Living in midtown Toronto, I am surrounded by lockdown protesters.
After all, it is the “Marching Season.” Every Saturday, assorted groups of marchers, representing everything from anti-maskers to Q-Anon congregate around the statute of King Edward VII in Queen’s Park; they briefly bring traffic to a halt along Bloor Street West chanting their slogans.
Their messages are all about resistance to government-imposed restrictions during the pandemic: “Stop the endless lockdowns” and protect their Charter-given freedoms to choose their own fates. Some even query whether the pandemic is as serious as the government portrays. Others announce that the pandemic is a product of the “international bankers.”
Maskless and escorted by police on bicycles who are wearing protective gear, the sign-waving marchers shout out their protest on blaring megaphones. They also post fluorescent signs on street poles and traffic stop signs, sharing toll free phone numbers where supporters can record their anti-lockdown messages.
Taking my regular daily exercise walk during the late arrival of a glorious spring, I find more and more individuals who refuse to be guided by government requests not to congregate outside. On any day when the rain is not falling, parents and families, friends or university students spread blankets or eat picnic lunches on the grounds around Queen’s Park and in the surrounding ravines.
Within the shadow of newly erected signs that “the amenity is closed by provincial order,” young people jostle on basketball courts, shooting playground hoops.
Between 27 and 39 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines are en route to Canada in May and June. The public is conscious of the prospect of a successful mass vaccination.
With almost 50 doses administered for every 100 people, Canada has rocketed into the top tier of vaccinated countries, and ahead of all the G-7 nations except for the UK and the USA. The percentage of all Canadians vaccinated with at least one dose of the vaccine is now on a path to surpass that of the United States (it widely outpaces us on two-dose vaccinations) in the next couple of weeks.
Canadians gaze enviously at the opening of the U.S. society and business, and wonder when our turn for a return to normalcy will come.
In this environment, the next steps the Ford government takes to manage citizen expectations while rewarding the long-suffering public’s acceptance of the pandemic rules will go some way in shaping their political future.
The prolonged shutdown of outdoor activities, against nearly all medical advice including the recommendations of Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, has inflicted real and potentially lasting damage on perceptions of Mr. Ford’s judgment and PC re-election chances.
Ongoing provincial efforts to blame the federal government for everything from the circulation of COVID-19 variants to the lack of paid sick leave are seen as attempts to deflect attention from their own culpability. These tactics do not seem to have boosted Tory fortunes.
No surprise that Premier Ford has started to signal a range of positive initiatives, once the current lockdown date now extended to June has been passed.
On Sunday, the Premier mused that summer camps will likely open in July, a measure of relief to parents who have struggled to balance jobs and family care obligations, children rebelling against virtual learning and the confinement of close quarters for several months.
There is talk of the safe re-opening of additional outdoor activities (golf, tennis, basketball etc.)
But the Ford government needs to develop and deliver its pandemic policies with a commonsense approach.
While there remains lip service about the need to follow the science, these public health choices require sensitive and well communicated political decision-making.
With the rush to vaccinate adults with a first dose well underway, what mechanisms will be implemented to ensure priority second dose vaccination for those most vulnerable (seniors, chronic conditions, health care and essential workers as well as those living in a hotspot?)
Currently, frustration is high among citizens seeking appointments; it often feels that an advanced degree in computer science or a “sherpa” of some sort — often a computer savvy teenager — is required to navigate the confusing and unconnected vaccination registration sites.
What priority will be assigned by the government to vaccinating younger Ontarians, especially in the 12 to 18 range?
What will be done to meet the expectations of those vaccinated in pharmacies but who do not have second appointments booked? Will they be allowed to vaccine shop, especially if they have received AstraZeneca? What will be done with the extra unwanted vaccines locked up in freezers across the province?
How will Mr. Ford establish, explain and enforce the metrics to open the economy, expand family and social bubbles and interactions and ultimately re-institute face to face education in the schools (not just virtual learning) in the fall? At the same time, how can the government get off the “stop and start” treadmill while maintaining the right to impose short and potentially severe sanctions to restrict outbreaks in future?
While responding to these pandemic policy challenges are Job One, the Ford administration also has to address long-simmering criticisms of a number of its other controversial policy choices.
Facing the pandemic and an upcoming election, there is a lot to resolve on the Ford government’s decision plate.
Hershell Ezrin is a Professor of Government Relations, Seneca at York, and former Principal Secretary to Liberal Premier David Peterson.