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Quebec Deputy Premier and Public Security Minister Genevieve Guilbault speaks at a news conference at the legislature in Quebec City on Jan. 7, 2021.

Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

The mayor of Washington, D.C., declared an overnight curfew on Wednesday after Donald Trump supporters forced their way into Capitol Hill and spent a few hours looting offices, undermining democracy and taking selfies. Given the circumstances, a curfew was the right thing to do.

As of Saturday, Quebeckers will also be subject to an overnight curfew, from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. It is the escalation of an existing lockdown and will last for a month.

Not that Quebeckers have done anything illegal to deserve it. No, the thing running riot in their province is COVID-19.

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Quebec has the highest rate of infections and deaths per 100,000 people in Canada. It is under a lockdown that has closed non-essential businesses and stopped in-class schooling, and which bans visits between households. Ontario, Manitoba, Alberta and British Columbia are variations on the theme, while other provinces face restrictions without being as tightly shuttered.

As this page has said many times, a lockdown is an admission of failure. It is a last resort forced on governments that didn’t take more timely measures – the basics of testing, tracing, isolating and quarantines for travellers – and are faced with frightening spikes in new cases that threaten to overwhelm their health care systems.

So what to make of a lockdown with the added bonus of a nighttime curfew?

In Washington, it was a severe but probably justified temporary curtailment of basic liberties, due to a legitimate fear of mass criminal activity. In Quebec, it has the feel of an act of pandemic theatre from a government that appears to have run out of ideas.

Announcing it on Wednesday, Premier François Legault called the curfew “shock treatment.” Quebec’s Public Health Director, Horacio Arruda, admitted he couldn’t provide data to show that a curfew can reduce COVID-19 infections, but he said it “sends a signal.”

Imposing a curfew always sends a signal, as it did in Washington this week. But that can’t be its main function, with stopping crime only a fortuitous side-effect. Similarly, reducing the spread of COVID-19 should not be a hoped for but improbable outcome of forcing people to stay in their homes overnight.

This is not to say that a curfew, when part of a broader package of measures, can’t contribute to a decrease in COVID-19 infections – or even help eliminate them altogether.

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The most famous case in point is the Australian state of Victoria and its capital city of Melbourne, where residents were forced indoors for 112 days starting last August.

The lockdown was considered one of the most draconian in the world. Residents were ordered to stay home except for essential sorties for groceries and other supplies, and could be fined for not obeying. They weren’t allowed to travel more than five kilometres from their residence, and they were subject to a nightly curfew.

Those tough measures were coupled, however, with a successful testing and tracing campaign, as well as with strictly enforced rules that required returning overseas travellers to do a 14-day quarantine in a government-controlled location.

The measures worked. Victoria flattened the curve and, more importantly, it kept it flat. Since October, residents have led the kinds of lives most Canadians only faintly recall, dining out without masks, attending dances and sporting events, and enjoying house parties of up to 30 people. The state reported zero new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday.

Meanwhile, in Canada, the provinces and Ottawa continue to rely on half-measures and Hail Marys.

The latter describes the federal government’s recent decision to require overseas travellers landing in Canadian airports to produce a negative COVID-19 test before boarding their flight – a belated measure that took effect on Thursday, and which buttresses a 14-day quarantine rule whose effectiveness is questioned because of half-hearted enforcement.

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Ontario threw its own Hail Mary on Thursday when it reversed course and said that schools will remain closed to in-person learning for another two weeks, instead of reopening next week as promised.

And then there is Quebec’s new move. It might work. It might not. The government doesn’t know. But, thanks to its failure to act decisively when it counted, a curfew is basically the only thing it’s got left.

Quebec's Public Safety Minister Geneviève Guilbault says she expects police to use their judgement while enforcing the province's curfew which comes into effect on Saturday evening. The Canadian Press

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