As of the May 3 election call, the pandemic had already taken the lives of nearly 13,000 Ontarians, amounting to our province’s worst disaster in our lifetimes. Despite having taken the decisions which set the stage for those mostly-avoidable deaths, the Ford Government has ducked any accountability for its actions and is doing worse than nothing to stave off the inevitable and potentially more deadly waves to come. For those reasons alone, Mr. Ford does not deserve re-election and most definitely must not be given another majority! How, if we still have a working democracy, could this not be the biggest issue of the campaign?
Under Canada’s Westminster-style parliamentary democracy, elections are our only opportunity to hold our leaders accountable for the actual consequences of the decisions which they made over the preceding four years and, if we’re not satisfied, to weigh both the promises of those who seek to replace them and the likelihood of those challengers delivering on their promises.
In 2003, the Ernie Eves PC Government faced a similar challenge in the equally virulent Toronto SARS coronavirus outbreak, which could easily have mushroomed into a global pandemic. To his credit, Mr. Eves called the on best infectious disease specialists to plan containment and his government scrupulously followed their every recommendation. It worked! Mr. Ford’s populist distain for experts, from-the-gut decision-making and pandering to his hard-right political base represents the antithesis of Mr. Eves’ success. We must therefore hold him to account for the decisions which he made during his first term in office. That’s only fair in a society like ours where we jail school bus drivers for the consequences of fatal, on-the-job errors in judgement.
2. Key pandemic decisions
Mr. Ford’s first deadly blunder, well before the pandemic’s arrival, was his reversal of Kathleen Wynne plan to hire more inspectors for long-term care facilities, including unscheduled inspections opposed by for-profit operators. That decision directly contributed to Ontario’s 5,400 first-wave deaths, most of whom were elderly but also included community transmission stemming from nursing homes. Kingston, whose nursing and retirement home populations are among the Province’s highest, had absolutely no first- or second-wave deaths. Our success was entirely attributable to a proactive Medical Officer of Heath sending inspectors to every such facility prior to COVID arriving in Kingston, requiring safeguards and then being first to impose a local mask mandate. His success proved that most of those deaths were in fact avoidable with the right leadership.
Ontario’s third wave was almost entirely the result of Mr. Ford jumping on then-declining rates of new cases to justify a premature reopening in spite of the fact that other countries were already succumbing to the Alpha variant. Had he heeded expert advice to keep existing public health measures in place, perhaps another 1,000 additional deaths could have been avoided.
The jurisdictions which have fared best in this pandemic have been those with decisive leaders who were in politics to advance their peoples’ interests rather than serving any particular ideology or being primarily focussed on securing their own re-election. Early actions to limit viral spread prevent the latest variant from becoming well entrenched and hence limit the severity and shorten the duration of a wave. As each successive wave rolled in, Mr. Ford tended to drag his heels on imposing restrictions when infections were on the rise and, like most other conservative premiers, eased them prematurely when the numbers began to decline.
What is perhaps most unforgiveable is the degree to which Mr. Ford has politicized public health to appease his political base. On December 31, he denied access to the PCR tests which drive official new-case statistics to some three-quarters of Ontarians, thereby rendering meaningless the daily numbers upon which we had all been judging our pandemic risks. That enabled him to falsely declare the pandemic “done” in mid-February and thereafter to quietly accede to all the truck-convoy protesters’ demands by lifting essentially all public health protections. Most Ontarians believed his deadly, self-serving misinformation and, among other precautions, increasingly stopped wearing masks in indoor public places. Most experts are on the Province’s payroll and therefore easily muzzled. Even school boards weren’t allowed to impose their own mask mandates, making schools a hotbed for increased community transmission.
The obvious question is how many extra deaths Mr. Ford believes justified by his re-election goals. Predictably, the actual rate of new cases (as estimated by prorating official new cases by the percent of people who now qualify for PCR tests) shot upwards in March and April once public health measures were removed. More new cases proportionately increase hospitalization and deaths. Modelling the resulting deaths in comparison to the trend lines prior to Mr. Ford’s reopening suggests well in excess of 500 additional deaths by Election Day (June 2). Most caring Ontarians would like believe that to be too many, but never once in this pandemic have we ever been given a voice on such tradeoffs. The only views which really drive Mr. Ford’s decisions appear to be those gleaned from detailed surveys of his right-wing political base.
3. Our pandemic future
The reality is that, regardless of what any politician says, the pandemic is far from over, and won’t be until and unless new generations of vaccines are developed that protect against all possible COVID variants and are administered to nearly everyone on the planet. At best, that’s years off. What current science tells us is that we were incredibly fortunate that, among the 50 or so new genes which made Omicron and its BA.2 subvariant so transmissible, some created a weakness which simultaneously made the virus more vulnerable to our interferon-mediated innate immune system. That’s why so few of the current infections take hold deep in our lungs, thereby mitigating the high hospitalization and death rates which characterized Omicron’s more virulent Delta predecessor. The virus will continue to spawn more variants. We have no reason to assume that the next one won’t combine Omicron’s transmissibility with Delta’s virulence.
Mr. Ford has subordinated public health to political considerations, essentially eliminated our ability to track the inevitable future waves, allowed the Province’s vaccination rates to stall (which means continuously waning protection) and convinced a large number of Ontarians that the proven public health measures which kept most of us safe for most of the pandemic are gone for good. In short, despite all those thousands of deaths and lessons learned, we are now exceedingly unprepared for the next, potentially more devastating wave.
4. What our next government needs to do
In order to properly honour the many thousands of Ontarians who needless died as a result of how we collectively chose our last provincial government, we should look for four traits from those who seek office in the current election: honesty (consistently giving us the timely and objective facts we need to manage our personal and family risks), open-mindedness (listening to independent experts who may not share their partisan political objectives), compassion (placing highest priority on protecting our and our families’ lives, and competence (creating a broadly-agreed framework for rapid response to future waves, one which will trigger appropriate actions whenever predefined thresholds in daily new cases and hospitalizations are exceeded).
The suggested framework should be based on understanding that the variants driving each new wave will continue to differ in their respective transmissibility and virulence. Thus, as Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Atlantic Canada and others learned the hard way, the combination of public health measures and vaccination levels which had successfully kept their respective populations mostly safe and mask-free through much of the pandemic proved insufficient to stop Delta and Omicron and therefore required significant change. We now have more than enough experience to develop such a model and fine-tune it with the emergence of each new variant,
Given that the virus is utterly unconcerned with what any politician may do, say or want, our next government should:
- engage in an urgent all-party consultative process in collaboration with independent experts to develop a pandemic response framework model to guide and manage Ontario’s response to developing waves;
- define a clear progression of severity levels with threshold triggers and required mitigation measures (e.g., mandatory masking in all indoor public spaces, including schools) at each such level;
- restore access to PCR testing for all Ontarians who are symptomatic or aware of having had close contact with a symptomatic person; and
- maintain Ontario’s current network of 34 Public Health Units, increase their funding and restore the authority of local Medical Officers of Health to impose local measures specified in the framework model with the approval of their local boards without awaiting central permission.
What we need to do to secure that government
All of the above strongly suggests that we Ontarians collectively ran a failed experiment four years ago when we replaced the under-appreciated but far more competent Kathleen Wynne with the highly under-qualified Mr. Ford and his gang of populist ideologues. That failure has cost an unthinkable number of us their lives. Given that Mr. Ford has yet to face any accountability for his failures and has given no signs of having learned from them, he doesn’t deserve a second term in office. Even more important, he should most definitely not be given a second majority. The risks and challenges that Ontario will face over the next four years, including more and potentially more deadly pandemic waves, are far too serious and too complex to entrust near-dictatorial powers to a leader such as he has shown himself to be. Government by one man’s gut instincts simply doesn’t cut it in today’s ever more complex world.
In order to thrive going forward, Ontario needs more and varied voices at the Cabinet table (not to mention a Cabinet that is independent of the non-elected, non-accountable advisers/courtiers who populate the Premier’s office), MPPs whose primary allegiance is to our needs rather than to Party discipline and blind loyalty to their leader. That requires a minority government. You can contribute to electing such a government while honouring our dead by taking at least some of the following actions:
- check out the voting projections for your riding (e.g., https://338canada.com/ontario/districts.htm) to determine if the PC candidate is leading or trailing;
- if the PC candidate is leading, decide which of the other candidates has the best chance of beating him/her and, if that candidate’s values are at all compatible with yours, give them your vote;
- if the PC candidate is trailing by a significant margin, decide which of the other candidates is most likely to represent your interests rather than being in it for themselves, and give them your vote;
- if you get a chance to question candidates at a meeting or at your door, ask them directly how, if elected, they would balance party loyalty with representing your best interests and those of your community; and to have a broader impact than just your own vote, please share this information and these suggestions with as many others in your circle as possible, and encourage them to further share in their circles; and
- vote soon and safely by registering right now for your mail-in ballot at https://votebymail.elections.on.ca.
You could make a positive difference!
May 15, 2022
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