Coronavirus 11: third wave’s the charm

It’s rare that a policy decision meets with almost universal disdain and derision. Angering and disappointing detractors and supporters in equal measure, while still not really addressing the root problem, takes a special kind of skill. We here in Ontario were witness to just such a total collapse of governance on April 16, when provincial premier Doug Ford announced a raft of new measures to combat an alarming, steep, and utterly predictable spike in covid-19 cases, ICU admissions, and deaths in this province over the last few weeks. “Predictable” doesn’t really capture, though, the inevitability of the moment in which Ontarians now find themselves. For weeks, dating back to the easing of a province-wide lockdown in late January and early February, medical experts had been stating that restrictions were being eased too quickly, that coronavirus variants were circulating and threatened to spike as they became dominant over the next two months, and that without extra capacity in the health system and some combination of restrictions, support, and targeted vaccination programs, the third wave would be far worse than the first two. And so it is — the rolling daily average of new cases is hovering just under 5000 but going up, ICU capacity and health workers are strained to breaking, and more transmissible and possibly more lethal variants make up about two-thirds of new cases.

In the face of these disastrous trends, the Ford government has lost the plot. The April 16 orders basically closed outdoor public spaces, permitted local and provincial police massively expanded powers to enforce the stay-at-home order, placed further restrictions on non-essential businesses, turned down an offer to have the Canadian Red Cross assist in vaccination and contact tracing programs, and stubbornly ignored the constant drumbeat of public health advice stating the obvious need for some kind of paid sick leave, all while blaming vaccine supply, the federal government, and individuals who don’t follow the rules.

To put this in perspective for those not in Ontario and with little background on what’s going on here, let me put it like this. I can continue to send my toddler to a child care facility (and they are great, no complaints) where he and 14 other kids sneeze on each other all day, but I cannot take him to a public playground. Of course, the tremendous and immediate blowback forced the premier to change course on the playground issue just 24 hours later, and he announced via tweet that playgrounds would not close while wagging his finger about outdoor gatherings of any sort. I can go to Costco and roam around for two hours and buy a long list of what some may consider non-essential items, but I cannot have a friend over for a beer in the backyard. I can go to work at an Amazon warehouse in the Toronto exurbs or a tool and die plant in Oshawa, get covid working shoulder to shoulder with others, take it home to my family, and then get fired by the temp agency for whom I actually work for missing shifts, but I can’t take paid time off work despite this being the one big thing that has been demanded over and over by health officials and the public and yet not even talked about by a government that consistently claims “all options are on the table” for battling the pandemic. And all this after weeks of a dithering vaccination campaign that, while it has picked up speed lately (and promises to expand more rapidly as the province finally opens up access to more shots to more people), still lags behind where it could be if the provincial government took it all more seriously and accounted for glaring disparities in health care access.

Now, medical experts are not elected officials. They are responsible for providing scientifically-founded and data-driven advice and information to elected representatives and the public at large. I don’t want them running things, as that is not their job, and they are not responsible for managing the many social interests that lay claim to the government’s attention. I heard one Toronto-based doctor on CBC several weeks ago demanding checkpoints between regions in Ontario as if that would stop covid from tearing through workplaces in the Toronto region and Golden Horseshoe, since this is absolutely what is driving the current wave and making province-wide numbers spike. This is not the kind of person I want in charge, and just crying “listen to science!” is not a workable public policy. But when a long list of doctors, medical officers of health (the top public health official in each of Ontario’s 34 regional public health units), and the province’s covid modelling team all say PAID SICK LEAVE NOW, maybe they should be listened to. This critical care doctor explained the urgency of the situation on CBC after Ford announced his measures:

So there is rightly a lot of anger, grief, and confusion across Canada’s most populous province right now. There are far more details and backstory leading up to the most recent policy disaster and the public health and social disasters that will follow, but it is, frankly, exhausting to discuss in detail. Toronto has been in some sort of lockdown since November. Windsor’s vital social connections to Detroit across the border have atrophied with the year-plus-long border closure. Immigrant and poor communities across urban and rural contexts have again been forgotten by those in power. And working people continue to be expendable as long as The Economy keeps humming along. These are, of course, fundamental problems across the western world and Ontario is not unique in terms of its government’s inability to adequately contain covid and kickstart some kind of lasting economic and social recovery. We’re still in the middle of this, even if mass vaccination programs offer a real glimmer of hope within the next several months.

Yet here we are. Cases will still climb sharply for the next week or two before the efficacy of more stringent closures and restrictions on movement take hold, but with nothing really being done to support those in workplaces where covid is spreading the most easily and widely, the overall impact is not what it could or should be. So, looking beyond the short-term disaster of the next few weeks and the period of settling and then cautious reopening that comes after, what does Ontario’s third wave of covid, and the Ford government’s incompetence in response, tell us about our current historical moment, politically and socially? There are two points here I want to highlight: first, that this is the apotheosis of neoliberal destruction of working class movements and institutions, especially labour unions; and second, that this blundering through covid demonstrates the final dead-end of the liberal political imagination.

First then, one of the major underlying conditions in Ontario’s covid response and disaster is the labour movement’s weakness in addressing the pandemic as a workplace issue, leading to grave public health outcomes overall. Again, this is not unique to Ontario. But the framing of covid as a problem of personal responsibility, following and enforcing rules (especially when the rules are often arcane, ineffective, and arbitrary), and watching out when you’re at the big box store has meant basic questions of workplace safety and workers’ rights in the face of a historic public health crisis just don’t get asked when and where they need to be. Without a robust and well-organized labour movement that can draw on the power of institutionalized access to the levers of decision-making in the workplace, you’re left with the dictatorship of the boss and the negligence of half-assed public policy. So rather than discuss why immigrant and racialized communities in the GTA are suffering the worst of the third wave, and how patterns of work and commuting that dominate their daily lives contribute to that, we instead get moralizing about people not following social distancing rules at parks and debates over which items should be allowed to be sold at which stores during lockdown. Unions are absent at the small manufacturing supply plants and crowded warehouses where covid is spreading, and so who can advocate for workers facing exposure? Without seriously confronting the fact that broader social inequities are hard-baked into the unequal and deeply exploitative economy Ontario has built through neoliberal reforms dating back three decades, there is no hope that the current measures will do anything more than bring us back to the status quo ante from before the third wave. The Ford government’s absolute refusal to support workers in the most basic ways demonstrates the extent to which ideological concerns drive the covid response. It was the same in the first wave a year ago, when covid was ripping through long-term care homes for the elderly. Unsurprisingly, this was the one part of the Ontario health care system where privatization had gone furthest, and where terrible conditions of work led to unchecked viral spread among care workers and residents alike. Similarly, agricultural workers, almost all temporary workers from Latin America and the Caribbean, faced outsized exposure risks last summer here in my local region of Windsor and Essex County in crowded greenhouses and bunkhouses. Covid is, in Ontario, a workplace issue, but it is not addressed as such, and this is the logical result of stripping workers of their voice and power in the economic and managerial structures that dominate their lives.

The second point is broader, and the condition it names therefore more ubiquitous and more stultifying than the singular erosion of labour movement power, and it is this: among the political, economic, and social elite and in the halls of government, political imagination is dead and buried. Let’s bring this down to earth in a real, hard way in the example of Doug Ford’s Ontario. I am not going to fault him and his Conservative majority for not having all the answers. As stated above, no government anywhere in the world has figured out how to handle the multi-faceted crisis that the pandemic presents without some hiccups. And in the western liberal democracies and their various subnational jurisdictions, there is a lot of variation on the single theme of lockdown as the appropriate answer to covid. But that merely addresses the viral spread, it doesn’t really get at the multitude of other social and economic effects of covid or the secondary knock-on effects of lockdown: disrupted economic activity, strained health systems, people who will suffer “long covid” for years to come, disrupted schooling for children, mental health impacts, and on and on. There are no easy answers, and policy makers face a series of almost unwinnable situations. But Doug Ford has taken unwinnable to new heights, and the disastrous rollout of restrictions in response to the third wave the past few days is his masterpiece. The approach Ford’s government has taken all along has been concerned with public relations and optics first, shirking responsibility and attempting to score partisan points while trying hard to look like they’re making tough decisions but without having to think much beyond the ideological box they brought with them when first elected in 2018. Thus the reluctance to pull the trigger on some kind of paid sick leave but constant reminders that “we’re all in this together” after cutting or simply not spending hundreds of millions of dollars budgeted for public health and child care just before the pandemic hit. The emergency sick leave provisions are the most glaring issue, with Ford saying as recently as mid-February that these are a “waste [of] taxpayers’ money.” In fact, not long after taking office, Ford canceled a provincial program to provide two days of paid leave that had been put in place under the previous Liberal government led by Kathleen Wynne.

The front page of the April 17, 2021 Toronto Star provides a sense of how Ford’s new restrictions were greeted across the province.

The newest restrictions reveal more than anything else, however, the limits of political imagination in the age of global catastrophes like the covid pandemic and climate change. The response has been technocratic since day one, relying on quantitative measures backed by modeling data to determine regional health units’ standing in a color-coded lockdown scheme undermined by long lists of exemptions, but often ignoring actual data and using the fog of statistics to advance ideologically-driven decisions. The most recent restrictions were par for the course, except in two major respects: one, they so fully ignored the reality of widespread pandemic fatigue and of the actual spread of covid that it is impossible to present them as fit for purpose amid this third wave; and two, they were so thoroughly off the mark that even police departments across the province said they wouldn’t enforce them, despite the expanded powers they give the police (well, would have given, since this has now been reversed after public outcry). This suggests Ford and his cabinet either did not consult with any police forces before announcing the new orders, or simply assumed that municipal and regional police would gladly go along, despite the expanded powers inviting widespread racial profiling, any number of court challenges, and a massive waste of officers’ time and energy. If you are a contemporary conservative party inhabiting the mainstream of the political right wing, and the police refuse to accept your generous offer of basically unchecked power to stop anyone for any reason, well, you need to ask yourself what exactly you’re doing in power and how long it’ll take to pack your bags.

So we have in Ontario a government exhibiting an inability to think or plan beyond narrow ideological frames that aim primarily to cut taxes, discipline the poor, and fight inane culture wars. There is nothing else beyond this the Ford government offers in this moment of crisis, except to fall back on harder and harder restrictions, which continue to exempt certain employers while doing very little to provide short-term relief in the hardest-hit communities or to set the groundwork for long-term rebuilding of the economy, the social safety net, or the collective psyche. The most recent measures angered those who want a data-driven response because they clearly ignore the data on covid’s spread in the GTA. They angered those on the right who already find restrictions and masking and closures an erosion of civil rights and personal freedoms because they empowered the police beyond all reason. They angered those on the left because they doubled down on the same corporate-centered policy response of the past 14 months while ignoring common sense measures that would help workers. There is nothing that would indicate anything more sensible is on the way, save for a wider opening of vaccine eligibility beginning this week, a decision itself driven by public outcry about hundreds of thousands of doses of AstraZeneca vaccine sitting in fridges unused. Ford even has threatened to suspend the provincial legislature this week, ostensibly for safety reasons but perhaps also because he is losing the support of Conservative Party backbenchers in the weeks before a major budget bill needs votes.

We should ask of course what else or more could be done, as lockdowns that restrict non-essential movement, economic activity, and social gatherings do work to bring down case numbers over time. There are potentially a lot of things government could do or enable, but simply won’t. The last 40 years have thoroughly constrained public and political discourse so that the very idea of a public good has withered, leaving us with the brute force of simple cost-benefit analysis and concerns about taxpayers’ money as the primary guides for what is possible, what is right, and what is good in public policy. The pandemic has shown how limited this approach is, and Doug Ford’s abysmal performance as Ontario’s premier demonstrates how this has failed us all.

Header image from a rally for paid sick leave, Queen’s Park in Toronto, Jan 2021 (Photo: The Canadian Press/Cole Burston), story on CTV Toronto.