Source: Shutterstock/Shawn Hempel, Alex Tétreault

Ontario public health officials sounded the alarm last year when Doug Ford’s government announced major cuts to provincial health care funding. Toronto Board of Health chair Joe Cressy was blunt when describing the impact of the cuts: “People will die,” he said. “People are going to die.”

The experience of the 2003 SARS crisis, in which 44 people died across Canada, loomed large in the minds of health professionals opposing Ford’s cuts. Dr. David Mowat, former chief medical officer of health for Ontario, called the cuts “dangerous” and warned that they would impact efforts aimed at preventing disease. He pointed to reports and inquiries after the SARS outbreak which concluded that one of the main problems was underfunding of public health. “It’s not as though we don’t know what is going to happen,” Mowat said.

With the global outbreak of the novel coronavirus, which has spread to Canada and infected more people in Ontario than any other province, the fears of public health officials are now a frightening reality for millions of Canadians.

As of March 6, there were 49 confirmed cases across Canada of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) disease. Of these cases, 26 are in Ontario, while 21 are in British Columbia and two in Quebec. Worldwide, more than 95,000 people have been infected with the virus and almost 3,500 have died. The outbreak is already beginning to have severe impacts on the global economy. Major gatherings have been postponed or cancelled. In the countries most affected, such as Italy, authorities have put cities under lockdown, closed facilities such as schools and banned public assemblies. Governments from China to the United States are striving to reassure the public even as they face mounting criticism for their responses.

Cuts weaken ability to halt spread of virus

In Ontario, the outbreak has brought renewed attention to attacks on public health by the increasingly unpopular Ford regime. Chief among these has been the government’s elimination of paid sick days for workers and its reinstatement of the “right” of employers to demand sick notes before workers can take emergency leave. Under the previous Liberal government, workers had received two paid sick days per year. Under the new policy, they receive three unpaid days off for personal illness. Ford implemented these attacks on workers against the advice of health care professionals. Last November, doctors and nurses rallied at Queen’s Park to demand that the government bring back paid sick days, a demand that Ford chose to ignore.

While Ford’s sick day policy has attracted the most attention, it is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of health-care cuts that exacerbate the threat of COVID-19. The creeping privatization of health care under Ford has resulted in higher treatment costs, which make poor and working class Ontarians less likely to receive care and increase the capacity of coronavirus to spread.

The Ontario Health Coalition, a group of civic organizations seeking to defend public health care, has compiled many examples of these dangerous cuts. For example, the government has cut OHIP+, forcing “families with sick children to seek private coverage first and pay deductibles and co-payments.” It has set overall health funding below the rate of inflation and population growth, so that service levels cannot keep up with population need. It has set public hospital funding below the rate of inflation, meaning effective funding cuts and “serious service cuts.” Among hundreds of layoffs for health professionals, perhaps the most consequential are the elimination of nursing positions, which reduce the number of nurses available to provide school and community health programs and respond to infectious diseases.

In short, the Ford regime has taken the axe to almost every health-care service in Ontario, greatly weakening the ability of the province to respond to a public health crisis such as the coronavirus. Yet despite mounting pressure to reverse its changes to sick day policy, the government has refused to budge. NDP Leader Andrea Horwath called on Ford to immediately introduce and pass an emergency bill restoring paid sick days and preventing employers from requiring workers to go to the doctor’s office to get a sick note.

Ford blandly responded to Horwath in the legislature that his government would do its “due diligence to make sure that people in Ontario are safe.” Put on the defensive, Long-Term Care Minister Merrilee Fullerton insisted that sick notes are not mandatory—even as she betrayed her true sympathies by reiterating that “employers have the option to require reasonable proof of the circumstances” if workers request emergency leave.

‘Open for business’?

The coronavirus has exposed Ford’s policies as a dire threat to public health. Like all his government’s actions, Ford’s sick day policy was motivated by a desire to show that Ontario is “open for business,” which means policies that reward the bosses and punish workers. But as in so many other areas, the irrational nature of capitalism has led to self-destructive consequences. Low-paid, non-unionized workers without paid sick days cannot afford to miss work due to illness, creating a prime environment for the spread of disease. It is darkly ironic that Ford’s attacks on workers, intended to boost Ontario’s economic performance, have in turn made the economy more vulnerable to the impact of the virus. 

The Ford regime has shown it does not care about the lives of poor, working class and oppressed people in Ontario. While only a relatively small number of COVID-19 cases prove fatal, the increased risk to public health caused by this government’s policies is unacceptable. We cannot tolerate a government willing to gamble with human lives in the name of boosting capitalist profits.