Earlier this year, I was speaking with one of Ontario’s numerous medical experts — the kind of person who has contributed to the province’s COVID-19 response efforts but who I am choosing not to identify here so as to avoid making their already difficult life any more difficult — and they invoked the former United States senator John Kerry.
Before he was a senator (and long before he was a presidential nominee for the Democratic Party), Kerry got his start as an activist protesting the Vietnam War. And the scientist I was speaking with invoked Kerry’s famous question from congressional testimony: How do you ask someone to be the last person to die for a mistake?
It was a haunting question when Kerry asked it, and it remains the single most succinct measure we have to evaluate political leaders and the decisions they make. Policy failures are inevitable in government — we are all fallen humans, we are all sinners, and we all make mistakes. But in government, those mistakes can cost lives.
There is going to be a last person to die in Ontario’s third wave of the pandemic. We just don’t know who they are, and they probably don’t even have COVID-19 yet. Hell, it could be me. And that death is likely going to be the result of choices that were made, or not made, over the past two months.
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We were warned that lifting the stay-at-home order earlier this year would cause cases to rise. The government lifted the order anyway; cases have risen. We were warned that new mutations of COVID-19 — so-called variants of concern — were both more transmissible and more likely to put people in hospital. They have done so. Now the ICUs are full to bursting; the third wave hasn’t produced anywhere near the daily case counts of the second, but ICUs hadn’t yet fully emptied out from the second.
The modelling presented by Adalsteinn Brown of the University of Toronto on Thursday morning confirms all this, but it doesn’t tell us much that we didn’t already know. The Ontario Hospital Association’s Anthony Dale has been sounding the alarm for weeks. ICU doctors have been pleading with the government to act — more than 150 of them signed an open letter that was released earlier in the day.
Not all predictions come true, and not all modelling is correct. But, given the clear predictions of only weeks ago and the clear vindication of those predictions by events, there’s no other label for what has happened: it was a clear failure of public-health policy.
The province’s chief medical officer of health, David Williams, disagreed with that assessment when I put it to him earlier on Thursday.
“I don’t agree it’s a failure,” Williams said. “If you recall, the original projection is that if we didn’t do anything, today we would be at 5,000 to 6,000 cases a day. We are not there. Would we like to be less than 2,000? Yes, I’d like to. We’d like to flatten the curve and not have a curve. While we have made decisions and had success at it, the variants have moved in steadily and progressed there. We have made some indent; we have slowed the rise. Not adequate in my mind to bring it down, so we have to take more stringent actions.”
I will absolutely concede that the province hasn’t done nothing. Its increasing willingness to use the “emergency brake” in the regional framework has been welcome. I continue to be one of the only people not directly paid by the government who thinks the vaccine rollout is going reasonably well. I was, until relatively recently, hopeful that maybe the third wave could be kept to a manageable level while that vaccine rollout proceeded. And I suspect I’m not alone in that.
But it’s not my job to get all this right. Hope is not a plan, and it’s a strange defence against the charge of failure to say that variants have overwhelmed our efforts, which have been, in Williams’s own words, “not adequate.” Sometimes you do everything right and still fail. (Sometimes you don’t do everything right, and the failure is less mysterious.) But you still have to be honest about what you call it. This isn’t the first wave, when the whole planet was caught unawares. It’s not even the second wave, when memories of the summer made us overconfident about the potential of bringing case counts down. The third wave was predicted, clearly and unambiguously, and we walked right into it. If this isn’t failure, what is? What could be?
So now we turn to the “more stringent actions” Williams alluded to: a four-week “shutdown,” which is distinct from a “lockdown” or a “stay-at-home order.” The details matter, in some sense; in another, they don’t matter at all, because the best defence we have remains doing absolutely everything in our power to avoid catching and spreading this disease. Stay home if at all possible, wear a mask when you can’t, and if you need to meet other people, do so outside and in the open air.
One long weekend is about to begin. By the next one, in May, things really will be much better than they are today. But there’s a long way between now and then.