Ontario’s leadership has no excuses left for the third wave

OPINION: The province has failed, again, to contain the pandemic — and it’s even failed to admit that it’s failed
By Matt Gurney - Published on Apr 01, 2021
David Williams, Ontario’s chief medical officer (left), and Premier Doug Ford at a news conference at Queen’s Park on November 25, 2020. (Chris Young/CP)

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I’d hate to see what Chief Medical Officer of Health David Williams would agree was a failure. If this isn’t one, that’s ... horrifying.

My TVO.org colleague John Michael McGrath is developing a specialization in creating viral moments in Ontario public-health briefings. On Thursday morning, as provincial experts rolled out updated data and projections for Ontario’s third wave (the numbers are bad, folks), McGrath asked a question via telephone. “Dr. Williams,” he said, “this is a failure. This is a policy failure. We were warned about the third wave. We have failed to avoid it. Who is responsible for this failure? Did you give the cabinet bad advice, or did the cabinet fail to follow better advice that the public wasn’t made aware of?”

As Ontario prepares to lock down again — pardon me, it’s a shutdown now —  and with ICU’s bursting with more COVID-19 patients than ever, this is a pretty accurate and fair question. An important one! But Williams disagreed with its very premise.

“I don’t agree it’s a failure,” he answered. “All along, we said ... that we would have to monitor the situation. We have to increase our monitoring of the variants. We have to make recommendations as we did each week ... to the cabinet, to move more quickly, to move more health units into areas of lockdown, which we did — and increased the restrictions on each one all the way through. Those policies and regulations were enhanced and moved on as rapidly as possible. If you’ll recall, the original projection was that, if we didn’t do anything, that today, we would be at 5,000 to 6,000 cases a day. We are not there.” The doctor went on to agree that he wished the numbers were lower, of course. Me, too!

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Look, here are the facts: it’s certainly true that it would have been possible to fail worse than this. If I may paraphase our prime minister, worse is always possible. But a 28-day shutdown isn’t a victory lap and is obviously being done in face of tremendous opposition. The premier is doing this only to avoid a disaster.

But we haven’t failed. No, no, far from it. This isn’t a failure, because it could have been worse. And that’s how we manage unfolding disasters in Ontario: it doesn’t matter what’s happening or what has happened, so long as worse could have happened. It goes further than a Kranzian “failure is not an option.” This is taking us firmly into “failure is technically not even possible” territory.

Am I doing this right?

If you want to be charitable, it’s possible to imagine two scenarios that led us here that didn’t involve wilful blindness and incompetence. The first scenario is a simple miscalculation. If we’d been able to vaccinate slightly faster, maybe we’d have gotten ahead of the third wave. The Israelis and the British were fast to vaccinate and are seeing the real-world benefits of that now. France, just across the channel from the United Kingdom, wasn’t as fast and now faces a renewed national lockdown. The difference really was likely weeks — a month or two at most. This scenario is a bit of a stretch, admittedly, given the known problems Canada has had reliably securing vaccine imports to date. But hopes for a faster effort, or a slower third wave, might have guided Ontario’s planning. If so, that was a miscalculation, but a sincere one. Indeed, perhaps if the new variants weren’t attacking younger age cohorts with such devastating effect, it might have worked. If we were still dealing with “COVID Classic” instead of these new mutations, maybe we’d in a very different place today.

There’s another scenario, which I’ll still call “charitable,” though it certainly is veering to the cynical: the premier might have concluded that public opposition to more lockdowns — and internal opposition from his caucus and cabinet — made it politically impossible for him to move until the imminent danger was so obvious that even the doubters had been swayed to the cause of action. This scenario would raise all kinds of other problems we’ll have to think long and hard about, but it’s worth considering. This is a hard sell, I realize — why else would we have been talking about loosening restrictions just a week ago, only to snap them back into place now? Again, though. I’m aiming for charitable.

But that’s basically it. Either we bet it all on getting vaccinations done before the third wave hit — or we knew it was coming, and our leaders decided they needed more political cover before acting. It’s hard to think of any other even semi-plausible explanations beyond inaction leading predictably to failure.

Because that’s what this is. You will have noticed something above, astute readers: absolutely nothing just proposed comes close to meeting a definition of “success.” Even the charitable scenarios offered above that I’ve stretched till my joints pop can be described in one way: failures. Maybe innocent failures ... perhaps even unavoidable failures. But failures. To pretend otherwise is, at this point, not just inexplicable. It’s unforgivable.

And it’s also not new. The above-mentioned McGrath had his first viral moment a few weeks ago when, at a modelling update, he asked whether he was missing something or whether the models showed an imminent disaster. He was politely assured that he was not missing something, which was a delightful way to confirm that disaster did indeed loom. I, too, wrote about this not long ago, noting that everything we’d tried thus far, short of lockdowns, had failed, and asking what the plan was. There was no plan, alas, except to call the lockdown something different.

Great! Let’s get Williams an aircraft carrier and a big Mission Accomplished banner.

Folks, you’ve all heard the saying about how those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. There’s another one that applies here that you’ve probably also heard: the first step is admitting you have a problem. Ontario failed to contain the first wave, and that failure probably wasn’t avoidable. We tried to use a smarter, colour-coded system to stop a second wave, and that failed, too — but the effort was probably worth trying, even if the execution was at times underwhelming and included some outright failures (there’s that word again), especially in relation to long-term care. But a policy of phased, targeted restrictions itself was worthy of a shot.

And now? There’s just no excuse left for this third wave having gotten so large before anyone did anything about it. Ontario’s leadership has failed, again, to contain the pandemic and is now failing to admit the failure. This inspires absolutely no confidence that we’d be able avoid a fourth wave if it were entirely up to us.

It’s not. The vaccines are coming. They seem to work. We’ll be in a much better position in a few months. But let’s not pretend the interim period is anything but what it is: the opposite of success. A failure.

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