Ontario’s pandemic communications have been an unqualified shambles

OPINION: The province’s chief public-health officer says “the messaging has been clear.” It has been anything but
By Matt Gurney - Published on Oct 15, 2020
David Williams, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, has been criticized for ineffective communications regarding COVID-19. (Christopher Katsarov/CP)

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My Twitter feed exploded with anger and amusement a few days ago when David Williams, Ontario’s chief public-health officer, asserted that the province’s public-health information during the pandemic has been clearly and effectively communicated. “I think the messaging has been clear,” he said.

Friends, it has not been.

Williams has taken a lot of fire in recent months. Some of it deserved: the comms really have been terrible. But I’ve often thought about the role cruel fate plays in all this. Some of us are naturally hard-wired to thrive in a crisis, even if that crisis breaks others — indeed, they may not be of much use outside of a crisis. Others among us are better in what I’ll generally term “peacetime” — we’re good at doing our jobs, maybe even really good at doing our jobs, under relatively normal circumstances, but struggle to adapt to crises. And I wonder whether, in a slightly different universe where a few key people sneezed into their elbows and the COVID-19 pandemic never happened, Williams would have enjoyed a long career of dignified, quiet and effective service, completely out of the public spotlight — the best chief public-health officer Ontarians never heard of.

Alas, dear reader, we’re stuck in this universe, and for the time being, at least, with Williams and his communications. If we can call them that.

I noted in a column here just two weeks ago that “the state of communication between the province’s top health authorities, school boards, principals, teachers, and parents cannot be described in any term that’s fit to print. It’s a disaster.” I noted later that, “The latest communication from my childrens’ school, for the first time, carried a real note of exasperation.”

Gosh. If only me-of-two-weeks-ago could read the emails I’m getting now.

Last week, Ontario reverted to a modified Stage 2 in certain regions (and, speaking of communications, I mean … come on). Ottawa, Toronto, and Peel Region were rolled back to the modified Stage 2 due to soaring case counts, overwhelmed testing systems, and increasing hospitalization rates — these are all bad things. In Toronto, the city also imposed even more restrictions on activities and facilities in its own jurisdiction.

And boy. Gosh. Did my email get weird.

The problem, this time, wasn’t schools. The modified Stage 2 didn’t directly affect them. But both of my children take part in extracurricular activities. My son loves hockey and was set to play three times a week (so long, all other facets of my life), plus Beavers. My daughter does gymnastics and Brownies. There are also some former activities they both previously partook in that I’m still on mailing lists for, as punishment for my sins.

And no one had a frickin’ clue what the hell was going on.

Beavers and Brownies, at least, could just quickly revert to virtual meetings. Easy-peasy. The sports, though, proved difficult. At first, my son’s hockey league believed it could continue with practices but no games or scrimmages. But the rinks weren’t sure if they were allowed to open. Then it was determined that some could open, but not others — but the leagues had ice time booked across multiple facilities, so the schedule was thrown into disarray. The league just said forget it and cancelled everything until the end of the year. So then the parents tried to figure out what could be arranged on an ad hoc basis by just renting the ice that had just become available in the facilities that were still allowed to be open. But the rinks didn’t understand yet what rules would apply to them, so while they were more than happy to take deposits, they couldn’t provide forms that the teams needed to give to the insurers. And no one wanted to book ice without insurance!

So that all fell apart. And then by the time the outstanding questions were settled, it didn’t matter anyway, since the guidance on how many players were allowed on the ice was clarified — clarified downward, that is — such that you couldn’t get a whole team on the ice at the same time anyway.

This all took about 10 days to figure out, and the delay was entirely because no one could ascertain what the rules actually were. Everyone had to talk to someone else and clarify something with still another person. It was amusing to watch, but only because I’m emotionally broken that way. I commented to my wife as we read through the latest volley of emails that we should just make Premier Doug Ford or Williams himself the hockey-league convener. Cut out the middle men, as it were. Hey Doug and Dave: Can we play, or what?

Oh, and for additional fun, some hockey leagues are continuing … in some form, until further notice, possibly. My poor niece won’t find out whether she has a game each morning until the night before … at best. Sometimes it might just be surprise hockey. There are worse ways to start a day, but come on.

It was similar for my daughter’s gymnastics. Are gymnasiums gyms? That’s not wordplay. That was the crux of the ambiguity. Etymology aside, it wasn’t clear to the gym owners whether their gymnastics centre was, by provincial or municipal definition, a recreational facility or, well, an indoor gym. They originally chose to proceed on the assumption that they were a recreational facility, not a gym, but after a meeting on the weekend, parents got a further update, shutting the facilities down for a month. It included this absolute gem of a line: “We had hoped [a meeting with provincial officials] would result in additional information about gymnastics clubs. We were informed that no definitive answers were received and, therefore, we are considering the factors outlined in the new restrictions as best as we can. In accordance with the new measures, an extremely difficult decision has been made to pause all recreational classes effective immediately.”

We should frame that. That might well be the defining sentence pair of Ontario’s pandemic response right there. We hoped for more info, but did not get it. No kidding.

I hope this doesn’t sound like I’m picking on the business owners, league conveners, and parent volunteers who have poured their hearts and energy into trying to keep some semblance of normal activities operating for their children and customers. Far from it: that’s the last thing I want to do. And, as I noted, it wasn’t just hockey and gymnastics that were confused. Every email list I’m still on has read similarly — no one had a clue.

In a pandemic that has killed thousands of Ontarians, the fate of a few kids’ sports programs isn’t much to write home about. But as a symbol of how manifestly ineffective our public-health communications have been, you’d be hard pressed to find a better example than this.

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