Eileen de Villa has a lot of letters after her name. There’s MD, of course, to be expected of the doctor who is Toronto’s medical officer of health. Along with her medical degree from the University of Toronto, she has a MHSc, or Masters of Health Science. She also uses the professional designations CCFP and FRCPC, proof that she passed the exams required to practise as a physician in Canada.
Such letters aren’t the only indicator of knowledge: From software developers to electricians, plenty of people excel in important fields without them. What’s behind Dr. de Villa’s letters is what really matters, and that’s the expertise needed to run a crucially important office.
In the current battle between public-health units and the provincial government, she’s the one who has earned the right to be trusted with three million lives. And on Tuesday, she said – again – that she’s worried about the people in her care.
“I do not believe it is hyperbole to suggest that there is risk to the lives of Torontonians if public health is underfunded,” Dr. de Villa said at a city-council meeting. She was there to discuss newly announced plans by the Ontario government to cut another $20-million from her budget in 2020, in addition to the $86-million in cuts that have happened this year, and the $105-million already scheduled for next.
The cutting includes reducing the province’s share of the Toronto Public Health (TPH) budget to 50 per cent from 75 per cent over the next three years. The city estimates this as a total reduction of $1-billion over a decade: the province has disputed that number, but hasn’t shared its own calculations with the city.
There’s no denying it’s a huge amount, and will affect a huge number of people. The doom of repeated history is on the horizon: The government is cutting money from public health, which tracks immunization, in the middle of a global measles outbreak.
Christine Elliott, the Minister of Health and Long-Term Care, is slicing the budget of the agency responsible for monitoring infectious diseases in a city known for its globe-trotting population. That’s an insult to the nurses and doctors who exhaustively battled the 2003 SARS outbreak, as well as those who lost loved ones, and those still suffering the health consequences.
The cuts also put water-quality testing at risk. This in a province that saw seven deaths and thousands of people sickened during the 2000 E. coli outbreak in Walkerton, the incident that originally prompted the province to increase its share of the TPH budget to 75 per cent.
In 2008, an E. coli outbreak linked to a Harvey’s sickened over 150 people in northern Ontario, including seniors and a baby. Yet in a recent attempt to justify the cuts, Premier Doug Ford belittled restaurant inspectors as people who “put the little stickers on that say it’s safe to eat here.”
This denigration of education and skill isn’t unique to Ontario’s government. To quote National Geographic, “we live in an age when all manner of scientific knowledge – from the safety of fluoride and vaccines to the reality of climate change – faces organized and often furious opposition.”
The causes listed in the magazine’s 2015 look at the phenomenon are numerous, from the rapid spread of disinformation on social media to the purposeful disempowering of trusted institutions by bad actors.
With his usual bombast, Mr. Ford recently maligned Dr. de Villa and her team as “lefties” who spend “ridiculous amounts of money.” He must have overlooked another set of letters in Dr. de Villa’s name, MBA, earned from a Masters of Business Administration from York University. Again, the letters aren’t all that matter, but they’re a decent indicator that she can handle the budgeting aspect of her job, too.
And she’ll have to: The province is insisting that the latest round of cuts will only affect administration, and come from “efficiencies,” in an attempt to dodge responsibility for the immediate and future effects. It’s left the dirty work to Dr. de Villa, MD MBA MHSc CCFP FRCPC, even as it continues to play down how much we all rely on her expertise.