By Ian Pattison
Remember last year at this time, wiping down everything you touched with antiseptic, including your groceries? We don’t do that much anymore and it turns out that we don’t have to. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control confirmed this week that the risk of getting coronavirus from surfaces is low. It’s one of a number of changes in behaviour that have evolved over the course of a pandemic that has gripped the globe with apprehension, sickness and death.
What hasn’t changed is the confounded unwillingness of many governments to take the measures that are necessary to beat this thing. Ontario is a prime example.
Time after time, this province has waited too long to act when the virus takes an uptick, and then doesn’t act forcefully enough to do much good.
People are losing faith in their government’s ability to handle the pandemic. Angus Reid found that 65 per cent of Ontarians say that their premier is doing a poor job of it.
The government has been told over and over by its health and science advisers and by ICU doctors and hospital nurses that it is not moving fast enough or strenuously enough.
The result has been a succession of lacklustre orders that repeatedly frustrate citizens, hurt small business, and challenge the health care system to accommodate growing numbers of ever-younger patients who are taking up more and more space in limited intensive care beds. Infection rates are now highest among those aged 20 to 39.
Six days after ordering a 28-day province-wide “shutdown,” Premier Doug Ford announced a state of emergency Wednesday and ordered everyone to stay home except to get groceries, prescriptions and other genuine necessities. Yet he’d known since last week that new modelling indicated a surge any day. It happened on the weekend when cases province-wide topped 3,000. On Friday the load rose above 4,000. He waited. He gambled. We all lost.
Ford continually says he is guided by advice from chief medical officer Dr. David Williams and that the health of Ontarians is always his primary motivator. That’s just not true. He’s known for months that modelling contains scenarios much more serious than his actions indicate. And unfortunately, the advice he gets from Williams, who gets his advice from the health and science tables he appointed, is either toned down or overruled when it gets to the cabinet table.
What’s more, we’re not being kept up to date on the changing nature of the danger we face. Ford, his health minister, Christine Elliott, and others repeat the need to social distance, but have you heard them say that the old 2-metre rule is no longer enough? A recent study published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that a singer at a church in Australia in July -- before variants took hold -- was able to infect several others from a distance of more than 15 metres indoors.
The Ontario science table of advisers said in February it was no time to let up, that strict, universal, actual lockdown measures were essential to thwart the continually growing spread of Covid and its more dangerous variants (which have risen from 2,000 to 17,000 nation-wide in the past month).
Solicitor-General Sylvia Jones said Wednesday on CBC’s Power and Politics that this wasn’t the time to lock things down, that people needed balance and hope. She said that when Thunder Bay and Sudbury reported higher positivity rates and ICU admissions at that time, the province moved them into the colour-coded Grey or lockdown status. Which, again, is far too permissive in terms of public activity.
Ford is admittedly in a tough spot. A lockdown that really did lock everything down would come at nearly intolerable costs. Shut down grocery suppliers and stores? We need to eat. Close manufacturing plants? We need the things they make and so do their customers elsewhere in the world.
But if Canada and the provinces had learned their lesson from Covid’s first wave, and acted with courage and conviction, public support would have been there for drastic action -- one big push -- and the second wave could have been avoided. Variants would have been kept to a minimum as vaccinations were ramped up. Instead, a second wave took hold, and now a third one is debilitating us.
Let’s be clear. This government keeps clamping down too little too late and letting up too early. That’s what our see-saw lives are all about.
As Robyn Urback wrote in The Globe and Mail on Wednesday, “If the prevailing emotion of the first lockdown was fear, and frustration for the second, this third and hopefully last lockdown will be characterized by one pervasive sentiment: anger.”
Who isn’t royally ticked off? Medical officials tell us to be patient and to keep taking the familiar preventive measures which most of us do, religiously. Those same officials are telling the government that patience is wearing thin because it has let the virus slip away from the control that was there for the taking.
Patience among small business owners is long gone. People who might otherwise be willing to give government the benefit of the doubt have instead come to minimize the dangers of Covid in their own minds and grouse openly about restrictions as they watch their expenses mount and their dreams fade.
On April 1, new modelling showed the variants double the risk that anyone catching the virus could end up in intensive care. It showed that Ontario could see 6,000 cases a day by the end of April. Ford’s response was a gimmicky-named “emergency brake” that left most retailers open and made few changes to the restrictions in already-locked-down areas such as Thunder Bay.
Now we’re in a state of emergency with orders to stay at home, albeit without a nighttime curfew or penalties for being out for anything but essential reasons. Finally, Queen’s Park appears to see the light. But the bulb’s been burning for months. Ford just kept turning it off.
Our leadership has failed us. Lockdowns have become meaningless. Many lives have been needlessly impacted and tragically lost. This chicken-hearted approach let the variants of concern take hold and spread throughout Ontario. We are one of the few jurisdictions on Earth where all three VOCs are thriving at once.
So far, Thunder Bay’s separation from southern hot spots has shielded us from all but four cases of the U.K. variant, none of which has caused death. A quarter of the district population has received at least one shot but the district health unit has said variant cases could increase in the next week. We shall see, and wonder whether Premier Ford will consider it worthy of his prompt attention.
Ian Pattison is retired as editorial page editor of The Chronicle-Journal, but still shares his thoughts on current affairs.