You don’t need to be a doctor to know the right thing to do

OPINION: One year in, Premier Doug Ford and his cabinet still don’t understand the basic contours of the public-policy problem they’re confronting
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Apr 20, 2021
David Williams (right), Ontario's chief medical officer of health, and Adalsteinn Brown, co-chair of Ontario's COVID-19 science-advisory table, at Queen’s Park on April 16. (Frank Gunn/CP)

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Bear with me a moment: What if it weren’t a virus? What if, instead of SARS-CoV-2, we were facing a spell from an evil wizard? Imagine that we’d been cursed, all of us, such that if a certain number of people congregated in a single enclosed area, a dragon would come and eat us all. What would we do? What would the people in charge of our public safety recommend?

Well, they’d probably recommend that we close down all the areas where people are most likely to congregate, limit workplaces to the absolute barest necessities, and ask us all to hunker down in our own homes for as long as it took for the spell to pass.

The point, if you’ve followed me this far, is that you don’t actually need to know anything at all about infectious disease — you don’t really even need to understand the basics of germ theory — to understand a lot about what the public-policy response to this pandemic should be. All you need to know is: this disease is likely to spread wherever two or more unvaccinated people are too close together for too long. That’s it. Everything else is details. But once you know that, you can derive all the important public-health interventions we’ve tried to date (and several of the ones we haven’t yet bothered with).

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This thought occurred to me on Tuesday afternoon when Ontario’s science-advisory table released what can only be called a “why are we required to repeat ourselves likes this” memo pretty clearly directed at the provincial cabinet. It has two major headings: what will work to fight COVID-19 in Ontario, and what won’t work. The document is short and worth reading, but if you’ve been paying attention for the past year, there aren’t really any surprises in there. Which I suspect is the point.

With the exception of vaccines (which didn’t exist yet), there’s nothing on the list you couldn’t have come up with a year ago given what we knew then about COVID-19, although the extent to which the pandemic has been especially hard on marginalized groups has been spelled out clearly in the ensuing months. It's a frustrating document to read — I can only imagine how aggravating it was to write — precisely because, more than one year into this pandemic, it shouldn’t be necessary for the government to be assigned remedial reading.

And, yet, the very existence of the document, and the fact that the science table felt it was necessary, is evidence that the remedial reading is still necessary. And that itself is an awful commentary on where we are in the pandemic right now.

As I said on the #ONpoli podcast this week with my colleague Steve Paikin, I’ve covered only one other government before at Queen’s Park — I arrived at Queen’s Park in 2013, shortly after Kathleen Wynne had become premier. And over the years, I didn’t hesitate to criticize the Wynne government when I thought it was making errors or misleading the public. But even when the government was mired in scandal, even as other Liberals were quietly agitating for her to resign early, I never questioned her fundamental ability to grasp the public-policy problems this province faced.

The events of the past week — the science table endorsed people getting outside whenever possible for their own safety and health; the government pretty much prohibited leaving your home — suggest that, a year in, Premier Doug Ford and his cabinet still do not understand the basic contours of the public-policy problem they’re confronting.

Why have public-health officials and scientists spent most of the past year begging the government to implement paid sick leave? (There are signs, as of Tuesday afternoon, that the government might finally be softening its obstinate refusal to consider proper, provincially mandated sick leave, either because it’s seen the light or because, given all its other political crises, the position has become untenable to maintain.) Why have they argued in increasingly strident tones that the list of open workplaces needs to be substantially narrowed and that laid-off workers need to be supported? Is it because they’re all secret Marxists seeking to crush capitalism under the cover of a public-health emergency? No, it’s not – though, honestly, as we argue over a steadily growing pile of corpses, who cares. It’s because this virus is spreading in workplaces that remain open, and we need policies that make it harder for the virus to spread.

That’s all the reason anyone has ever needed.

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