Living through the pandemic has been a weird experience for everyone. None of us have living memories of anything quite like it. When your favourite novel is about a pandemic that virtually destroys humanity and sets up an apocalyptic fight between the forces of good and evil, it’s maybe somewhat weirder even still.
But The Stand, by Stephen King, has often proven useful to me as this long age has dragged on. I’ve referred back to scenes from it more than once in my writing. As the fallout from the two reports on Ontario’s long-term-care system has settled in recent days, I’ve been thinking back to a scene early in the book, when one of the lead characters, confined to a military hospital as American authorities struggle to cope with a plague that is killing more than 99 per cent of everyone it infects, demands to know who’s responsible.
I won’t quote the entire section at length, although I’m tempted to. The precise words don’t matter. It was the insight of the scene that has stayed with me. After our hero demands to know who’s responsible for the disaster that has befallen America, an exhausted but wise medical official tells him warily that sometimes the blame for a failure stretches so far back, and in so many directions, that it becomes invisible.
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I’ve thought about that a lot during this pandemic, as our failures have accrued — especially our failures to learn from past crises, such as the SARS outbreak of 2003 or even the first wave of COVID-19. And it’s been especially top of mind while I’ve watched Long-Term Care Minister Merilee Fullerton and Premier Doug Ford field questions about responsibility for the disasters in our LTCs during the first and second waves. Both have said that they accept responsibility (Fullerton’s admission was highly conditional and theoretical; Ford’s was more direct and seemingly sincere). But ... what does that mean?
There are two layers to that question. One is moral, and the other is political. In the first wave, on either of those layers, what would taking responsibility for preventable death and suffering even have looked like? I genuinely don’t know. The pandemic hit an unprepared Ontario hard in the first wave; the long-term failures of preparedness there, subject of a recent column of mine here at TVO.org, were serious and damning.
But they probably were exactly the kind of failure King’s fictional doctor was musing about. It was such a gigantic failure, stretched over such a long period of time and across multiple governments of two different parties, that placing the final political or moral responsibility anywhere in particular, or on any particular official, would be functionally impossible. We can fire someone, or a bunch of someones, pour encourager les autres, but that buck doesn’t stop any particular place. Pinning the responsibility on this minister, or this government, is politically fair — being in government means taking the blame. Yet it’s not clear that the moral responsibility rests there.
But the second wave? That’s a wildly different situation. You can pin both political and moral responsibility on this government. The first wave was overwhelming in part because we’d let our defences atrophy, and the blame for that should be shared widely. The second, though, was both foreseeable and foreseen. And it still wasn’t handled well: more died in Ontario LTCs in the second wave than in the first. It was probably only the arrival of startlingly effective vaccines, which were rushed into LTC and nursing homes, that staved off disaster in the third. That was good luck — and I’ll take good luck. It’s a nice thing to have. But it’s no way to plan an emergency response.
The Ontario government likely couldn’t have avoided a second wave, but it could have moved faster to mitigate it. It certainly could have done more to protect the LTC homes. These are the real failures that Fullerton and Ford are talking about taking responsibility for. But how? By doing what?
Taking responsibility cannot be dumbed down to a mere acknowledgement of responsibility. But that’s where we stand now. Fullerton, grudgingly, and Ford, less grudgingly, have said they take responsibility for this disaster, but ... like, okay, what happens next? Is that all?
More people died in the second wave than had to. Many of them suffered terribly before they did. Their lives mattered. The grief of their families matters. We must be through some kind of looking glass if “taking responsibility” simply means admitting responsibility and then not facing any consequences.
And that brings us back to our layers: moral and political. Perhaps Fullerton and Ford are both haunted. This may be a charitable read, but indulge me in it: perhaps the failures haunt them and will forever. That might count as moral penance of a kind. But what about political responsibility? What will be done to show that there are tangible, real-world costs to disastrous failures? How will ministers and staff, both current and future, be shown that needless death and suffering are things they — and not just the victims — will actually pay a price for?
Right now, there seems no price to pay. The voters will eventually have their say on this specific matter and on the government’s performance generally. That’s something, I suppose. It’s how democracy works. But it’s a sad endnote to an already grim chapter that literally no one seems willing to truly take responsibility for anything at any time between trips to the ballot boxes — not even hundreds of avoidable, painful deaths.