Tuesday, January 05, 2021

How will a curfew help?

The province of Quebec, which is having a horrible second wave of COVID-19, is seriously considering bringing in a curfew, with an announcement expected to be made tomorrow. Fines of between $1,000 and $6,000 are being suggested. This would be a first for Canada, although many other countries are going down that route, even as we speak.

Supposedly, the theory behind curfews is to "reduce non-essential interactions between people from different households", especially at times "when people tend to participate in non-essential social gatherings that often result in less compliance with social distancing guidance and mask mandates". (Read: get drunk).

I understand all that. But I am at a loss to understand just how a curfew might help anything in practice. Who are they expecting to keep at home after 7pm or 8pm or whatever? What are these people to be prevented from doing? Bars are not open anyway, neither restaurants. I suppose some young risk-takers and rebels might conceivably be meeting up and socializing out of doors after dark, but we don't need a curfew to police that kind of rule-breaking behaviour, we just need a police force.

So, are we trying to stop people from going for walks at a time when the streets are less busy? Or maybe essential workers who have to go shopping late in the day?

Is there any evidence that curfews actually work in this kind of circumstance? A quick trawl of the internet turns up a whole host of web-pages claiming the contrary, but many of these have their own axe to grind. So, what about more official sources. Well, studies are few and far between, but the indications suggest otherwise. In fact, curfews could cause people to socialize indoors in secret, making things worse, not better. People who feel they have to get drunk on a regular basis are going to do that, come what may. Adding a curfew into the mix is just going to piss people off.

As a Montreal professor of public health notes, "the curfew is unlikely to lead to big changes in urban hot spots where bars and restaurants have been closed since October", and "the government's goal is likelier to shock people into observing the rules". Other public health experts in Canada seem to think that a curfew is unlikely to prevent much social contact, and furthermore warn that a big problem with curfews is the possibility of a rebound when the curfew is finally lifted. School closings, on the other hand, are widely considered a very effective measure for limiting the spread of the virus and - go figure! - Quebec is going the opposite way on that, and opening schools up! 

Experts are warning that, curfew or no curfew, this kind of "lockdown light" (i.e. anything short of a complete, Australia-type, draconian lockdown) is unlikely to be effective at this point. And, of course, the civil liberties people have jumped all over it, despite the rather tame nature of this latest lockdown model and the inprecedented crisis levels in the hospitals of Canada's largest and most populous provinces.

So, curfews are what governments opt for when they don't know what else to do. No-one really knows if they work, but at least something is being seen to be done. Apparently, the only thing a curfew might actually achieve is to bring home to people that things really are desperate, and that it is time for last resorts. But do we really need to be reminded of that? Is it actually in any doubt?

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