On Tuesday, March 30, the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table sounded the alarm that the pandemic is “completely out of control”. This grim announcement comes as no surprise as health officials have been giving warnings for weeks that Ontario has been at a critical tipping point with new variants projected to spread more rapidly and inflict greater harm. Despite these warnings, the Ontario Progressive Conservative government has driven the province over the edge and straight into the third wave. For most people across Ontario and particularly in the heavily impacted zones like Toronto and Peel, the announcement only confirms what we have been living through everyday. As one health official pointed out, “we’re in a situation that was predictable” and one that could have been prevented if Premier Doug Ford cared at all about the health of working class people. He does not. The complete list of incompetent COVID responses from the government is long and shocking but here are some of the worst responses by Ford:
Healthcare in crisis
The situation in hospitals across the province is very rapidly deteriorating as new variants are overwhelming staff and resources. Hospitalizations are more than 20 per cent higher than at the start of the last lockdown. Patients are now younger and sicker than ever before. There has been a 50 per cent increase in admissions into the ICU by people younger than 60. The province has been beating COVID records quicker than ever before. The same day as the science table warning, we saw the single day highest record of 410 patients in intensive care. The seven-day average is now above 2,500—the highest since January. Based on the projections for the new variants, hospitals are expected to come under greater pressure than ever before. The new variants increase the risk of hospitalization by 60 per cent, double the risk of admission into intensive care and pose a 56 per cent increased risk of death. Hospitals are already feeling a capacity crunch. Staff have warned that they will inevitably have to cancel surgeries and add to the current backlog of 250,000 procedures. There is still a massive shortage of beds and equipment to manage COVID patients. Brampton alone needs at least 800 additional beds. The lack of resources and growing pressure has put the lives of thousands of hospital workers at risk. Despite a year of the pandemic, health staff still do not have enough N-95 masks to protect against aerosol transmission of the virus. Over 20,000 health care workers have been infected, of which 20 have died.
When Ford first came to power in 2018, one of his first actions was to cut $1 billion from Toronto Public Health. At the time, Fightback said these cuts would lead to deaths. This pandemic has proven that true more than we could have ever anticipated. Now, Ford’s 2021 budget allocates only half of the funding urgently needed by hospitals. There is a desperate need for additional staff as scientists have been pointing out that vaccines will not be enough to end the pandemic, we need nurses. Instead, the government has decided they would rather put money into the pockets of private health lobbyists from corporations like Shoppers Drug Mart.
Schools and childcare centers are currently one of greatest sources of virus spread. While the Minister of Education, Stephen Lecce, loves to repeat that “99 per cent of Ontario schools and 99 per cent of students do not have an active case,” the real situation contradicts him. There are currently 1,147 school related COVID cases confirmed but this is likely an underestimation given the lack of non-symptomatic testing. COVID cases among Ontario students and staff have hit the highest levels since schools opened last fall and we have reached these record numbers three times faster compared to the second wave. Once again, variants are contributing to the greater impact and rapid spread of the virus. Unlike the previous waves, we are seeing entire families contracting the virus and health officials are warning that hundreds of thousands of children will have some sort of long-term symptoms after COVID with about one in 1,000 kids ending up in the ICU. Teachers are being so heavily hit that many schools have had to close due to staff shortages as teachers are in self-isolation. These schools do not factor into Lecce’s “99 per cent” statistic. Parents are being warned by doctors in the field that “if you’re in Peel or another hard-hit area, you should probably think about moving your kids out of school right now.”
Surely, the prospect of sick children would move Doug Ford’s heart and convince him to act? Not quite. The government recently announced $1.6 billion in education cuts that will lay off thousands of teachers and make classroom sizes bigger than ever. Overall, spending in education will be $789 million less this year. For an already underfunded education system, this spells disaster for parents, teachers, and students.
Workplace hot spots
Large workplaces are another hot spot of COVID spread. Essential workers have been left with no choice but to commute and work in unsafe conditions. Growth rates of variants are 44 per cent higher among the lowest paid workers who take transit and carpool to work. After dealing with crowded buses, workers face conditions where it is nearly impossible to follow any health protocols. Brampton’s Amazon facility was forced to shut down after over 600 workers tested positive. Bus routes to the facility also had service halted as the virus spread to bus drivers, ultimately killing one driver. While workers faced an impossible situation at Amazon, Ford was doing his best to plough through environmental regulations to help Amazon build a warehouse in Pickering. There have been similar outbreaks at the Mississauga Canada Post facility and hundreds of Loblaws locations across the region. This has pushed the call for paid sick days, which is something that could have saved the life of Yassin Dabeh, a 19-year-old contract cleaner at Middlesex Terrace Long-Term Care Home who died of COVID-19 on Jan. 21. Without paid sick days, workers like Yassin, who are paid minimum wage and face unstable access to employment, are more likely to come into work with COVID-19 symptoms.
In response to workplace spread, the government has taken serious action. They have done everything in their power to make sure bosses get away with collecting profits while workers die. For the majority of 2020, the Conservatives actively prevented the names of employers—who were failing to provide safe working conditions—from being publicized for fear of backlash. The Peel regional council went so far as to threaten workers with fines if they exposed an outbreak at their workplace without their employer’s permission. Doug Ford slashed paid sick days when he first came to power and has unironically called the current demands for reinstating the days, “totally irresponsible”.
The pandemic has left many of the most vulnerable members of society barely able to survive and Ford’s response has only exasperated their situation. Shelters have become a hot spot for the virus and instead of using the thousands of empty condos to provide a safer alternative, the Ford government has pushed hundreds into the streets. Homeless individuals are 20 times more likely to be hospitalized for COVID-19, over 10 times more likely to receive intensive care, and over five times more likely to die within 21 days of a positive test.
The lack of access to affordable housing has also increased sexual harassment and domestic violence. Young women between the ages of 25 to 54 represent 70 per cent of job losses and with the rising cost of living, they have struggled to pay rent. Landlords have exploited the situation to solicit tenants for sex. The Ford government has stood solidly on the side of the landlords and passed an eviction bill to ensure they can pressure tenants into repayment plans. They also gutted funding for women’s shelters by $17 million, leaving millions of women with no choice but to stay in abusive relationships.
Perhaps the most gut-wrenching situation during the pandemic has been the chaos inflicted in long term care (LTC) centers. Residents make up the majority of COVID deaths across the country with Ontario having the highest number of cases. Shockingly, the situation is worse now compared to the second wave. Infections are up by 62 per cent but even more alarming has been the decrease in physician visits and other supports for seniors since the lockdown. Long term care staff are also facing a desperate situation. After a breakout at an Ottawa LTC, it was discovered that staff had brought in the virus because they were homeless! Sixty per cent of nurses working in long-term care homes with large outbreaks are experiencing symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder. A third of nurses have found themselves short staffed several times a week. Amid the pandemic tearing apart the LTCs, Ford tried to push through a bill that would prevent residents from holding the private owners of the centers accountable for the spread and deaths. On March 30, Ford tweeted that the government is “putting an iron ring of protection around our seniors.” More than 4,000 long-term care residents have died since his tweet.
Kick out Ford!
Ontario New Democratic Party leader Andrea Horwath recently asked, “Why is the government not listening to health professionals?” Because they do not care! Ford has shown time and again that health comes second to profit for this government. While Ford says there is no money to meet the needs of society, he has found enough money to enrich the Conservative Party in the pandemic. The latest Sunshine list revealed that the salary and benefits for Ford’s top 10 bureaucrats increased by 28.5 per cent from an average of $747,000 to $911,000. There is a clear gap between the needs of society to combat the pandemic and the priorities of the Ford government.
Ford may introduce this or that half measure when faced with public backlash, but these measures will fall short of combating the pandemic or meeting the needs of society during the crisis. A new lockdown has just been announced, but we cannot expect it to be any more effective than the previous lockdown which has pushed us into the third wave. As Fightback said during the second wave: “there is a big difference between a planned and controlled lockdown in order to control the spread of the virus, which protects the health of workers and leaves the workforce intact, and an unplanned, chaotic shutdown of the economy forced upon us because COVID gets out of control and too many people are sick and businesses are forced to close anyway. A chaotic shutdown due to the spread of the virus is precisely what will cripple the economy and the workforce.”
A recent article by Bloomberg magazine was titled “We Must Start Planning For a Permanent Pandemic.” The COVID-19 crisis will not end so long as profit hungry politicians like Ford remain in power. We must recognize that the pandemic is political. Kicking out Ford is literally a question of life or death. There is no time to wait and witness wave after wave of the virus.