to whether it will be effective, the National Director of Public Health, Horacio Arruda, admitted that no “controlled study” has demonstrated the effectiveness of a curfew. So far, the Legault government’s approach has only increased skepticism and has resulted in a third of those infected in the Greater Montreal region refusing to collaborate in contact tracing for fear of fines.

Any objective analysis of the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in Quebec would lead you to say that the CAQ government has utterly failed in its job. The pandemic is out of control in Quebec. Hospitals, especially in Montreal, are nearing the breaking point where doctors will have to let patients die. Distress reigns among workers in the health sector, tragically demonstrated by the recent suicide of an emergency room physician.

But there is a method behind the imposition of this curfew. In fact, it is the logical continuation of Legault’s approach over the past few months: that is, an attempt to shift the blame for the spread of the virus to individuals in order to let the real culprits—his friends in the business community—off the hook. 

To this end, Legault spent the entire month of December blaming the pandemic on holiday gatherings, threatening large fines. When the holidays ended, the blame fell on selfish travelers who had gone south. The “covidiots” are indeed the perfect scapegoat for the pandemic. 

But this approach of blaming individuals ignores the main vectors of transmission: schools, workplaces and healthcare establishments. If we peer through the smokescreen of the curfew, we see that almost nothing has changed. In fact, apart from the postponement of the return to high school by a week, almost everything continues as if nothing has happened. 

Hands off profits!

Meanwhile, the virus continues to rage in workplaces. As of Jan. 10, workplaces accounted for 47.5 per cent of active outbreaks. According to the latest available data from Jan. 2, 24 per cent of workplace outbreaks (and 37 per cent of cases) are in the manufacturing sector. Outbreaks have halved in two weeks on construction sites—but only because construction has taken a break over the holidays.

Given these numbers, it is astonishing that virtually nothing has changed in these sectors. Legault is simply asking companies in the manufacturing and construction sector to voluntarily limit themselves to essential production. “Much reliance is placed on [employers’] judgment and good faith to contribute to the collective effort.”

Clearly the virus will continue to spread in these workplaces. Afterall, what boss would voluntarily deprive themself of profits?

A recent editorial in the Toronto Star summed up the curfew problem quite well: 

More seriously, a Quebec-style curfew ducks some of the biggest reasons why COVID is spreading so fast.

It’s relatively easy to close bars and restaurants and lecture people about holiday socializing. But much of the spread stems from people simply going to work at manufacturing plants, distribution centres and construction sites. A truly tough anti-pandemic policy would target workplace transmission — even at the cost of shutting down many of these sites.

The Star is hardly an anti-capitalist publication, and yet it clearly recognizes the problem. But industry bosses have made it clear that they are opposed to a new lockdown. 

For example, Véronique Proulx, CEO of Quebec Manufacturers and Exporters, says the industry lost $4 billion this spring because of the lockdown. She says the worst-case scenario for the industry would be a return to the spring measures… precisely the measures that had actually helped to flatten the curve! She fears that Quebec manufacturers will not be able to remain competitive if another lockdown is imposed:

If we’re shutting down and consumers continue to buy, as they did during the last shutdown, they’ll be buying from Amazon and they’ll be buying from other manufacturers who can actually continue to produce.

The market share that these foreign companies are gaining is there to stay; it’s very difficult for Quebec manufacturers to win them back.

Proulx exposes here the cold logic of the capitalist system. Quebec companies cannot tolerate measures that would actually help fight COVID-19. They are not good for business! 

Sarah Houde, CEO of Propulsion Québec, an electric and intelligent transportation company, agrees: “We’ll have to work hard to deliver orders and continue research and development. There is so much growth in our sector, we can’t afford to fall behind.”

That’s what this is all about. Profits come before health. Genuine measures to flatten the curve should necessarily include the closure of non-essential workplaces. But that would mean attacking the profiteering of the capitalist system. 

What’s left for the Legault government if it doesn’t want to stop corporations from making money? All that’s left is to blame the “covidiots” and impose repressive measures. All that’s left is the mantra of “individual responsibility”.

In reality, the CAQ’s policing and individualistic approach aims to divert attention from its criminal mis-management of the pandemic and, above all, to ensure that the bosses continue to line their pockets in peace. The curfew will do almost nothing to stop infection, it is just a repressive scam to help Legault stay in power.

Where is the opposition?

Unfortunately, leaders in the labour movement seem to have completely acquiesced to the curfew. Some have even gone so far as to echo the arguments of the bosses about needing to avoid a lockdown. For example, in response to the announcement from the Legault government, the president of CSN-Construction, Pierre Brassard said “Construction workers will be happy that they will be able to continue to work in spite of the pandemic.” 

Roxane Larouche, spokesperson for United Food and Commercial Workers-Quebec, called the curfew a “necessary evil.” Louis Bégin, the president of the Federation of the Manufacturing Industry workers, argued against a lockdown stating that “A second containment could lead to new permanent closures.” So far, all of these union leaders have simply echoed the line of the bosses’ federations. 

To his credit, QS spokesperson, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois questioned the logic of the government: “While restricting the movement of individuals on a daily basis, the manufacturing and construction sectors are left open, why? Yet it’s documented that manufacturing is a major source of outbreaks.”

Other than the question posed by Nadeau-Dubois, the left or labour leaders have done next to nothing to expose the complete hypocrisy of the government’s actions and failures. 

This has allowed Legault to maintain a high approval rating in spite of his absolute bungling of the COVID-19 pandemic. He has been able to use repressive measures to pit the workers against each other,leaving the main force contributing to the transmission of the virus—the Quebec capitalists—untouched. This must change.

What is the solution?

Legault criticizes the “covidiots” for not believing in science, but this is scheer hypocrisy. A genuine scientific approach to fighting the pandemic would target the areas which are the main drivers for transmission and take any measure necessary to stop the spread of the virus. A curfew is almost entirely useless as it does nothing to stop the transmission in workplaces, schools and healthcare facilities. 

If we are serious about fighting COVID-19, the labour movement needs to launch a mass campaign of walkouts to shut down non-essential businesses. There must be mass testing and any workplace with an outbreak must immediately be shut down. The workers must be sent home on full pay. The workers must be allowed to decide if workplaces are safe or not, and proper funding must immediately be released to meet this end. 

The working class of Quebec has strong revolutionary traditions. Quebec workers have never been afraid to go on strike and use militant tactics to force concessions from the bosses. All that is needed is an ounce of leadership.