Closures (alone) aren’t working: Ontario needs to make it easier to do the right thing

OPINION: The pandemic is spreading through hot spots like wildfire, and closures aren’t stopping it. The province needs to go big with new measures to make it easier for people to stop the spread
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Nov 11, 2020
A number of public health-measures will be introduced in Toronto on November 14. (Rachel Verbin/CP)

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COVID-19 is winning in Ontario, and it’s not going to stop winning unless we change what we’re doing.

How bad are things right now? Forgive the following grim litany, but it’s important to be clear about this. Most important, there are the deaths. More than 300 people have died from COVID-19 since October 1, almost certainly more than died through all of July, August, and September combined. As in the spring, these deaths are concentrated in long-term care, making a sad joke of the government’s promise to build an “iron ring” to keep people in nursing homes safe. Each of these deaths was preventable, and each death leaves a family in mourning.

But the deaths are only the terminal result of the virus’s spread across the rest of Ontario, and there, too, the numbers are grim. We became inured, early in the fall, to the reports of 600, 700, 800 cases per day — faster growth than the province had seen at the peak of the spring wave; we’ve now got more than 1,000 new cases every day and more than 10,000 people actively sick with the virus. Most of these people will fully recover, but many thousands won’t, and caring for COVID-19 “long haulers” is going to be part of the pandemic’s story long after we have a working vaccine.

The province’s schools have been mercifully stable despite the surge in cases, but we can’t be complacent: twice this week, the number of daily new cases among students has hit more than 100, and the number of schools with cases jumped to 654. There are many possible explanations for the rise, but the simplest is that the province is now seeing outbreaks in places that had been free or nearly free of the disease for months. Sudbury and Thunder Bay, which had gone months with zero cases or one new case per day, reported dozens in the past week, pushing their case incidence to 19.1 and 12.7 per 100,000, respectively. One of the only clear thresholds for moving out of the Green/Prevent stage under the province’s new colour-coded framework is a region’s being above 10 cases per 100,000 — and if Sudbury’s cases keep growing, it’ll quickly become a candidate for moving not just into Yellow/Protect but also into Orange/Restrict, the last stage before such things as indoor dining at bars and restaurants become impossible.

About the only bright spot in the fall wave so far can be found in Ottawa and the Eastern Ontario Health Unit area, where (fingers crossed) the second wave does seem to be receding.

It is no wonder, with all this sickness and death, that in both Peel and Toronto the local medical officers have endorsed measures substantially stricter than those required by the province. These measures — such as keeping bars and restaurants closed for indoor dining — will cause real pain and hardship, and it’s good that the government is extending financial relief to those businesses.

But it’s not just businesses that need support right now, even though the Tories seem single-mindedly fixated on them. The assertion, early in the pandemic, that the only way to save the economy was to beat the virus is still obviously true, but some leaders seem convinced that it also works in reverse — that so long as we reopen businesses, we can declare the virus beaten. Epidemiologists beg to differ.

Premier Doug Ford and his medical advisers have been issuing increasingly urgent pleas for individuals to exhibit good behaviour: to not have indoor gatherings, to not go to work sick, and to follow all the rules we’ve had drilled into us since the pandemic began. There are real limits to what any government can do in the face of personal irresponsibility, and I don’t know what to tell people who are still having large indoor gatherings at their homes in November of the Year of Our Lord 2020. But the government hasn’t come close to exhausting its options, either.

If people aren’t doing the right things, the province could do more than just plead; it could make it easier for them to do the right thing. Sick people should be self-isolating at home, but we know that COVID-19 is spreading especially quickly in communities where that’s difficult or impossible for many — they live in crowded conditions, often with large families, and self-isolation is a tall order. Yet there’s been relatively little work done to offer people alternatives. Toronto opened a voluntary isolation centre in September for people who need it, and one was announced for Peel region this week. Toronto’s has 140 rooms; the city could probably fill 10 times that number and still not have exhausted the need.

And if people are going to work sick, the province needs to do more to reassure them not only that their jobs are safe but also that their paycheques are, too. Ford has resisted extending paid sick leave for fear of the costs it would impose on businesses, and instead we’re getting a surge of COVID-19 cases that will be vastly more costly. The federal government has tried to fill the gap left by the provinces, but it would be better for everyone if the province were simply to make it a clear (albeit temporary) entitlement under Ontario’s labour laws.

We shut down indoor dining and drinking in Toronto on October 10, when the city first started seeing 300-plus cases per day. A month later, Toronto is reporting 400 and even 500 cases per day. That doesn’t mean the shutdown wasn’t necessary; it just means that it isn’t enough. We can continue with more painful measures to try to control the spread of COVID-19, or the province can try something different. At this rate, we’re looking at a pretty miserable Christmas unless something changes, and quickly.

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