It’s October, and COVID-19 is still moving faster than government

OPINION: If the Tories are going to keep the economic pain to bearable levels, they’ll need to figure out how to outpace a virus
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Oct 13, 2020
Premier Doug Ford and his medical team hold a press conference on October 2 about new COVID-19 restrictions. (Nathan Denette/CP)

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If you live in Ottawa, Peel, or Toronto, you spent the Thanksgiving long weekend enjoying the tender delights of what amounts to Stage 2 Lite: Bars and restaurants are closed again. Movie theatres, too. All in the hopes that we can bend the COVID-19 curve back downward and keep schools open. The decision came from Premier Doug Ford on Friday, after the province had reported 939 new cases — another record in a month that’s already set a bunch of them.

Ford has said repeatedly throughout the pandemic that he won’t hesitate to use the power of government to shut down businesses, when necessary, to protect public health, but there’s no way around this: he hesitated, on October 2, when Eileen de Villa, Toronto's medical officer of health, asked the province to do what he ended up doing on October 9. The premier says he needed more information, but, frankly, it’s not obvious what information he got over the ensuing week that made the difference. His medical advisers told reporters that updated modelling showed hospital capacity was at risk, but the information we were given on Friday wasn’t radically different from the modelling we’d seen on September 30, which spelled out the thresholds for protecting hospital capacity.

So why did it take a week to act? The province’s chief medical officer of health, David Williams, defended the lengthy decision-making process to reporters, explaining that the weekend had been spent trying to get more data to support de Villa’s request; additional data was provided by Public Health Ontario, and where there wasn’t data — “a paucity of some data points,” as Williams put it — they brought in more analysis and modelling.

But he also seemed to concede that the government had been lulled into a false sense that the outbreak had stabilized.

“Friday, remember, we were coasting and staying steady around 500 — the upper fives — and things weren’t progressing,” Williams added. “And then, all of the sudden, on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, our numbers of positive tests really started going up exponentially in the per cent range very rapidly.”

Neither the premier nor Williams wants to admit it, but this is what failure looks like. They were warned, they hesitated, and, because they didn’t act in time, the measures we need to take now will be more stringent and longer-lasting than they would have been if the province had acted sooner. Holding back because of a fear of hurting small businesses means they’ll be hurt even worse, and there will be people who get sick — and, yes, die — because this outbreak wasn’t brought under control sooner.

The case counts have been climbing since the middle of August, and they should’ve been cause for concern no later than mid-September. The government has tinkered around the edges with some measures — forcing bars to adopt earlier closing times was worth a shot! – but has made it clear for weeks that its primary goal was protecting businesses, as if everyone had forgotten the lesson from the spring that business can’t carry on while a pandemic rages.

Reporters (and, eventually, historians) will pore over the record of the government’s decisions: what should have been different, who should’ve acted sooner. Those details will be important, but, for now, the more critical point is that, once again, the government needs to understand that the virus can explode faster than it can make a decision — so it needs to get faster at making decisions.

There’s a concept from military aviation that’s used to train pilots in how to think during dogfights, the OODA loop. A pilot needs to observe (collect information), orient (analyze), decide (commit to a strategy), and act. The idea is that going through all those steps, over and over, faster than an enemy pilot, lets you get “inside their OODA loop” and prevail in combat, even if the other guy is flying a better or more heavily armed aircraft. The OODA loop concept has since been adopted in all sorts of other contexts from policing to business strategy, so clearly it’s useful outside the confines of an F-18 cockpit.

Strictly speaking, of course, SARS-CoV-2 can’t be “inside Ford’s OODA loop” — the virus has neither reason nor intent. But as an analysis of the government’s failures, this fits: the ponderously slow process by which the government has collected the data (or come to believe the data from local public-health officers), analyzed it, decided, and acted has allowed the disease to reach a level of infection that’s causing our testing and contact-tracing efforts to fall apart — making further iterations of the OODA loop even more difficult.

Part of the answer is personal. Ford and his cabinet, individuals with their own minds and motives, need to get speedier at making decisions and jettison the preoccupations that are slowing them down. But it’s also structural: Why, in 2020, wasn’t the government able to get the data it wanted in hours instead of days? In large part, because our public-health system was never built to make that kind of data collection easy and routine, despite the lessons of SARS. It’s easy to say the government needs to move faster — but it also needs to build the systems that make deliberate, reasoned speed possible.

For some businesses in the province’s three largest cities, it’s already too late: they may never recover from this new round of pandemic-control measures. But, with hard work, the damage doesn’t need to spread even further.

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