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  • Writer's pictureMichael Laxer

Pandemic approach in Ontario prioritizes business over people

Headlines like "Ford eases COVID-19 restrictions as Ontario case count hits new high" reflect the dangerous priorities and bizarre air of unreality gripping the Ford government.

If one were to want to sum up the bizarre and dangerous situation we find ourselves in with the capitalist coronavirus crisis and the government of Ontario during this intensifying "second wave", this headline from November 4 would work very well:

As the number of cases in Ontario climb daily to ever new heights -- with no downturn at all in sight -- the Ford government appears to be caving to demands from some in the small business and service sector community, which is admittedly a core Conservative constituency. This means re-openings of indoor restaurant dining spaces and gyms are happening in many places despite the numbers.

CTV noted that public health experts in Ontario called the government's new tiered and colour-coded approach -- which allows different levels of reopening based on local factors -- "scientifically illiterate" and "dismaying," saying that the "system will light an inferno rather than snuff out the pandemic." This is due to the fact that the factors being used to determine what level an area is at seem heavily geared towards reopening:

While many public health experts agree with the concept of having a set of guidelines for when health units need to implement further restrictions, many feel as though the plan presented this week is lacking in details and includes dangerously high thresholds that have to be met.
“The fire is going to go out of control,” said Dr. Anna Banerji, infectious disease specialist and associate professor of pediatrics with Dalla Lana School of Public Health. “They're watching one fire in one area, and they've got their back turned to the inferno behind them.”
Multiple experts said that the 10 per cent positivity rate and the 100 per 100,000 weekly incident rates needed to move to a red (control) level is too high.
Regions that are within the red level are expected to revert back to a version of the province’s modified Stage 2 approach, which means limiting indoor dining to 10 people and closes most gyms.
Amir Attaran, a professor of law and public health at the University of Ottawa, says that the thresholds for moving to a control level are “absurdly, dangerously high.”
“The criteria there for weekly incidents and for test positivity aren't met in the vast majority of the United States,” he said.
“So what the province is saying is that the situation in Ontario has to deteriorate beyond most of the United States, which as we know is a disaster, before they will implement that degree of control.”

As cases rise the danger becomes more acute as hospital beds fill up. As we looked at back in March during the first wave of the pandemic, decades of austerity and cutbacks in Ontario have left the province in a precarious position to begin with.

Acute beds filling up with patients with Covid obviously means fewer beds for patients with other conditions, a prospect that is leading to a great deal of alarm for some doctors.

Cancer surgeon Dr. Shady Ashamalla in Toronto told CTV that “Day over day we are getting worse. The seven day trends are getting worse. And for the government to allow indoor activity without a mask, we know that increases transmission [which] comes with an increased hospitalization rate -- and we know we can’t sustain these numbers forever.”

In very stark terms Ashmalla said “When someone has cancer, if you don’t take it out with surgery that has a hundred per cent mortality. It’s very difficult to tell people we are prioritizing indoor dining over taking out their cancers.”

But that, of course, is exactly what is happening.

When the November 4 headline was published Ontario had just seen an "unprecedented 1,050 new cases of COVID-19" the previous day. A week later saw "1,388 infections on Tuesday and 15 more deaths related to the disease." 520 of these were in Toronto alone.

This is leading to some sense that no matter how much the Ford government wants to see business as usual, things may be spiraling dangerously out-of-control.

Toronto has somewhat accepted the need to act and the Mayor, John Tory and Toronto's Medical Officer of Health Dr. Eileen de Villa announced November 10 "stricter safety measures that will prohibit indoor dining and keep certain businesses closed for at least 28 days."

But there is an air of unreality that hangs over all these decisions. A rather obvious unwillingness to accept the actual consequences of previous and ongoing choices. You see it in the lack of a response to a media question about the likely correlation between school re-openings and the huge increase in cases among those under 19:

You see it as well when Ford said November 10: "If the numbers get totally out of control, I won't hesitate to do what it takes to protect the health and safety of the people."

Given that dramatic rise in cases just what constitutes "out-of-control" for Ford? Things being much, much worse than very, very bad?

Re-opening schools and re-opening workplaces are, obviously, directly related. And keeping workplaces open and trying to get the system and economy as it is constructed back on course is the priority, even more it seems than public health.

The system we have built was definitely not constructed for a situation like this. People being out of work or on programs like the CERB indefinitely will lead to mass evictions, foreclosures, bankruptcies and, in a nightmare scenario from the point of view of any government in the country, a bursting of the housing bubble. This bubble, while terrible for people and the cost of housing, has been artificially sustaining much of the Canadian economy for years.

Governments have reason to be concerned. The economic destabilization and dislocation the pandemic is causing has been of great benefit to many billionaires, but its more damaging consequences are falling squarely on the backs of workers. In Europe, where the second wave is also raging, there is growing mass discontent and civil unrest. It is just a matter of time before this happens here as well and the "heroes" of the first wave, like Ontario Premier Doug Ford, become recast in the popular imagination as villains.

The coronavirus bailed Ford out of immense unpopularity but it can easily reverse this.

As a result, as of November 12 Manitoba is taking drastic steps. Non-essential "retail outlets will be limited to curbside pickup and delivery, and churches will not have in-person gatherings. Social gatherings with anyone other than household members will be forbidden, and restaurants, museums, theatres and recreational activities must close."

Despite the desires of the business community and the Ford government it is hard not to think that Ontario will either be following suit soon enough or facing case numbers that would have been unimaginable even just a month ago.


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