The actual facts about Ford's handling of the pandemic do not fit into the prevailing narrative of a scrappy fighter for the 'little guy'.
By Ryan McGreal
Published January 25, 2021
A narrative has taken hold around Premier Doug Ford and the Ontario Government that he stepped up during the COVID-19 pandemic and became the leader we need. As a result of that narrative, it has become difficult to integrate evidence to the contrary.
The news media have been grading Ford on a curve. In May 2018, they swooned when he managed to stumble through a leaders' debate without throwing a tantrum. We expect less and are pleasantly surprised when he manages to exceed our low expectations.
In 2019, Ford cancelled guaranteed sick leave for Ontario workers, which a coalition of medical professionals warned was "a huge risk to public health". It's almost as if health experts know what they're talking about.
Also in 2019, Ford cut hundreds of millions of dollars out of public health, health care and long-term care across the province, while pledging to cut hundreds of millions more from public health the following year.
On March 7, 2020, when the COVID pandemic still seemed a remote threat, I warned that cutting public health is a deadly false economy and that we would come to regret having elected a populist demagogue during a serious public health crisis.
In the months that followed, I found myself wondering whether I had been too harsh. I still recall the March 12, 2020 presser when an ashen-faced Ford gripped the podium and announced schools would remain closed an additional two weeks after March Break. (They ended up remaining closed the rest of the school year.)
Ironically, this was later on the very same day after a much more chipper Ford had just finished reassuring Ontarians we could still "go away" and "have fun" on our March Break vacations.
It may be hard to remember now, but things were happening very quickly in those mid-March days when the entire country screeched to a halt. To be fair, it must have been extremely difficult for Ford to go against every political instinct, listen to the health experts he held in such low esteem and implement extraordinary emergency measures. But he did it, and without pandering to the anti-lockdown trolls.
Still, we should also bear in mind that, while Ford deserves recognition for doing the right thing in mid-March, responding appropriately to an unprecedented global emergency is not a particularly high bar. (We are still grading on a curve here.)
Ford had a golden opportunity to eliminate community transmission of COVID over the summer. Instead, he rushed to re-open the economy as fast as possible, squandering the opportunity and wiping out all the hard-won gains from the first lockdown.
He continues to ignore expert advice to reinstate the paid sick leave for Ontario workers that he cancelled in 2019, which is predictably resulting in soaring rates of workplace spread of COVID.
Worse still, we recently learned that Ford and his government made a conscious, deliberate choice to 'water down' the SickKids guidelines on how to safely reopen Ontario schools, so they could cut costs and spend less on school safety.
This is an astonishing failure of responsible governance, and it should be a major story dominating the Ontario news cycle. The government should be getting hammered over it. Yet it has no real traction.
And even this pales in comparison to the catastrophic failure of basic governmental duty in protecting the lives of seniors living in Ontario's long-term care (LTC) facilities, which were privatized and deregulated under Ford's predecessor Mike Harris.
Harris didn't just privatize the LTC sector, he went on to invest in it, extracting profits from elder care by cutting service and slashing safety regulations. Harris has been the chair of a chain of LTC facilities since 2003.
An August 2020 research paper published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found that for-profit LTC facilities were likely to have more extensive COVID-19 outbreaks, attributed to older design standards and chain ownership.
The previous Liberal Government, responding to a growing pattern of neglect and elder abuse, implemented the Long-Term Care Homes Act in 2010 to tighten standards of care. It didn't go far enough to protect seniors but at least it was something.
But in 2019, Ford repealed those oversight requirements as part of the "Restoring Ontario's Competitiveness Act". Apparently making sure seniors don't die of neglect was hurting our competitiveness.
After a surge in deadly COVID outbreaks in LTC facilities last year, Ford responded by actually making it harder to sue an LTC facility for causing death from the pandemic.
These facts - refusing to ensure sick pay, refusing to invest in school safety, shielding LTC owners instead of protecting seniors - don't fit into the prevailing narrative of Ford as a scrappy fighter for the "little guy", so they just float around unmoored from a broader pattern.
But the narrative is bogus. Despite responding appropriately back in March, Ford is ultimately what he has always been: the rich child of a Conservative elder statesman and business executive who is committed to giving his rich friends the tax cuts and deregulations they want, and damn the consequences for anyone else.
If we can't recognize this government's actions as part of an ideological pattern, we have no way to hold them accountable to uphold their fundamental duty of governance. And vulnerable people will continue to get sick and die as a result.
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