BY IAN PATTISON
An earlier version of this column appeared in the print edition and on the website Nov. 28.
Has anyone else noticed that it is conservative provincial governments that are flubbing response to the coronavirus pandemic while centrist parties are generally doing better?
Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government is furious with auditor-general Bonnie Lysak who took a long, hard look at the provincial response to COVID-19 and found it severely wanting.
One might think that the province that boasted SARS taught it all it needed to know would have clicked into a response to this new virus. Instead, the Tories stepped well outside what they already knew and hired American management consultants McKinsey and Co., to advise them -- for a total $4.8 million fee.
What ensued was a structure guaranteed to gum up the works. Rather than a tight ship steered by a core group of medical professionals directly advising the government, Premier Doug Ford accepted the recommendation for a four-tier system in which a medical panel, chaired by chief medical officer Dr. David Williams, and two other groups, advised a larger panel of deputy ministers and senior political advisers. This group, it seems, filtered medical advice through a blue sieve to produce advice that suited the Tories’ political bent -- read business.
Which is not to say that business concerns, especially small, local business, should be sidelined. On the contrary, if governments had done their jobs over the summer while cases were low, and knowing a second wave was coming, business today would be able to count on continuing to operate on their modified schedules, employing the safety measures they invested in as advised by governments that let down their guards and let the worst come to pass.
The Tories’ new colour-code system puts Toronto and Peel region in lockdown but no one thought this through. Why is it OK to line up at a big-box store on Black Friday but not be one of a person or two in a small shop to buy a book?
Ontario’s confusing approach is piled on top of existing problems around staffing shortages and delays in contract tracing and lab analysis of COVID tests on patients. Think back to March when it took this government two weeks to order staff to wear masks as COVID-19 sped through long-term care homes. The army had to be called in to help sparse and exhausted staff cope. Labour leaders tell us they’re already exhausted again and we’re only just beginning to see the next wave of sick Christmas shoppers. Making part-time staff full-time is a good start to getting the additional care needed.
In that same month, provincial officials waited until the Friday before the scheduled start of March Break to warn against non-essential travel. Gee thanks.
Top-heavy doesn’t begin to describe Ontario’s scenario in which up to 500 participants were meeting virtually to advise the province how to proceed. Imagine that conference call.
Lysak found that Williams, who began his career in Sioux Lookout and headed the Thunder Bay District Health Unit before moving to the top job at Queen’s Park, has not been leading Ontario’s response nor used his full powers under the province’s public-health legislation to direct the effort, despite his title.
The cumbersome structure and the political nature of the government’s approach, putting economic concerns ahead of public health, flies in the face of Ford’s repeated claim to be guided by science and likely explains his forceful and highly personal criticism of Lysak’s analysis.
Out in Alberta, United Conservative Premier Jason Kenney finally seemed to see the light Tuesday as he reluctantly imposed some new rules on a province where COVID is surging because he failed to act earlier. Except that Kenney’s “state of public health emergency” is anything but.
He started out well enough, putting limits on public gatherings. But then he said that just about every business will be allowed to continue operating -- restaurants, bars, casinos, gyms. Andre Picard in The Globe and Mail called it “inaction posing as action, a quasi-libertarian premier bending over backward to do nothing while pretending otherwise.”
Saskatchewan Party Premier Scott Moe defended his government’s decision to forgo a “disastrous” lockdown in favour of keeping businesses open in spite of record COVID cases and open criticism from health care sectors that he’s gambling with lives.
Manitoba has for weeks recorded the highest per-capita rate of new infections in Canada. But when CBC’s Rosemary Barton asked Progressive Conservative Premier Brian Pallister Sunday why his Restart Manitoba plan had failed to effectively prepare the province over the summer for a second wave this fall, Pallister accused Barton of “Monday morning quarterbacking” and asked her why she hadn’t offered him a “single idea” that would have helped. As if that’s the job of journalists.
Defending business concerns ahead of people’s health and safety is easy. Balancing the two with effective, medically-based advice is harder but is how we get through this. People believing what they’re hearing, deciding it makes sense, and following the rules is how we get through this.
There is finally some light visible through the long, dark tunnel that is winter in Canada.
Locally, there are 66 cases, down from a high of 82 earlier in the week. Sadly, there have been three deaths. Barring a surge in community spread, we are headed in the right direction again.
Vaccines are proving to be effective and Canada has secured orders for a variety of them -- 358 million doses in all. We won’t get them as early as countries where they’re manufactured but Health Canada is expected to approve the first of them by Christmas.
We’d have got them sooner, like so many other countries that put their money down early while Canada dithered. As Andrew Coyne wrote in The Globe and Mail, “Perhaps that is why the government eventually purchased so many doses, among the largest, per capita, in the world – to make up in volume what it lost in timeliness.”
Then, of course, comes the task of delivery to provinces and into people’s arms. Will Canada manage to inoculate the entire population (minus the anti-vaxxers) more efficiently than it has managed testing -- still struggling to reach roughly 50,000 people a day?
In the meantime there are other challenges, like finding enough dry ice to ship vaccines and enough minus-80-degree freezers to store them.
Canada is expecting to receive four million doses of two vaccines in the early months of 2021 when those most in need -- the elderly, those susceptible to illness, front-line health workers -- will begin to receive them. By around September, if all goes well, it is expected that about three-quarters of Canadians will be inoculated, providing a critical mass of protection against a virus that no one saw coming a year ago.
Gear down and relax for a little while longer. Things are looking up, finally.
Ian Pattison is retired as editorial page editor of The Chronicle-Journal, but still shares his thoughts on current affairs.