Mass public outrage has forced the Ontario Progressive Conservative government to backtrack in their plans to reopen schools in the midst of record COVID-19 cases. After experiencing four waves of the virus and being warned against the highly contagious Omicron variant, the Ford government did absolutely nothing to prepare. Instead, Ontarians have been abruptly thrown into another lockdown. None of the key demands for addressing the pandemic, from adequate sick leave to increased testing, are being met. The current lockdown will not resolve the crisis but only delay it and provoke future waves of the virus. Ford has once again shown that his government puts profits ahead of lives. The labour movement must prepare to refuse unsafe work and fight to kick out Ford. 

The highly contagious Omicron variant has been spreading like wildfire in Canada, with Ontario being one of the worst provinces affected. On New Year’s Day, Ontario hit an all-time single day record of 18,445 new cases. And this is guaranteed to be an underestimation of the real number of cases due to insufficient testing. As the holidays were coming to an end, people were anxiously wondering what work and school would look like in the new year. The government’s response was to cut access to testing, reduce isolation periods and plan to reopen schools for in-person learning. This provoked mass public outrage and Ford quickly backtracked. However, the new restrictions have in turn forced parents to scramble to take care of children at home. 

Sudden mass infection

The Ford government initially announced schools would be reopening on Jan. 5, just two days later than the normal school start date. This provoked a public outcry from health officials warning that such an early reopening would lead to a sudden mass infection of children and teachers. Now, instead of two days, the schools are being given two weeks to prepare for reopening. Is this enough time to ensure a safe environment? Teachers and health officials warn that it is not. The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario posted a list of safety measures, from providing additional N95 masks to increasing rapid testing, that must be funded for schools to safely reopen. None of these measures are being met by the Ford government. In fact, they are reducing safety protocols. Ford announced on Dec. 31 that COVID-19 cases would no longer be tracked in schools. With over 1 million unvaccinated children and only a minority of teachers boostered, stopping case tracking will quickly lead to an unmanageable spread of the virus. If the current conditions in schools do not change, there will likely be a mass infection of students and teachers when schools reopen, regardless of the current closures. 

‘Herd immunity’ overwhelms the hospitals

Doctors and nurses are warning against a “herd immunity” strategy as a rapid spread of Omicron could quickly overwhelm the healthcare system. In a best-case scenario, a minority of students will require hospitalization but this still translates into thousands of children requiring pediatric ICU beds. Right now, there is one ICU bed for every 27,000 children in Ontario, far too few to manage a mass infection. On top of the lack of resources at hospitals, there is a serious lack of nursing staff. Normally, there is one nurse for every one patient. Now, the hospitals are struggling with one nurse for every four to five patients. Healthcare workers have been pushed to their limit with one report stating that “it really is a desperate situation right now that they’re having, having to work double shifts on a regular basis, constantly working overtime.”

A mass infection will also leave families scrambling to take care of their children and themselves. The government’s three-day paid sick leave does not even cover the new shortened isolation recommendations. When teachers also inevitably get sick, we are likely to again see abrupt closures of schools, leaving families struggling to find childcare solutions. The Minister of Education, Stephen Lecce stated that “we are taking nothing for granted.” Nothing but the lives of thousands of working class families and teachers, that is. Dr. Colin Furness perfectly summarized the situation as “what sounded appalling now seems more like catastrophic.”

Ford cuts testing and isolation recommendations 

In the midst of skyrocketing daily cases, the Ford government has cut the recommended isolation period by half, from ten to five days. For double vaccinated individuals whose symptoms are “improving”, they are no longer required to isolate and can be called back into work. Medical professionals have condemned the new isolation recommendations. Dr. Amit Arya tweeted, “the Ontario government’s announcement today to shorten the COVID-19 isolation time to 5 days is a reminder that our current economic system values frontline workers only for their labour, not their health.” The government itself has admitted the real reason for the changes is that “it’s less burdensome for an employer if you return to work after that five day period.”

Ford has also limited testing. Double vaccinated individuals will no longer qualify for publicly funded polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing. Instead, the Ford government is recommending that people with symptoms should just assume they have the virus and isolate. The real question is, will your boss allow you to simply assume being positive and stay home? One tweet said it well: “Government – with symptoms and no PCR, just assume you have COVID and self-isolate. Employers – with symptoms and no PCR test, just assume you don’t have COVID and come in.” The confusing government guidelines and lack of any accountability from employers leaves Ontarians without any support to stop the spread of the virus.

These new testing guidelines have created a desperate hunt for rapid tests at a time when they are extremely hard to access. Over the holidays, thousands waited hours in line for tests but many were left empty handed as pop-ups quickly ran out of supply. As one person who waited in vain put it, “it all felt very improvised and dystopian.” As in the previous waves, not everyone is being impacted. Those that are able to pay $200 to $400 can easily access a PCR or rapid test at one of the many private clinics that have popped up since Ford’s announcement. Palliative care physician Naheed Dosani responded with a tweet: “Welcome to Ontario, where people with money can afford time off to isolate. Where people with money can afford to buy rapid/PCR tests privately to monitor their health. Where people with money can afford to pay for N95s to stay safe. What do people do if they don’t have money?” They keep working. That is what the new isolation and testing guidelines ensure. There is one pandemic for the rich and another for the poor. 

Crisis in staffing

The common thread in this crisis has been staffing. The reason for the bottleneck in vaccination and testing is not due to lack of vaccines and tests. It is due to the lack of nurses and other healthcare workers to administer the shots and tests. In schools, the thing that would have the greatest impact against spread would be to limit class sizes to 15. Again, the government is refusing to take such measures because they do not want to pay for increased staffing. They want to prioritize exploitation and not give workers anything that may help in the present or the future. 

In the first wave, the capacity of the health care system had been depleted by 30 years of austerity. They said: “nobody could expect such a pandemic,” despite the fact that scientists had been warning about the inevitability for decades. But now we are almost into the third year of the pandemic and the same ridiculous “nobody could expect” arguments are being rolled out again and again. In fact, instead of getting better the situation has gotten worse. The refusal to hire and train combined with insulting government wage restraint has exacerbated the staffing shortages, leading to people walking away from frontline work. The disaster of Omicron was totally avoidable and it is the choices made by penny-pinching capitalist governments that have led us to the current crisis. 

Pleading to Ford won’t work

Across the province, people are outraged at the Ford government and looking for a way out of the crisis. Over the last few days, the hashtags #FordfailsOntario, #Fordfailskids and #FireLecce have been trending on social media. There is a mood to fight back against Ford. Unfortunately, the response from the Ontario NDP has been totally out of sync with this mood. 

Party leader Andrea Horwath has criticized Ford’s new testing guidelines but her solution to the situation was simply to ask Ford to stop. She tweeted: “I’m urging him to reverse his decision to restrict testing, and instead ramp up protections against COVID – especially in schools.” One user responded to Horwath’s post with: “You need to get about 100 times more aggressive, now. This is your moment. Take it or leave it.” In every previous wave of the virus, Ford went against all public health recommendations. He reopened non-essential retail to appease big business—without taking any serious steps to protect frontline workers. His government utterly botched the vaccine rollout in some of the hardest-hit, lowest income areas. Ford called paid sick days for essential workers a “waste” at the start of the third wave. Can we honestly believe that Ford will now simply stop? Horwath has criticized Ford for “making bad decisions.” The truth is the problem is not just about piecemeal decisions; it is about the whole general approach of this government to the pandemic. Profits over lives: that has been the consistent approach of the Ford government. The pandemic will not be addressed by this or that isolated reform. Ontario needs a comprehensive plan that combines all the tools available, from testing to paid sick leave, with the aim to save lives. The Ford government has shown time and again that they are incapable of providing such a plan.

Instead of organizing the frustration in society to kick Ford out now, the focus of the NDP is on the upcoming elections and voting out Ford. The healthcare system is collapsing. People are getting sick and dying. We cannot simply wait to vote Ford out! The NDP has a ripe opportunity to be a real party for the working class and mobilize today against Ford. Otherwise, six months from now, when the elections are held, Ontarians will remember the lack of real action from the NDP. No matter how much people hate Ford, they may become equally disillusioned in the NDP as a viable option to improve their lives. 

Time for work refusals 

The Ontario population is reacting with extreme anger at the government’s failure to take the necessary action to stop the fifth wave. Thanks to the incompetence of the Ford government, the pandemic is spiraling out of control. Birgit Umaigba, a nurse, posted a question everyone is asking: “What is the plan? Kill more people?” Profit over lives: that has consistently been the response of the Ford government to the pandemic. They are a government for the rich and powerful. Health and safety is expendable to  the capitalists and their pawns in government, who are willing to sacrifice lives for the sake of lining their pockets.  

Teachers have expressed their desire to return to school, as in person learning is vital for the mental health and education of children. However, for schools to open and remain open, a competent safety plan must be implemented. In the face of employer and government negligence, essential workers must take matters into their own hands. The only way to stop the spread, save lives and safely return to in-person learning is to take direct action against Ford’s criminal response to the pandemic. No one worker or family can fight back alone. There must be a collective response to the crisis. The NDP and labour movement must call for and organize mass work refusals to protect lives. With the rapid spread of Omicron, the unions must declare a “state of emergency” and activate extraordinary measures to facilitate mass work refusals such as strikes, walk-outs, or other forms of withdrawal of labour in the face of unsafe working conditions. These actions need to be prepared now ahead of schools reopening. 

The call for mass unsafe work refusals must be part of a larger campaign for greater safety protocols for all workers. Renew the demand for paid sick leave, double hazard pay for essential workers, and the closure of non-essential industries with full compensation for those put out of work. The labour movement must demand emergency funding to address the staffing shortages in hospitals and schools. A recent report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives revealed how dozens of companies used the taxpayer-funded Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) program to give themselves bonuses. The Federal Liberal government handed out $99.13 billion to corporations through this program. Instead of being used to line the pockets of the rich, this funding could fuel a massive hiring program for essential workers. It could fund double hazard pay for nurses and teachers across Canada. The distribution of tests and boosters must be placed in the democratic control of the unions with healthcare workers guiding the process. These essential workers know what needs to be done better than any Ford bureaucrat. We need workers’ control of health and safety.

The Ontario government has shown it is incapable of responding to the pandemic in any comprehensive or competent way. No outbreak, no spike in deaths, no high-profile tragedies have swayed this government. It has proven that it is unfit to govern. Workers have been refused safe working conditions, sick days, and more. Now, they must prepare to refuse unsafe work and fight to kick out Ford.