Ontarians know what’s at stake with COVID-19 — and we’re screwing up

OPINION: We can blame Doug Ford for things he hasn’t done, that he’s been slow to do, or that he’s done badly. But he can’t stop people from making bad decisions
By Matt Gurney - Published on Jan 11, 2021
Cellphone data indicate that, the week before Boxing Day, over 101,500 people from Toronto, Peel, and York went to five malls in Halton and Durham. (Cole Burston/CP)

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It’s a strange Monday in the province. The premier has told us that new COVID-19 modelling is going to be a “wake-up call.” It’s going to cause people to “fall out of their chairs.” It is widely expected that the new modelling will result in further lockdown restrictions in the province; the school closures in southern Ontario have already been extended.

But that’s all for tomorrow. Monday ... we’re just waiting.

The pause will likely prove costly in lives. The government has fallen into the trap of reacting to events rather than heading them off. That’s bad. But worse, it’s reacting to them slowly. Given that all of COVID-19’s major indicators lag by weeks, any further delay for deliberation or hesitation after a trend becomes clear makes a bad situation worse. The steps that Ontario will announce this week will likely be steps that were obviously needed weeks ago — and will be justified with facts that were also obvious weeks ago. Doug Ford and his government will surely pay a political price for this.

But contrary to the above, and the two columns I wrote last week, I’m not sure he deserves all the blame he’ll get.

You’ve probably all heard that old joke. “How do you get 50 Canadians out of the swimming pool? You politely say, ‘Would everyone please get out of the pool? Thank you.’” There’s normally truth to that. We are a law-abiding, rule-respecting people. But there has been an obvious erosion in recent months. From my own personal vantage point, people more or less adhered to all restrictions during the first wave. But after the lull of a beautiful, warm summer, many seemed to never quite return to the state of vigilance that let us get through the first wave. The winter and spring had been scary and unpleasant, and a sizeable percentage of the population just chose not to go down that path again. They won’t have a choice, in the end, but I can understand the psychological reasons people just couldn’t go back to battlestations.

Overall, it’s not realistic to exect people to slavishly adhere to restrictions. Real life is more complicated than a list of rules and regulations. I know of many individuals and families who are not living up to the very letter of orders but are at least keeping to the spirit of them in a way that is responsible and will still meaningfully contribute to lowering the danger of COVID-19.

For educational and mental-health reasons, for instance, I know of a family that has bubbled with another family to pool resources and support. This is technically no longer permitted, but in the context of their specific situation, it is a reasonable adaptation to meet the challenging circumstances. There’s not a lot of forgiveness in the air for rule-breakers, not after the sad sight of our politicians scurrying home with remarkably good tans. But I think most of us would grant that reasonable people can make reasonable adjustments to suit their circumstances and still be acting in the broader public interest.

It’s a slippery slope, I know. It’s hard to hold yourself to a standard once you’ve given yourself one exception. It’s easier each time to make another and another. But it’s possible, and people are going to try to get on as best they can. Short of putting soldiers into the streets to enforce round-the-clock curfews, that’s just the reality.

My generosity of spirit for cautious, narrow bendings of the rules was pretty sorely tested by a story I read in the Toronto Star, though. A poll from earlier this month didn’t help either.

The Star story, citing cellphone mobility data the paper obtained, doesn’t contain anything most of us hadn’t guessed ourselves. The data, anonymized and collected in aggregate terms, can give a general sense of how much people are moving in a given area. Around Christmas and New Year’s, mobility was up. We can’t say why from the data, but we can infer that people were shopping, socializing, and visiting family. Unsurprisingly, cases spiked afterward, and the Star found that areas with outsized jumps in detected mobility also had big jumps in COVID-19 cases. More travel meant more cases.

This certainly fits with a recent Leger poll that found that half of Canadians socialized with family and friends over the holidays, despite advice or orders urging us not to. We didn’t listen, and here we are, just waiting to find out what the next round of lockdown (or is this an extension of the current one? — I’m losing track) will look like.

We can all blame Ford for things he hasn’t done, that he’s been slow to do, or that he’s done badly. That’s entirely legitimate. But anyone who is viewing the COVID-19 crisis in political instead of societal terms is doing themselves and the province a disservice. Politics matters; leadership matters. No doubt. But, at a certain point, you can’t stop people from making bad decisions unless you’re actually willing to use the coercive power of the state to do it. And that’s something we need to think really carefully about.

I have a grim sense of humour. Always have. It’s been helpful this past year. And someone asked me over the weekend, what can Ford actually do? They intended the question entirely sincerely, and there were a lot of ways I could have answered sincerely, but my damned sense of humour kicked in, and I had to suppress a wave of giggles. Because I was imagining Ford, red-faced with anger, wandering the streets of downtown Toronto and screaming, “STOP SOCIALIZING! STAY IN YOUR HOUSEHOLDS! WASH YOUR $#@&ING HANDS! COME ON! WE’VE BEEN OVER THIS!”

I’m not saying he will actually do this, nor that he should, to be clear! But, at a certain point, if the population has tuned you out and decided that it’s had enough, I’m not sure much less would work.

Look at the mobility data and polls about Christmas. Ontarians know the score. We know what’s at stake. We know what we have to do about it. Half of us partied anyway. That’s not a government failure at this point. That’s us, the public, screwing this up.

So, for now, we wait. We’ll get new modelling information Tuesday, and then we’ll learn what’s coming. And then we’ll wait to see whether people actually listen this time. And what the government is prepared to do if they don’t.

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