Enzo DiMatteo: Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s COVID-19 negligence borders on criminal

At what point should the government’s refusal to heed public health warnings in its response to COVID-19 be considered a crime?

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      I sent my kid back to school today. To say I am a little uneasy about that would be an understatement. I had no choice.

      That’s because he was already enrolled in in-person learning and there is no opportunity to switch to an online class after the province’s post-holiday lockdown. Thousands of other parents are in the same boat.

      I’m all for getting back to whatever semblance of normalcy we can during these unusual times. That’s why I was okay with in-person learning in the first place. But the emergence of the U.K. and South Africa COVID-19 variants—and the fact they will be the dominant strains by this time next month—has shifted the ground. Sending kids back to school now feels a little like pushing them out of a plane at 30,000 feet with a faulty parachute.

      Everything that can be said about the many ways Ontario's Doug Ford government has fumbled its COVID response has already been said. It’s beginning to sound like a broken record. Maybe that’s the point so people will tune out.

      Some of the government’s actions—in particular its mishandling of the virus in long-term care—has amounted to gross negligence. Others have described the Ford government’s failures as a violation of human rights. The Ontario Human Rights Commission, for example, has raised concerns about the Ford government’s pandemic response when it comes to which groups are being prioritized for treatment for the virus and which are at the front of the line for a vaccine. 

      But at what point should the government’s negligence be considered criminal?

      Ignorance is no defence in a court of law when someone is charged with a criminal offence. And it can’t be said the Ford government doesn’t understand the risks posed by COVID-19. They’ve been warning us from the beginning about impending doom if we don’t take the appropriate precautions to protect ourselves. But talk is cheap. Still, Ford continues to say one thing and put people in harm’s way.

      The province’s refusal to reinstate paid sick days despite repeated calls from public health experts that it’s crucial to beating the virus is putting thousands of Ontarians at risk.

      Throughout the pandemic, the Ford government has put the economy ahead of the health of Ontarians. Its decision to drag us through serial lockdowns has not only exposed more people than need to be to the virus, but it’s also causing untold damage to peoples’ mental health, the fallout from which we may be feeling for years to come. 

      Now kids are being put in the path of danger even while the latest modelling points to a potential disaster in the making with the rise of the highly contagious B117 COVID-19 variant. 

      Stay-at-home orders are still in place in Toronto, Peel, and York, the province’s hardest-hit areas. But it’s unclear if those restrictions will stay beyond February 22, when they’re scheduled to be lifted.

      Public health experts say those restrictions should stay in place for another two to four weeks with kids going back to school, to make sure the daily case counts continue to head in the right direction. Daily case counts are on the decline, but as we’ve learned from other waves, that’s mostly a mirage.

      The “R number” (a.k.a. as the reproduction number) measuring the spread of the virus is still hovering around 0.8 in Ontario. That’s lower than the 1.0 considered dangerous. But experts tell us it will need to come down to 0.4 or so to keep the virus at manageable levels for the inevitable third wave that’s coming thanks to the new variants.

      More than 6,700 people have died of COVID-19 in the province. The devastation continues in long-term care.

      The premier, meanwhile, has gone in recent weeks from blaming the feds to guilt-tripping Ontarians about the province’s high daily case counts. How well we get through the current wave will be up to us, he said at a recent press briefing. Where exactly does the government’s responsibility begin on this?

      It’s quite the deflection for a premier that started the pandemic proclaiming that the province has got our backs and will leave no stone unturned, while still refusing to spend some $6 billion in federal government aid for COVID response. 

      The Ford government is probably not the worst government in Canada when it comes to its handling of the pandemic. That dubious distinction must go to Alberta.

      But tracing and isolating cases continues to be a challenge, residents in long-term care homes continue to die and ICU beds are still well above the 150 threshold (it has been hovering at around 300 for some weeks) deemed manageable.

      Vaccine supplies will still not be arriving in large enough numbers to provide a layer of protection for Ontarians until the middle of March. There’s still no plan—at least not one we’ve been made privy to—on what the vaccine rollout will look like. And with the worst yet to come, our kids are being sent out into the thick of it.

      Operators of private long-term care homes have already been hit with class actions alleging negligence. Hopefully, we won’t be headed for a similar situation with the Ford government’s decision to send kids back to school. All it would take is one death and we’d be having an entirely different conversation.