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Understanding the Ford Government’s Stumbling Response to COVID-19

November 15, 2020

Published in The Conversation, November 18, 2020, The National Post, November 19, 2020

Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government has come to be defined by two things: its hesitant responses to the emerging second wave of COVID-19; and a relentlessly pro-business approach to virtually all other matters. The situation invites the question of whether the government’s stumbling reluctance to impose more restrictive measures to head off the growing numbers of COVID-19 infections, as recommended by medical experts from across the province, a product of its pro-business orientation?

On the COVID front, the past week has been defined by deeply disturbing trends: record daily rates of new infections;  an already fatal reappearance of the virus in long-term care facilities; and catastrophic projections of uncontrolled infection rates exceeding 6500 cases per day, which will overwhelm hospital and Intensive Care Unit capacity. Although the news of potentially effective vaccines is encouraging, their widespread availability seems many months off.

The provincial government’s responses to the situation have been surprisingly feeble. The province was actually moving in the direction of easing restrictions, particularly around public gathering spaces like restaurants, bars, gyms, and places of worship, despite warnings that these could be key points of transmission.  It was then revealed that the province had ignored the advice of its own public health agency in terms of the infection rates needed to trigger further restrictions. The recommended thresholds for restrictions were reportedly increased by a factor of 4 relative to the advice received by the province from its own public health agency.

The imposition of further restrictions has been left in the hands of local Medical Officers of Health with the limited legal authority they have available to them. The province it seemed, was prepared to let them take the political fall for the imposition of potentially unpopular restrictions.

The catastrophic projections released on Friday, November 13th brought a partial turnaround on the part of the province in terms of the thresholds for additional restrictions. But the government’s approach is still falling well short of what health authorities and experts are saying is needed to prevent disaster.

As if to add insult to injury the province is poised to pass legislation that would effectively grant long-term care home owners and operator immunity from liability for the more than 1800 resident deaths that occurred in their facilities during first COVID-19 wave. There is strong evidence that a significant portion of those fatalities were the products neglect and poor care, rather than COVID-19 itself.

The province has extensive authority over public health matters, as well as a range of other legal and policy tools at its disposal to combat the virus. And on the surface, the government has consistently expressed concern and distress over the impacts of COVID-19 on its victims. Yet it had to be dragged kicking and screaming to (partial) action at the end of last week by the outcry from the media and health experts over its failing responses.

The answer to these questions of the reasons for the government’s behaviour on issues beyond the pandemic. There, the essential feature of the Ford government has been its striking responsiveness to any argument presented to it from voices it perceives as representing business interests and framed in terms of economic development.

The government’s record on the environment in this context is well known: the shredding of the province’s climate change strategy; the elimination of the independent office of the Environmental commissioner; weakening or eliminating rules on endangered species, forestry and toxic chemicals; and the evisceration of longstanding rules on industrial water pollution and environmental assessment.

Most striking has been the government’s willingness to acquiesce to demands presented to it by the land development industry. Planning rules intended to curb urban sprawl in the Greater Toronto Area have been gutted.  The province has made unprecedented moves to reach deep into municipal plans on behalf of development interests to eliminate constraints and permit higher-than-ever buildings in areas like mid-town Toronto that are already subject to intensive development.

Ministerial Zoning Orders have been widely used to override municipal and provincial rules on specific sites, most recently permitting a warehouse development in a provincially significant wetland on Pickering’s Lake Ontario shoreline.   Provisions buried in the government’s November 2020 budget bill would undermine the role of local Conservation Authorities in controlling development on lands that are at risk of flooding and other hazards -  significant considerations in the age of climate change -  as well as wetlands and shorelines.

The same uncritically pro-business orientation seems to lie at the heart of the government’s response to COVID-19 crisis.  The government has seemed particularly sympathetic to the pleadings of small business owners, such as restaurants, bars and gyms who would be affected by a further shutdown, despite the potentially significant roles of these types of facilities in the spread of COVID-19. The result is profoundly short-sighted, laying the groundwork for disastrous runaway outbreaks like those being seen in the United States. Those may only be able to be controlled, if at all, through the types of draconian and long-term lockdowns seen in places like Melbourne, Australia. Either outcome could be far more damaging to businesses than additional short-term restrictions.

A more effective and balanced approach would recognize the need for far greater restrictions in the short-term, while working with the federal government to provide support to the affected employees, and assist businesses in moving their operations to take-out, delivery, curbside pickup and on-line services wherever possible.

Events in the United States and Europe are demonstrating just how bad a second COVID-19 wave can be. If Ontario acts decisively it may still be able to head-off the same fate, but that time is running out quickly.