Premiers have had to make tough choices over the course of the last 15 months. Atlantic governments restricted travel in and out of their provinces to protect their populations from COVID-19. Quebec Premier François Legault resisted reverting to provincewide school shutdowns during the second and third waves, instead opting for measures such as a provincial curfew and regional controls. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney consistently emphasized the importance of personal freedoms and rejected imposing stricter third-wave restrictions, up until the moment he pretty much had no choice. B.C. began allowing visitors in long-term care homes last summer, even though the move risked importing new cases into congregate settings.
Reasonable people may disagree on whether these decisions reflected a correct hierarchy of priorities, but the least one can say for them is that they were actual decisions – rooted ostensibly in some combination of principle, politics and expert advice.
And then there’s Ontario, which, for the last almost year-and-a-half, has been a rudderless ship with a neophyte captain, drifting wherever public opinion blows, usually with a two- to three-week delay. Premier Doug Ford has incessantly repeated that nothing is more important than protecting the health of Ontarians – and also keeping kids in school, and protecting our seniors, and supporting small businesses, and safeguarding our economy – which together means that nothing has really been more important than anything else.
The effect has been a government that lurches from celebrating reopening plans to issuing dire warnings about ICU occupancies over a matter of weeks; an approach to governing rooted so nakedly on staying in the public’s good graces that the Premier will openly ask for “consensus” on school reopening plans before making a call so as to shield himself from accountability.
Ontario has fared about average in terms of controlling the pandemic compared to other provinces if we look strictly at COVID-19 numbers. Though the province has seen the highest cumulative number of cases (more than 532,000 as of June 2), it is solidly middle of the pack adjusted for population, with a lower case rate than Alberta, Quebec, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. It has fared worse on deaths, however, recording a total of nearly 8,800 as of June 2, or a rate per population that is the third-highest in Canada.
What is much more difficult to quantify is the unnecessary suffering that Ontarians have been made to endure because of this government’s preoccupation with approval and habitual about-faces. Even before Mr. Ford announced this past week that students would not be returning to in-class learning in this academic year, Ontario elementary-level children were out of school longer than any other students in Canada. That sacrifice would be somewhat forgivable had it meant that the province better controlled the spread of COVID-19, yet provinces such as B.C., where provincewide elementary school closures were limited to around 10 weeks, managed to markedly outperform Ontario in limiting community transmission of COVID-19. Ontario’s kids will be out of school for more than twice that.
Along with kids, Ontario’s seniors – particularly those in long-term care homes – have disproportionately borne the burden of Mr. Ford’s aimless, undisciplined approach to pandemic control. Whereas Quebec made improvements to its long-term care system after COVID-19 utterly devastated its facilities during the first wave, Ontario’s Premier promised to erect an “iron ring” around care homes and then moved onto other things, which allowed a second wave to tear through homes resulting in more deaths than in the first wave. Since then, seniors in care homes have been periodically forced back into lockdown every time an unvaccinated staff member tests positive for COVID-19.
Hairdressers, manicurists and other personal service workers in parts of the province have been out of work since November of last year, even after being teased with reopening dates in the spring. Restaurateurs were allowed to open patios for two weeks and then promptly forced to shut down once Ontario’s government realized, belatedly, that third-wave projections were real. Ontarians still aren’t permitted to go camping or participate in outdoor fitness classes – even though the science says these activities are safe – as the province continues to overcorrect for its ill-conceived March reopening.
Other premiers made tough, controversial, choices: Mr. Legault put in-class learning above freedom of movement. Mr. Kenney arguably put businesses and livelihoods ahead of health care infrastructure. Mr. Ford, meanwhile, has staggered from one priority to the next, taking Ontarians along with him for an unpredictable, unnecessary and unpleasant ride.
Indeed, nowhere else in Canada have children been out of school so long, have seniors been hit with two equally devastating waves, have outdoor activities been so restricted for months, have personal service workers been forced into such prolonged shutdown and have retailers and other businesses faced such extended restrictions. And in exchange for these sacrifices, the province can boast … average case numbers, and above-average deaths. No premier west of Newfoundland and Labrador has really excelled in managing the COVID-19 pandemic, but for the avoidable suffering Mr. Ford’s approval-chasing and indiscipline has thrust on Ontarians, his name ought to be at the very bottom of the list.
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