Susanna Kelley (Moderator): Quebec has entered a strict lockdown while Ontario is being criticized as too lax, not protecting essential workers and letting hospitals teeter near capacity. Meanwhile schools in a number of areas, such as Toronto and Peel, closed to in-person learning. Is Ontario’s shutdown enough to battle the third wave of COVID-19?

Chris Loreto:

Ontario, like many other jurisdictions around the world, is in the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic and that is why the Ontario government, in consultation with the Chief Medical Officer of Health, imposed a provincewide “emergency brake” this past weekend.

The third wave is not unique to Ontario. This wave is hitting harder because variants are now accounting for a significant portion of new cases. According to the WHO, in Europe, the variant first found in Britain is spreading significantly in at least 27 European countries and is now dominant in Denmark, Italy, Ireland, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal.

All of these jurisdictions are putting on emergency brakes — either by delaying the lifting of restrictions or re-imposing lockdown restrictions.

This latest province-wide lockdown is attempting to stop the rapid transmission of COVID-19 variants in communities, protect hospital capacity and save lives.

Is this lockdown enough? Being from Peel, I have really only known lockdown since November. It has been a long and tough road.

I do think provincial efforts are appropriate. The government has to balance fighting the third wave and the risk it poses with increasing public restlessness from over a year of reduced freedom.

Some will point to the pictures from the weekend with crowded malls as evidence that the lockdown measures are insufficient. The question we have to ask is why weren’t measures taken in these instances to manage the flow of customers in these settings? We all have to be accountable for how we are adhering to the measures despite the fatigue and frustration we are all feeling.

We all need to be responsible citizens as we fight this third wave.

Sarbjit Kaur:

The latest shutdown is too little too late.

It’s like Groundhog Day. We keep suffering under repeated lockdowns because we’re opening up too early each time or not dealing with the hot spots and real sources of outbreaks.

Now we’re in lockdown again and malls are open, some schools are open, workplaces with thousands of employees are operating.

It’s not a lockdown. What’s the point?

We’re just dragging this out and now with the variants out there, hospitals are overwhelmed and workers who’ve already been through what they may have thought was the worst of it are under tremendous pressure again.

The optimism of looking forward to spring, a smooth vaccine rollout and a return to “normal” has given way to fear, finger pointing and frustration.

Decision makers have known for some time that regions like Peel and Toronto, particularly where there are high numbers of workers who can’t work from home such as those in food processing plants, warehouse workers, factory workers, taxi and transit drivers etc., are hot spots.  Focusing on closing small businesses and gyms but keeping schools and huge congregate workplaces open was obviously not going to be effective.

It finally took Peel’s Medical Officer of Health to close down an Amazon warehouse after over 600 COVID-19 cases and they’ve shut down their schools as well.

Municipalities having to take these measures on their own due to lack of provincial action points to dysfunction and failure on the lockdown front.

Fred Hahn:

This is actually the first wave of the variants of COVID-19.

We need to shift our plans and pivot to save lives.

That’s not what we are seeing from the Ford Conservatives. Doug Ford walked us into this lockdown — or emergency brake, or whatever we are calling it — with eyes wide open.

While experts were warning him of explosive growth of more infectious and more deadly

variants, he cancelled public health protections. He marched us right into grave danger.

It should never have come to this. This wave didn’t have to be this horrific.

The “shutdown” is too little and too late. It’s the same failed approach Ford has already been taking.

This is not about individual bad actors; people are doing what we are allowed to do. This is about failed political leadership.

The public health measures fall far short of what experts say are needed. It’s full of more mixed messaging. There are no financial supports for communities, people or small businesses.

There are no paid sick days, and no comprehensive testing in essential workplaces.

There is no cap on class sizes so kids can socially distance in schools. There is no comprehensive plan to get the vaccine to essential workers and no paid time off to get the shot.

We desperately need more — and Ontario desperately deserves better.

Chris Loreto:

I really wrestle with all of this. I find it hard to be partisan on this whole issue. I think it is tough for political leaders to satisfy anyone in this environment.

Ford is being criticized for not doing enough. But only a few weeks ago Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie was arguing that Mississauga should be separated from Peel and put into Red. Then the Chief Medical Officer for Peel shuts all the schools down.

You can’t win for trying. The environment is moving too fast. It is hard fighting an invisible enemy.

I think the government was right not to fully shut down retail this time. Retailers have taken too many punches in all of this. The lockdown before Christmas was devastating for many. Part of helping our retailers is to make sure we are only shopping when we absolutely have to.

Some will argue that we should close down the malls and big box stores. No one ever really considers what kind of panic this may cause in the population. For many, big box stores are where they shop to feed and clothe their families. We need to have some level of openness as we drive to get people vaccinated.

We need to ramp up vaccinations. Where the province can do better is targeting vaccinations. I think we need to move from the age cohorts to focus on vulnerable communities and workers. My son works in a grocery store. He should be getting a shot.

If we have empty vaccinations centres, we need to move more quickly to get others in who are ready. We may also need to move from a “come to us”, to “we’ll go to you” vaccination approach. This seems to have worked in long-term care where the first wave of vaccinations was focused — the number of cases and deaths have reduced significantly.

Sarbjit Kaur:

Understanding these are uncharted waters, nobody is expecting perfection.

However, we’ve been to this shutdown rodeo a few times now and should know when it’s not working. And we’ve seen other countries and parts of Canada get back to normal by being tough and getting to COVID-19 zero before opening up again. They’ve been quick to apply emergency measures as necessary as well as when experiencing setbacks.

We seem to want to wait and be in denial until everyone is ringing alarm bells and finally the government will act.

Worst of all we’re seeing more deaths. There’s no excuse for putting retail workers, teachers, transit and taxi drivers and so many others who aren’t able to work from home at risk. A real lockdown would protect everyone and also get us to COVID-19 zero faster.

For sure people are frustrated. But if we’re going to do a lockdown again — can we get it right? Or be more strategic with our vaccination rollout if we insist on keeping things open and putting those who have no choice but to be exposed at risk?

I agree with Chris about vaccinations being part of this. My daughter also works in a grocery store. The trade-off for keeping things open should be some protection for workers — who are also often spreaders as they interact with other workers and multiple customers. 

I don’t know that we can count on malls etc. for enforcement but a combination of a better lockdown (why not close down all schools when spring break is coming?) and more strategic vaccinations would be very helpful.

Not sure this government is capable. Like I said, nobody expects perfection but mobile vaccinations and going to hot spots are some obvious tactics that just don’t seem to have been planned for.

Fred Hahn:

This isn’t about being partisan. Any leader of any party that messed this up this badly would be held to account.

It is the lack of a clear province wide plan that is causing some to go off on their own — and the mixed messages about the economy being more important than public health.

There are over one million doses of vaccine in storage and many more on the way — we need a plan to get that into the arms of essential workers — in grocery stores, factories, schools, community services — now.

Over the weekend I saw a Tweet saying there are six COVID-19 cases in long-term care — six. This proves vaccination works. But we don’t have an accelerated vaccination plan at all — and that, at this point, is just unacceptable.

And yes, community and small business were hurt by a total shut down. They are not the problem. Malls, huge big box stores — that’s where we have seen the huge crowds.

But if the Conservatives are not willing to enforce actual standards then what do we do? Keep blaming people who are only doing what the government is telling them they are allowed to do?

There are so many who have been calling clearly and strongly for paid sick days — past leaders of the Conservative Party, now mayors, unions, coalitions, everyday folks — and yet there is an ideological block at Queen’s Park, and that means we will see more preventable deaths.

This is not the time for half measures — we had close to or over 3,000 cases a day over the weekend — but on Tuesday a press conference to give us an update on progress and new measures told us nothing, except wait for Wednesday … maybe …

We are all exhausted — the members of my union who have been on the front lines of this are exhausted — and days like these just add to the mental stress we are all feeling.

We deserve more. We need more.

Chris Loreto is the 1st Vice President of the Ontario PC Party and previously served as Chief of Staff to Ontario’s Attorney General and Minister Responsible for Native Affairs in the Harris government. He is currently Principal at StrategyCorp.  Fred Hahn is the President of CUPE Ontario, working for legislative, policy and political changes affecting public service, equality and empowered communities across the country. He is a veteran supporter of the NDP. Sarbjit Kaur has worked in Liberal politics for 20 years, including as Director of Communications to a cabinet minister in the McGuinty government. She is a former journalist and currently co-founder of KPW Communications.

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