Ontario can’t fight COVID-19 without more social supports. So where are they?

OPINION: The government’s experts agree that the new lockdown can’t work without increased social supports for vulnerable individuals. But Doug Ford doesn’t seem interested in providing many
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Jan 12, 2021
Premier Doug Ford announced a new state of emergency during a press conference on January 12. (YouTube)

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During Tuesday afternoon’s announcement of a new state of emergency and a stay-at-home order for all of Ontario, Premier Doug Ford said his government is “doing everything in our power” to try to control the pandemic.

“Everything — day in, day out. Sleepless nights,” Ford told reporters. “This has been going on for 11 months without one day of break.”

That is false. As much as he is using the extensive powers that the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act give him to try to manage the truly terrifying phase of the pandemic his previous decisions have helped lead us to, he is not drawing on all the powers that he has as premier — more specifically, as the leader of a majority of MPPs in the legislature. And because he won’t do that, more Ontarians are going to get sick and die.

This is not simply my opinion. This is the message from public-health experts, both employed by the government and not. They have been clear for weeks, if not months: in order to control this pandemic, the government needs to do more to support the most vulnerable people in this province. People who are working in industries where physical distancing isn’t possible. People who are so poorly compensated for their work that they can’t afford to miss a day — and therefore go to work sick.

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In case there was any ambiguity, the University of Toronto’s Adalsteinn Brown and Barbara Yaffe, the associate chief medical officer of health, confirmed Tuesday, in answer to a question from TVO.org, that a pandemic response that relies solely on restricting individual movements — and provides no increased social supports — will not work.

The most direct way to support workers who are afraid to miss even a single shift — much less the two weeks a COVID-19 diagnosis could require — is the same it’s been since the pandemic began: giving them 10 days of paid sick leave not as a benefit they need to apply for, but as a guaranteed right under Ontario’s Employment Standards Act.

Given the economic chaos of the past year, it’s understandable that businesses would be afraid of the costs associated with paying out suddenly increased sick leave. Which is why the government should pay those costs for businesses: as has been true since the beginning of all this, government is the only conceivable actor that has the capacity to absorb such costs. It would be expensive, of course: potentially billions of dollars. But the alternative is people staying sicker longer, dying in greater numbers — and keeping the economy shut down.

The government could do this. But it would require Ford’s house leader to call the legislature back and introduce a bill to amend the ESA. The Tories could have done this at any time in the past year, and quickly: all the opposition parties at Queen’s Park support expanding sick leave, so the debate likely wouldn’t have been lengthy.

Instead, Ford says that his government doesn’t want to duplicate the existing federal sick-leave benefit. But the federal sick-leave benefit is obviously not working. It’s financially insufficient on its face, and, even if it weren’t, it’s difficult for workers to access, whereas sick leave guaranteed in the ESA would be automatic. And then, when we get to a level of vaccination that the government is confident will keep the general public safe, they can take it away just as we expect other COVID-19 measures to go away.

The government has — rightly — expanded and intensified public-health measures to try to reduce the level of COVID-19 infection. The previous measures did not work, because they were insufficient, because they were late, or, if we're honest, because too many Ontarians did not follow them as rigorously as they should have. So now Ontario needs to endure more severe orders. This is regrettable, but it’s at least understandable. It’s absurd for the government to, in the very next breath, insist that social supports don’t also need to be expanded.

“Paid sick leave” has become something of a shibboleth for Ford’s critics, so it’s important to note, for the sake of fairness sake, that the government hasn’t abandoned the province’s most vulnerable people entirely. Tuesday’s announcement came with the news that the government is pursuing a second moratorium on evictions for residential tenants, which is welcome. And late in December — too late, frankly — the government also announced more funding for supported isolation centres (“COVID hotels”).

But if existing social supports were sufficient, the premier wouldn’t have needed to announce a second state of emergency. More is needed, and some of it can be accomplished only by bringing MPPs back to the legislature to do the work of passing new laws. If the premier won’t do that, he needs to stop telling the people of this province that he’s doing everything he can, when everyone can see that he isn’t.

This column was updated at 4:42 p.m.

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