If a freight train was barrelling toward a crowd of pedestrians, Ontario’s government would wait to survey the dead bodies before announcing the lowering of the crossing gates. “Things have changed rapidly,” Premier Doug Ford would say to those still lucid in the devastated crowd. “The next few days will be critical.” Never mind the warnings from the rail traffic controllers, the conductors, the people with eyes; “no one could have seen this coming,” the Premier would insist. “The time for action is now. Nothing is more important than protecting our people.”
Over the course of the past year, Ontario’s government has made a habit of cordoning off train tracks only after massive accidents, seemingly never learning, from one collision to the next, of the importance of paying attention to the lights and sounds in the distance. In early January, Education Minister Stephen Lecce wrote an open letter to parents assuring them that students would return to in-person learning as scheduled, even as case numbers continued to climb and experts warned that family gatherings over the holidays could bring new COVID-19 cases into classrooms. Just days later, the government announced that students across southern Ontario would not, in fact, be returning to in-person learning as planned.
Then this past Sunday, as if by rote, Mr. Lecce again wrote another open letter to parents reiterating the government’s plans to open schools as scheduled after the spring break, even as case numbers and ICU occupancy reached record highs and individual public health units exercised their powers to close local schools. And then once again – this time, less than 24 hours later – his Premier announced that students would not, in fact, be returning to classrooms as planned, and that they would instead be learning virtually for an indefinite period of time. No one from the government could explain what had materially changed over the course of a single day. Maybe those bells and flashing lights were indicative of an oncoming train after all.
This sort of sheepish climb-down has been the Ontario government’s choice method of pandemic management. Back on Mar. 26, Ontario announced that personal care services would soon be permitted to welcome customers in the grey-level lockdown regions of the province, and that capacity limits for weddings, funerals and religious services would be expanded as the province gradually moved toward reopening. That announcement was made amid warnings from Ontario’s own science advisory table that the more contagious, deadlier COVID-19 variants – which then made up 55 per cent of new reported cases – had already sent the seven-day average of daily cases soaring and would lead to record ICU occupancy.
Then a few days later, Mr. Ford announced that Ontario would not, in fact, be proceeding with reopening plans, and instead would be implementing a province-wide “emergency brake.” He could not offer a reasonable explanation for what had changed in such a short time, since the trajectory had been evident for weeks. At the same time, Health Minister Christine Elliott noted that the province would not be issuing a stay-at-home order, citing the “tremendous ill effect” that January’s order had on both children and adults. Less than a week later, however, Ontario’s government announced it would be issuing a stay-at-home order “to protect health system capacity and save lives during [the] third wave.” No one from the government could meaningfully explain why the “ill effect” was abruptly the better outcome.
Solicitor General Sylvia Jones did, however, offer a clue into the thinking behind the government’s perpetual course corrections. When pressed by the CBC’s Robyn Bresnahan last week about why the province waited so long to act, Ms. Jones replied: “We wanted to make sure that the modelling was actually showing up in our hospitals,” which is another way of saying: We wanted to make sure that a freight train barrelling through a crowd really would kill a bunch of pedestrians.
The charitable interpretation of that statement is that the government didn’t believe the modelling from its own scientific advisory table, which would merely have been reckless and incompetent. The uncharitable interpretation is that the government wanted the public to see case numbers and ICU occupancy rise before acting on politically unpopular lockdowns and school closures, which would have been reckless, incompetent and ghoulish. Either way, we can be reasonably confident that the next time a freight train comes barrelling toward the people of Ontario, this government – having not learned from the many collisions it has witnessed over the past year – will stand by as it plows through the crowd before lowering the gates. “No one could have seen this coming,” the Premier will say. “The time for action is now.”
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