Class and the pandemic in Ontario
The government and bosses are trying to shift the blame for the devastating pandemic surge in the province from factors like overcrowded TTC buses and reopened schools and workplaces to the actions of individuals. Don't let them.
Social distancing is not even possible on this TTC bus, November 17, 2020 - photo by Natalie Lochwin
The detachment from reality that I have noted before in the response of the Ontario government to the capitalist coronavirus crisis becomes ever more pronounced as the "second wave" overruns the province with increasingly devastating results.
Some see this response as incoherent, but that would be a mistake. While Ford and crew have not been willing to take the steps that need to be to actually stop the nightmare unfolding right now -- and while they are trying to shift the blame for what is occurring in ways that are basically fictional -- there is a purpose to their approach. And that purpose is to make sure the economy can keep driving along in spite of the consequences for workers, the elderly, the marginalized, people living in poverty and people from communities being hit the hardest.
With new cases and deaths having risen at a dizzying pace over the last month, Ford would have you believe that the bad behaviour of irresponsible individuals breaking the rules is what is the primary cause as he threatens new lockdowns:
"I'm done with this - I'm done with people holding parties, having get-togethers," said Ford, noting that law-abiding people in hot spot regions will end up paying the price for this "unacceptable" behaviour.
"Everyone thinks 'it's a big joke, everything's fine,'" he continued of people flouting restrictions. "Well, we'll see how fine it is."
But this narrative does not hold up under scrutiny.
From overcrowded buses, to open schools and daycares, to a lack of serious support for workers who are sick, to the understating of the extent and seriousness of workplace outbreaks, the Ford government's policies amount to covid class warfare.
There is absolutely no doubt that your odds of getting covid are directly related to your income. In Toronto, for example:
This, of course, is true in many places around the world, but it is true entirely due to government policies both in Ontario and elsewhere.
Many of the frontline workers deemed the most "essential" now, such as grocery cashiers or delivery drivers, are also at greater risk of getting Covid-19 not simply due to work but due to other factors related to being at the lower end of the income scale.
Exposure on public transit is one example and in Toronto while there is a "mandatory" mask order it is not actually enforced. No one will be asked to get off a vehicle, no matter how crowded, or fined for defying it, though you will still be refused entry or fined for not paying the $3.25 fare.
While Ford rants about partiers, in Peel Region, which is a serious hot spot -- on November 18 463 of the province's 1,417 new cases were recorded there -- the surges are being driven by workplaces.
The Toronto Star highlighted how alarming the situation in Peel Region is on November 16:
An area in the northeast corner of Brampton has a “shocking” 19 per cent COVID-19 test positivity rate — a rate double that of the U.S. — and is leading a list of 30 Greater Toronto neighbourhoods that are seeing alarming numbers of people testing positive for the virus, new data shows.
Peel, which includes the cities of Mississauga, Brampton and Caledon, is one of the country’s largest warehouse and distribution hubs, and businesses in the region employ many immigrants and members of multigenerational households. Widespread outbreaks in manufacturing and food processing have led to rapid household and community spread as public officials grapple with how to protect workers.
“We’re seeing transmission in industrial settings and essential workplaces, and there were a number of outbreaks in food processing and transportation and logistics,” said Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown. “While many people are sitting in the comfort of their homes and going to grocery stores, it’s an Amazon worker, a trucker in Brampton, or someone in a food processing plant that made sure they had their food.”
The region has the highest cumulative rate of COVID-19 cases in Ontario, at 1,200 cases per 100,000 people. The area has seen 116 total workplace outbreaks, more than the number that have occurred in long-term care home and school outbreaks combined. Manufacturing and industrial facilities account for 34 per cent of the workplace outbreaks, while retail and food processing make up 14 per cent and 10 per cent respectively, according to data from Peel Region.
It would seem "partying" is not the catalyst.
These are, obviously, not workers who can work from home.
Epidemiologist Farah Mawani, of the MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions at Unity Health Toronto noted this explicitly in the Toronto Star:
“People in precarious work conditions can’t choose to work at home, either because of the nature of the job itself or because they don’t have the power to stay home,” Mawani said, noting those in low-income jobs often require them to be in contact with a lot of people.
“And they can’t speak out about unsafe conditions because of that lack of power and are at risk of losing their jobs,” she said. “In addition to that, they may have to take public transit a fair distance on crowded routes to get to their jobs.”
There can be little doubt that reopened schools are also driving part of the second wave.
Yet despite this, on November 18 Ontario's Education Minister Stephen Lecce ruled out even extending the winter holiday break for students. New York, also facing a dangerous new coronavirus upswing, shut the school system down entirely on the same day Lecce baulked.
Open schools and open workplaces are directly related. Without schools and daycares being open many workers would be unable or would find it much more difficult to go to work, especially without additional supports. If you extend the winter break for students, that might mean some employers would have to extend the winter break for their employees.
With schools open workers can more easily be forced by to work and off of or away from federal assistance programs for those who cannot work.
Just as Lecce made his announcement, news came that in Toronto a school staff member had died of Covid-19, the first since schools reopened. While it was determined she did not get the virus at the school, she may have transmitted it there. 19 students are now self-isolating as a result. This is an example of exactly how outbreaks are fueled by re-openings. The virus is spread from the community to re-opened workplaces and schools and vice-versa. There is nothing at all controversial about stating this, but in practice governments like the one in Ontario don't wish to acknowledge it.
Of course the politicians and bosses want to shift the blame from the cruel social and economic conditions that they have created to focusing on "personal failings". These conditions, a direct result of decades of neo-liberal assaults on social programs and workers' rights, created perfect storm conditions for a situation like this. Shifting the blame and scapegoating to make systemic issues like poverty and homelessness about "individual responsibility" is what they have always done. They will try to do this again now when it comes to the pandemic.
Don't let them.