With only a few months to go until the provincial election, Ontario Premier Doug Ford has decided to roll the dice on the idea that the pandemic really is over.
As of March 21, masks are no longer mandatory in most public settings across the province, with all restrictions set to be pulled on April 27. It’s difficult to believe that this is sound public health policy when it comes only three weeks after the vaccine passport system was lifted, and the viral signal in wastewater is ticking up, meaning COVID-19 is spreading more broadly. Actual testing is still so limited that we don’t really know the full extent of the spread. And now with the emergence of a more virulent sub-variant of Omicron, another variable has been added to the mix.
Why the urgency to drop masking, when a few more weeks with the measure in place could let us know where we really stand with the virus? The answer is pretty straightforward: There’s an election coming, and Conservative voters are the least supportive of COVID-19 public health measures.
At best, this decision is a gamble. It may well turn out fine, but Ford’s track record throughout this pandemic hints otherwise. Worse, the government has consistently dragged its feet on re-imposing health measures when things have gone from bad to worse to nightmarish. As a result, when restrictions were put in place they lasted longer and were more severe than they would have otherwise needed to be. This is how Ontario has ended up closing schools for longer than anywhere else on the continent.
That’s leadership, for Ford. Hard choices are something he’s forced into, dragged kicking and screaming, and then doing only with the greatest reluctance. If at all possible, Ford stays out of sight, so he can avoid difficult issues. But then up he will pop, making himself the face of what can be seen as good news. Which is where we are now, supposedly. If the gamble pays off, it will mean that the last COVID-19 call Ford made before the election is the “right” one. As if playing with people’s lives is like picking a horse at the track.
Not only have more than 12,400 people died from COVID-19 in Ontario throughout this pandemic, but hundreds of thousands have had medical procedures and urgent surgeries cancelled or delayed because the government allowed hospitals to be overwhelmed. The children’s hospital in Ottawa, CHEO, has said nearly three quarters of the children it has seen hospitalized with COVID-19 have come to the hospital since December. One success story in long-term care is a home that said it avoided spread of the virus by ignoring the loosening of provincial health guidelines.
This government long ago lost the benefit of the doubt that it was making decisions in the best interests of Ontarians. There’s no reason to look at the decision to pull the mask mandate now and accept that it’s being made in good faith.
Ford and his government have made decisions throughout the pandemic that put the narrow interests of their political base ahead of those of Ontarians. And now, they have essentially abandoned the most vulnerable.
We’ve been told that we need to learn to live with COVID-19 — that the virus will be with us for the long haul. But part of living with COVID-19 is dealing with some of the inconvenient measures that go along with it. Having to wear a mask in public isn’t the end of the world. But for some, catching COVID-19 will be the end of their world.
So, like Ford, we’re left to hope this all works out. Not for his sake, or his electoral chances, but so fewer people get sick and die. Once again, that’s a part of the equation that has been left out of the government’s plan.