#onpoli newsletter: How Ontario is responding to COVID-19

It has been a long week in Ontario and across the country dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak, and it’s only Tuesday.
By TVO Current Affairs - Published on Mar 24, 2020
Eileen de Villa, Toronto's medical officer of health. (Chris Young/CP)



It has been a long week in Ontario and across the country, and it’s only Tuesday. This week in the #onpoli newsletter, podcast hosts Steve Paikin and John Michael McGrath examine how politicians and public health experts have managed the deluge of information and worry from the COVID-19 outbreak.

empty shelves

Panic buying has left many Ontario grocery store shelves bare. (Source: iStock/Cunaplus_M.Faba)

Uncharted waters 

Steve Paikin: Well, this has certainly been an unprecedented week for provincial decision-makers, John Michael. Our publicly-funded schools are closed; our sports teams are on hiatus; weddings and birthday parties are being cancelled; heck, they're even shuttering the casinos. I went to my local mall on the weekend and for a Saturday afternoon, it was shockingly empty, with one exception — the grocery store, which was quite busy and featured more empty shelves than I can ever recall seeing. Fortunately, the LCBO is still open in case we need to drown our sorrows. What are you seeing on your end of things? 

John Michael McGrath: Well, Queen's Park was always going to be quiet this week: MPPs have their regularly scheduled spring break, and they've mostly gone back to their ridings. But now, we don't know when they'll come back, or for how long. The government could extend the adjournment in the name of public health, in part to protect the hundreds of staff (both political and non-political) who must come to work when the house is in session. On the other hand, the government announced Monday morning that they're already drafting new legislation to try and contain the harms to workers, promising that people who have to self-isolate due to the virus, or are simply stuck at home because their kids' school is closed, won't lose their jobs. The catch is they need to bring MPPs back to Queen's Park to pass a new law, and there may be more they need to do.

How will the government balance these factors? Get used to hearing this a lot: I don't know. The government, as much as anyone, is in uncharted waters here.

Experts at the helm 

Steve: I have to say, one thing I've appreciated seeing is that when important announcements or updates need to be made, it's the professional public health experts that are making them. They know their stuff. They convey accurate information and competence. Contrast that with what we've been seeing out of the White House, which has been downright embarrassing. At first, U.S. President Donald Trump insisted that criticism of his handling of the COVID-19 crisis was a Democratic “hoax” designed to derail his presidency. He made a point of shaking hands with everyone.Then he said the coronavirus would burn itself out.
Useful, accurate, direct information calmly presented is what's needed right now. Praise ought to go to Eileen de Villa, Toronto's medical officer of health, who similarly conveys quiet competence and doesn't get too far out over her skis.

John Michael: I couldn't agree more. I suppose the comforting irony people should take away from Canada's response so far is that none of it really hinges on the guy in charge. There was a lot of system-building and plan-making after SARS in 2003, and most of the response so far from elected officials has, quite rightly, been to make resources available and follow the lead of medical experts.  There are still going to be decisions that only politicians can make coming in the future, especially dealing with the economic fallout from all this. At the risk of being too optimistic, I think Ontarians are going to see just how fast, and how effectively, their government can move in a crisis.

'Speed trumps perfection'

Steve: Indeed. They got out of the gate quickly with the school closures announcement, and now we've seen dozens of jurisdictions in North America follow suit. The city of Toronto has also announced the closure of dine-in restaurants and bars. But I have other questions. They've ramped up resources to Telehealth Ontario, but are people still going to be on hold for hours waiting for information, as they have been so far? Will people manifesting symptoms of COVID-19 be able to get tested? Is it time to marshall the resources of private labs as well? Every expert says the biggest mistake governments make is to wait for perfection before doing anything. "Speed trumps perfection," one said. "If you need to be right before you move, you will never win." An admonition worth heeding. 

John Michael: On that note, we should let our readers know that we're making every effort to keep people at TVO safe for the duration, and it might be noticeable in our programming. For the podcast, we'll be moving to remote interviews, and that may affect things like audio quality. Bear with us, folks. As I write this, I'll be heading into the office shortly to pick up some equipment so that I can record from home if necessary. We'll be doing our best to keep people informed while staying safe, and we hope you all do your best, too. And, whenever possible, remember kindness: we only get through this together.

Just a reminder...

The #onpoli podcast is taking a break this week, but we will return shortly with new episodes focused on the COVID-19 outbreak. In the meantime, you cancatch up on our past episodes.

Have thoughts on the show? Tell us what you think at onpolitics@tvo.org

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