The Ontario population is reacting with extreme anger due to the government’s failure to take necessary action to stop the third wave. This sentiment is felt in province after province. Everybody knows that essential workplaces populated by poor and racialized workers are the main location of spread – everybody except the government that is. Instead they are criminalizing and blaming these workers and refusing to help them avoid infection. The only way to force the government to change course is direct action, work refusals and stay home sick-ins. Without such action many more workers will die.

On April 9, Canada surpassed another grim milestone in the fight against the pandemic: Canada is now officially recording more daily confirmed cases per capita than the United States. Thanks to the criminal negligence of Canadian politicians, the pandemic is spiralling out of control in province after province. People are desperate for a way out and are demanding to know how a country widely seen as a champion of universal healthcare and human rights could preside over such a catastrophic failure in public health. The mishandling of the pandemic has unceremoniously burst asunder all the old myths of “Canada the Good”. The truth is that capitalism remains a sick and diseased system no matter whether it wraps itself in the stars and stripes or the maple leaf. This system is the root cause of uncountable horrors, not the least of which is the COVID-19 pandemic itself.

“A slow-motion car crash”

A third wave of the virus is now being unleashed on the country, causing record-breaking upsurges in cases. On April 16, Ontario reported 4,812 new cases—by far the highest number since the pandemic began. As of April 18, more than 2,000 are hospitalized and more than 700 are in intensive care units (ICUs) battling severe illness.

A mobile field hospital in a parking lot at Sunnybrook Hospital, Toronto. 
Source: Sunnybrook Hospital

These case increases are threatening to break the back of the healthcare system in the province. Hospitals and ICUs are so over-capacity that multiple hospitals in Toronto have set up tent hospitals in parking lots as a last resort to contain overflow. But thanks to the heartless negligence of the government, the worst is yet to come. For months, public health experts have been sounding the alarm, warning that if nothing was done, case numbers could surge to an astonishing 30,000 per day by the end of June. Cases in ICUs will skyrocket to over 2,000 in May, a more than 250 per cent increase in a single month. ICUs are already running out of beds, doctors and nurses. The third wave will crush each and every hospital in its wake. ICU doctors will have to choose between who lives and who dies.

This is not the same pandemic as before. Newer and more infectious strains of the virus have become dominant across the country and are infecting people faster and making people sicker. The B.1.1.7 “UK” variant of the virus now accounts for more than 90 per cent of new infections in Ontario. The P.1 variant, which originated in Brazil, is dominant in British Columbia. These variants are more transmissible, are more lethal, and are capable of reinfecting people who have already been infected with the original strain of the virus. This is being reflected in hospitalization rates: patients under 60 years old now account for 46 per cent of new COVID-19 admissions to ICUs in Ontario, a 50 per cent increase over the last wave.

On February 11, Ontario public health scientists released a battery of figures that confirmed the need for extended province-wide shutdowns and an aggressive increase in the number of vaccines administered per day. Failure to carry this out, they warned, would result in an exponential increase in cases caused by variants of concern. 

Source: Facebook

Nevertheless, in the same week, Ontario Premier Doug Ford totally ignored the science and eased restrictions anyway. The results have been what one University of Toronto epidemiologist called “a slow-motion car crash”: in other words, predictable, preventable, and utterly catastrophic. By the end of March, one adviser to the government characterized the surge in cases as “completely out of control”. And yet the government sat on their hands for more than a week before taking action! 

On April 7, Ford announced a new “stay-at-home order” with a whole series of exceptions. Then on April 12, despite months of insistence by Education Minister Stephen Lecce that schools were safe, Ford was forced to admit that was a lie and all schools in the province were indefinitely closed. Finally, on April 16, Ford announced a security clampdown with public playgrounds and campgrounds closed, and checkpoints being established at the borders with Manitoba and Quebec.

However, it’s more revealing to look at what was not restricted. According to data from Toronto Public Health, 68 per cent of all outbreaks in the city have taken place in offices, warehouses, construction sites and food processing plants. The majority of these workplaces have remained untouched by the new restrictions. The Amazon warehouse in Brampton, for example, which was recently linked to more than 600 cases, and was briefly shut down by Peel health officials, will remain open for business—and for infection.

Ford announced the closure of “non-essential” construction, but even this raises questions. The new restrictions prevent construction on shopping malls, hotels and office towers, but residential construction (including condo development) will continue. The key question is—who decides what is essential? Certainly not the workers who are forced to risk their lives on unsafe job sites. But Doug Ford’s very, very numerous friends in real estate development might have something to say on the question.

Another aspect that is being widely discussed is the deplorable lack of paid sick time given by the bosses in Ontario. Workers regularly go to work while feeling sick because the alternative is eviction or starvation. This is a key driver of outbreaks in workplaces. Yet at the press conference on April 16, when a reporter pressed Ford about the need to give paid sick days to workers, he refused, saying he “won’t play politics”. This is despite the fact that 70 per cent of Ontarians support paid sick days!

But the most unprecedented change since the start of the pandemic was the decision to give police the ability to randomly stop anyone on the street or in a vehicle without cause and question them as to why they aren’t at home, and issue fines of $750 if they are deemed to be in breach of the stay-at-home order. These new police powers were correctly described as “formalized, legalized carding” by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. Inevitably they will target people who are already worst affected by the pandemic: low-income essential workers who are forced to leave the home for work, as well as marginalized and racialized people who are already a target of police repression. Meanwhile, the real culprits are let off the hook. Where are the fines for the Brampton Amazon warehouse management, who impose working conditions that make it impossible to practice social distancing? Or for the owners of long-term care, whose criminal negligence led to hundreds of preventable deaths?

Despite the apparent chaos reigning within the halls of Queen’s Park, there is an inner logic to Ford’s approach: that is, a laundry list of strict measures for individuals, while it is business as usual for the big corporations. Then when the pandemic spirals out of control, Ford can point the finger at the rule-breakers and wash his hands of the matter, and big business can carry on raking in profits!

But the working class will not be fooled by such cheap tricks. Besides the pandemic, there is another wave spreading with equal intensity: the white hot wave of indignation and fury felt by countless working people who have lost loved ones and faced unimaginable suffering at the hands of the government and the businesses they represent. Millions are drawing the conclusion that to the big business profiteers, they are nothing more than an instrument for the production of cash, to be sacrificed at a moment’s notice if the market wills it.

The same story is unfolding across the country as premiers experiment with absurd policies that crack down on individuals and small businesses while leaving big business untouched. For example, in Quebec, the National Institute of Public Health in Quebec (INSPQ) warned in early March that reopening too soon would trigger a third wave. But this is exactly what the CAQ government did. Quebec Premier François Legault—who appears to believe that the virus only stalks its victims at night—continues with the curfew while leaving non-essential businesses open as long as possible. Though of course, construction and manufacturing remain virtually untouched by restrictions.

In Alberta, case numbers are so high that if it were a US state, it would have the 8th highest daily rate of new infections in the country. There, Premier Jason Kenney has been “managing” the crisis with weak, ineffective half-measures on the one hand and lectures about “personal responsibility” on the other. At the same time, Kenney has been happy to brag to his business buddies that Alberta kept 85 per cent of businesses open during the first lockdown.

One could be forgiven for confusing these events with those that have transpired in the United States, where the response of the government has been so incompetent that Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to the President, was forced to describe it as “worse than most any other country”. But the rate of infection is now even worse in Canada due to negligent politicians. In what can only be described as Trumpian levels of reality-bending, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney made up a fake story about an outbreak at a birthday party, allegedly with a 100 per cent infection rate, to deflect blame from the criminal policies of the government!

In both Canada and the US, the root cause of this chaotic spectacle remains the same. The capitalists will stop at nothing to turn a profit; state politicians form policy in favour of big business; all countries are racing to open their economies as fast as possible so that they can get a leg up on their competitors; and all are prepared to sacrifice human life in order to do it.

Vaccine distribution crisis

Vaccines are the main weapon of choice of the capitalist class against the pandemic, because they think this will provide them with a solution without damaging profiteering. While other countries like New Zealand or China locked down quickly and early, the impatient North American capitalists resorted to half measures because they couldn’t stomach the idea of totally shutting down the economy. It is this short-termism, characteristic of capitalism in its decline, that has led to the protracted nature of the pandemic.

In recent months, the United States has ramped up its vaccine rollout, administering more than 202 million doses since December. A total of 31 per cent of the adult population is fully vaccinated. This has played an important role in curbing the spread of the disease in the US.  

On the other hand, the vaccine rollout in Canada has been atrocious. Vaccine deliveries from abroad are regularly delayed or reduced in size. Once they arrive, doses languish in freezers while essential workers have their appointments cancelled. Only 2.3 per cent of eligible Canadians have been fully vaccinated. 

All this despite Canada being the worst hoarder of vaccines on the planet! After the vaccines had first been approved, Canada ordered enough doses to vaccinate every Canadian nearly five times over. But the reality is that these deliveries were never guaranteed in the first place. The absurd contradictions of world capitalism have given rise to so-called “vaccine nationalism”, where each country prioritizes its own narrow national interests above the world as a whole, attempting to vaccinate their own populations quickly at the expense of everyone else.

The World Health Organization has repeatedly warned that nationalist policy is creating massive barriers in the path of a rapid and coordinated world vaccine rollout. From being one of the worst perpetrators, Canada has now got the short end of the stick. Ultimately, these self-defeating policies will only end up hurting all countries, as viruses know no borders. This is the only outcome that the capitalist system can permit, because it is inextricably bound up with the nation state.

One of the reasons why Canada placed so many orders is because the country lacks mass domestic vaccine production capacity of its own, and is thus almost exclusively reliant on international trade to secure vaccines. Late last year, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was forced to admit that the domestic vaccine production capacity Canada used to have has all but disappeared. Canada did once have its own publicly owned pharmaceutical company, Connaught Labs, which was large enough to orchestrate a mass vaccination campaign that played a role in ending smallpox in Latin America. But Connaught was privatized in the 1980s by the Mulroney government and has been almost completely dismantled. Had it still existed, it could have been rapidly retooled to mass produce a vaccine domestically. Here again we have a striking example of how working people are being punished for the reckless decisions of the Canadian ruling class, who care about lining their own pockets and little else.

Another barrier to vaccine production is the criminal hoarding of intellectual property rights by the pharmaceutical corporations. If these rights were waived, every lab on the planet could work at maximum capacity to produce vaccines. Instead production is kept at limited capacity to maximize private profits at the expense of human lives. The supposed justification for this intellectual property is to spur on private investment. But this has been revealed to be a lie as new studies have shown that 97 per cent of vaccine development has been funded by government sources. 

Provincial premiers love blaming Justin Trudeau for failing to bring them vaccines, while the federal government shoots back against the bureaucratic mismanagement of the provinces. They are both correct in their criticism of the other. They are all at fault for this crisis.

In many provinces, the vaccine rollout has been completely botched. Vaccines have been sitting in freezers for weeks and lack of planning has even led to some instances of wasted shots. The vaccines that have gone out have also been sent to the wrong people due to wrong criteria and confusing appointment methods. For example, in early April, the Forest Hill neighbourhood in Toronto had an over 25 per cent immunization rate while Jane and Finch had five per cent. Forest Hill is one of the wealthiest parts of Toronto, with the lowest COVID rates, while Jane and Finch is the poorest with the highest rates. Immigrant workers working in factories and warehouses do not have the time or connections to navigate vaccine appointments, unlike rich retirees safely isolating in Forest Hill mansions. 

The confusion and failure is just an example of the ridiculous provincialism that pervades Canadian politics. Trudeau washes his hands, while the provinces flail about ignoring science, and municipalities are ignored and underfunded. Any sense of collective solidarity or common purpose has been lost, against a virus that does not care about provincial boundaries. Less affected provinces are even refusing to share their vaccine supplies with other provinces. Is there a more clear example of the dead end of the Canadian political system?

What is to be done?

Writing in 1845, Friedrich Engels described how the capitalist system throws masses of people into poverty and unsanitary conditions, while others live in opulence. There are still more who die because of the callous policies of the ruling class—be it the victimization of the unemployed, poor conditions in long-term care, or opening up for profit making in a pandemic. He described this policy as “social murder”:

“[W]hen society places hundreds of proletarians in such a position that they inevitably meet a too early and unnatural death, one which is quite as much a death by violence as that by the sword or bullet; when it deprives thousands of the necessaries of life, places them under conditions in which they cannot live … knows that these thousands of victims must perish, and yet permits these conditions to remain, its deed is murder … which does not seem what it is … because the death of the victim seems a natural one … But murder it remains.”

These lines sound like they could have been written yesterday. The capitalist class and their hired politicians have blood on their hands. A decisive struggle against these mobsters must be taken up without delay.

On April 18, Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath released a statement revealing that Doug Ford was planning to shut down the Ontario legislature on Wednesday. Horwath correctly pointed out that this move was less about safety measures and more about avoiding public scrutiny after their new lockdown measures infuriated millions. The statement reads: “People are laying in crowded hospital hallways, struggling to breathe, and many thousands more will join them if we don’t replace Doug Ford’s plan … Black, Indigenous and racialized people know check stops and carding will target them, because it always has. Businesses are already on the brink and more will go under without help. People’s lives are on the line.” 

Horwath said the NDP would refuse to comply with the parliamentary shut down unless the PC government meets their demands, which include the passing of a bill that legislates seven paid sick days, full cancellation of the increased police powers and an extension of which businesses are considered “non-essential”. In response, Ford denied the allegations and accused the NDP of using the pandemic as “an opportunity to score the cheapest of political points”.

We agree that these reforms are sorely needed and long past due for workers, not just across Ontario or even Canada, but the whole world. But this unfortunate incident only serves to highlight the limitations of struggle in the parliamentary arena. The den of thieves that is the PC party have a thousand and one tricks up their sleeve that they can—and do—use to force through their abhorrent policies as they see fit. This is why the struggle urgently needs to be taken to the streets and to the workplaces, because the workers cannot wait. 

Some unions have raised the alarm about the disaster that is the government’s policy. But so far nothing concrete has been proposed. We say that desperate times call for desperate measures. The labour movement must declare their own state of emergency and begin mobilizing for mass work refusals in order to force the government into action. What is needed is a real lockdown, with full pay for all workers sent home, and double hazard pay for essential workers, paid for by the bosses, and workers’ control of health and safety committees to determine what is and is not essential. If the bosses claim they can’t afford it, they should open the books so that workers can ascertain for themselves whether or not this is true. If they genuinely cannot pay, their assets should be confiscated and used to serve the public good. To those in the labour movement who would attack these measures as “extreme”, we plead guilty; but at this stage, nothing less will suffice to bring the pandemic under control and save lives.

Workers are desperate for a way out and are determined to take decisive action. All that’s lacking is a half-decent leadership willing to take the reins.