Parts of Ontario have lost control of COVID-19: So what now?

OPINION: Cases are at record highs, hospitals have never had more COVID-19 patients, and long-term-care homes are turning into a disaster again. The province’s plan isn’t working
By Matt Gurney - Published on Jan 04, 2021
The lockdown that came into effect on December 26 will remain in place until at least January 23, 2021, in southern Ontario. (Lars Hagberg/CP)

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Happy New Year! What the hell do we do now?

Forgive the abrupt introduction, but I'm a bit out of practice after some time off. The question stands, though. Ontario's case counts have risen steadily in recent weeks; the seven-day rolling average has never been higher. Our hospitals are full of COVID-19 patients; Ontario is just barely shy of that second and more ominous ICU-capacity red line that I've been writing about for months. The burden will get worse, for weeks, before it can even begin to get better.

So. I ask again — what the hell do we do now?

We wait, is part of the answer. The province is still under a form of lockdown, which began on Boxing Day. It will continue until January 9 for northern Ontario and January 23 for the rest. That involves switching schools to online learning — in northern Ontario, all students will go virtual for this week, as will elementary students in southern Ontario. High-school students in southern Ontario will stay virtual an extra two weeks. This is all locked in already.

But it's not working.

The lockdown of last year, when the Ontario government joined other governments around the world in shutting as much down as it could, as fast as possible, was indiscriminate. I've described it on Twitter as carpet bombing: we didn't know what to aim at exactly, so we flattened everything. It was understood that this wouldn’t be sustainable forever, but it was a desperate tactic to buy us time. In the future, the argument went, we'd be able to impose more targeted and narrow lockdowns. Instead of carpet bombing the economy to stop the virus, we'd use smart bombs to hold it back until vaccines arrived and bailed us out.

Makes sense! That was a perfectly good, logical plan. I was totally on board with it. But ... like ... look around, folks. This is the targeted lockdown, and cases are at record highs, the hospitals have never had more COVID-19 patients, and long-term-care homes are turning into a disaster again.

I repeat: it's not working.

We can argue about why. We can yell at people who aren't taking the rules as seriously as we want. We can get angry at politicians who spent the holidays working on their tans. We can huff and puff about vaccines. We can do all these things, and more, but we're still going to find ourselves back in the same place. Some parts of the province, particularly Toronto and its environs, have lost control of COVID-19, and the provincial government's leaders are going to start facing questions this week about what they plan to do about it.

There are some broad obvious choices. The first is do nothing and hope that the current measures eventually work. This seems like a bad idea, but it's an option. The second option is to extend the current restrictions and buy more time for them to eventually work. If we choose to go further, we can enhance the restrictions, at least in certain geographic areas. Or we can put the hammer down again, carpet bomb everything and hope for the best. The carpet bombing could be limited to those areas of maximum concern — again, Toronto and environs. But it would be a major economic hit and would probably mean closing the schools again.

There is obvious and understandable reluctance to even think about a carpet-bombing strategy again. But the smarter, more targeted lockdowns are only smarter and more targeted if they work. If they don't, they're not smarter or more targeted — they're just feeble and ineffective. It is maybe, just maybe, possible to hope that everyone who was going to break the rules got it out of their system between Christmas and New Years, and we'll start to see the curve come down as everyone dutifully settles in for a responsible, socially distanced January.

That would be super. Am I betting the proverbial farm on it? I am not, dear readers. I am not.

So, for the third time, I ask the question: What now? What we're doing isn't working. No one wants to do more, but people are dying, and the hospitals are filling up. The vaccines are months away from making a meaningful difference. I have no patience for blaming other levels of government or past political leaders. There is absolutely blame to go around, but leadership is in much more finite supply: it rests with the premier and his cabinet, and they have some decisions to make.

I make no predictions, fellow Ontarians, as to what those will be. I genuinely have no idea what the government is going to do. But I make this observation: if we don't start seeing some improvement in the curve soon — a flattening, at least — then the cost of any decision in lives and economic disruption is only going to increase. The smarter lockdown, alas, might be one of those ideas that works great in theory but flops in practice. If it does start to work, it had better start soon. This is going to get harder from here.

But other than all that, Happy New Year, I guess.

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