It was never about public health. It was always about politics.
If there is any takeaway from this morning’s infuriating press conference with Ontario premier Doug Ford and his various flunkies, it’s this: the provincial government waited until it felt it was politically feasible to take measures everyone with any credibility was screaming were necessary and inevitable to combat the Omicron variant of Covid-19. Today’s stunted, cliché-ridden performance told us nothing we didn’t already know and presented the people of Ontario with scenarios that had been clearly predicted by epidemiologists and experts in the medical establishment more than a month ago.
The World Health Organization was first made aware of the Omicron variant, technically identified as variant B.1.1.529 and originating in South Africa, on November 24, 2021. The organization declared Omicron a variant of concern on November 26. The first Canadian cases of the variant appeared three days later, on November 29, in Ottawa. By December 3, the number of cases in Canada stood at fifteen.
On November 30, 2021, McMaster University’s Dr. Dawn Bodish said the variant appeared to be “the worst of all possible worlds” and stated that, despite having been discovered mere weeks previously, it appeared that “some antibodies induced by the vaccine will be less effective and perhaps ineffective” against Omicron.
Since then, a veritable tsunami of experts (to use one of Ford’s go-to clichés) fell in line with Dr. Bodish, declaring that Omicron was far more contagious than previous variants, with more than 30 mutations to the spike protein that allows the virus to attach to human cells and replicate itself. On December 16, with the severity of the variant still unknown and Ontario logging 2,421 new cases of Covid-19, the co-chair of the province’s science advisory table publicly declared that without the implementation of a so-called circuit breaker to limit the mobility of citizens and restrict the number of interactions between people in the following weeks, cases could skyrocket to more than 10,000 per day by the end of 2021.
Of course, the prediction came nine days before the Christmas holiday and it was politically dangerous to reintroduce capacity restrictions in places such as restaurants, bars, cinemas, gyms, sports and concert venues, and other locations where the public gathers, often unmasked to do things like eat and drink. So, despite the fact that on December 16, Ford stated that the province needed to “meet this variant head on” and Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Kieran Moore, said that “the virus will not take a holiday,” it was decided that restaurants, gyms, personal care services, strip clubs, and other businesses would be allowed to operate at 50% capacity.
By January 1 of this year, it turned out that the 10,000 cases per day predicted in mid-December was a conservative estimate. On New Year’s Day, Ontario set a new record of 18,445 new cases, with the rolling seven-day average sitting at 12,495.
Anyone who is at all sentient should have seen this coming. It’s not as though we were not warned, repeatedly and loudly, about the high transmissibility of Omicron and its potential to overwhelm our hospital system, even given that by all accounts the variant causes less severe illness in the majority of people it infects. The combination of its hugely contagious nature and its ability to evade vaccines means that the sheer number of people succumbing to infection will result in an increase in hospitalizations across a system that is already suffering from exhaustion and burnout after previous waves. And that’s before factoring in staff shortages from front-line workers who themselves must isolate after testing positive for the virus.
All of which makes today’s press conference a masterpiece of duplicity and prevarication. Ford finally caved to the inevitable, announcing that schools in the province would remain closed for in-person learning for at least another two weeks, while restaurants, bars, gyms, cinemas, theatres, and strip clubs would close altogether, except for take-out or outdoor service. “If we don’t do everything possible to get this variant under control,” Ford said, “the results could be catastrophic. It is a risk I cannot take.”
Except it’s a risk he decided he was fully willing to take back in December, when scientists and epidemiologists and experts were virtually unanimous in warning that left unchecked, Omicron would overrun the province and prove impossible to control. With experts now predicting the potential for more than 100,000 cases per day in the province, the government had no choice but to act, even though the time to implement today’s restrictions was in December, before holiday gatherings, office parties, and other seasonal events more or less guaranteed that Omicron would run roughshod over the entire population.
Yet once again, the Ford government reverted to type, waiting for the numbers to creep up – or in this case, to shoot up in an almost vertical line – before doing anything meaningful. Which makes all the platitudes about wanting to protect the people of Ontario and preserve the capacity of our health-care system ring utterly hollow. The time to act was a month ago. But there is an election on the horizon and that course of action was clearly judged to be political suicide before the holidays. So the government waited, yet again, until it was too late, then announced measures that at this point have no chance of doing anything effective.
The Ford government’s craven political calculus may end up backfiring. As the province scrambles to roll out boosters and claws back access to testing, an increasingly beleaguered populace may focus with more and more precision on June 2, the date of the upcoming provincial election. And the calculating, cowardly PCs may not be terribly happy with what those people have to say at the ballot box.