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Bread and Circuses: the role of sports during “deconfinement”

Photo via The Vulfpeck Bandcamp

By Eleanor Sherry

It’s mid-May as I’m writing this, and already we’ve seen a lot of changes to the rules of quarantine. Thinking back a month ago, when Trudeau, Legault, and Ford were talking about the effect social distancing then would have on us now, it's easy to be cynical. I certainly am: elementary schools have closed again, medical experts warn against relying on herd immunity, and companies across the country are reporting the worst first quarter in history.

With all this doom and gloom hanging over our heads, it’s no wonder why so many people take the resumption of leisure activities, such as golf and tennis, as a sign that things are looking up. Starting May 20th, both Quebec and Ontario will be phasing sports that allow for a safe distance between players back into common practice. Team sports, for obvious reasons, will not be making a comeback anytime soon.

The news comes as a breath of fresh air, although I can’t shake the feeling that there’s something off about it. Obviously, sports are a cornerstone of any Canadian summer. But it’s strange to see Ford promising to bring back ping-pong and scuba-diving five minutes after declaring the Ontario economy reopened, in a monolithic move the province’s officials are calling “Stage 1,” as if both are equally important.

Okay, that’s not entirely true. Just like leisure activities, businesses will be steadily reopening over the course of several weeks, with storefront shops imposing strict limits on the amount of people allowed inside. Nonetheless, retail stores will be coming back, and soon. 

This only applies to Ontario, by the way, whose protective measures have proven much more effective than Quebec’s in combating the spread of Covid. And with that in mind, the question, “why is Quebec bringing back sports?” becomes more and more important to answer.

It might be due to the fact that senior citizens aren’t exactly itching to play sports anytime soon. Back in April, Quebecers over the age of eighty accounted for forty-two percent of Covid deaths in the province. If Quebec is lagging in public health, its high concentration of old folks doesn’t help. Deaths in palliative homes balloon fatalities without reflecting the real state of things.

Still, those homes don’t exist in a vacuum. If leisure activities increase the number of people going out, the caregivers responsible for keeping octogenarians alive will be put at higher risk.

However, the real target audience for Quebec’s sports mandate may be kids and teenagers. Many health specialists across the country have been trying to figure out how to keep children active this summer, while social distancing measures are still in place. By relaxing the laws on leisure, Quebec officials may be hoping to do just that. But if it’s young people they’re thinking of, then Quebec’s decision-making process has a lot of internal tensions, considering that team sports like youth hockey and soccer will still be down and out for the rest of the season.

No, Quebec’s decision to restart sports feels as arbitrary as its decision to convert roads into pedestrian avenues. And as much as I want to give Legault and his administration the benefit of the doubt, every decision they’ve made so far reeks of damage control. It seems like, on the provincial level, the same mindset applies to both sports and businesses: jumpstart them, but don’t make it seem that way.

I’m not against reopening the economy by any means. No industry was prepared for the pandemic, and if people aren’t sent back to work, things could get a lot worse in the long term. But with the threat of a second wave of deaths looming, it seems irresponsible to rush the reopening of sports and businesses.

That’s why I can‘t help feeling disillusioned when Ford tacks leisure onto an economic speech. It’s reminiscent of some ancient branch of the Roman Empire, distracting its citizens from poor policies by giving them, as the old maxim goes, “Bread and Circuses.” And despite his hesitancy to reopen businesses, Legault doesn’t seem that different.

Quebec’s new safety measures have a lot of style. In the coming months, as leisure activities become more and more commonplace, we’ll see if they have substance, too.

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