Ontario’s strategy for battling Covid-19 simply isn’t working.
After almost three weeks of strict lockdown under Ontario’s “Grey-Lockdown” zone rules, Peel Region and the City of Toronto have only slightly slowed the rate of increase in new Covid cases, and have not yet flattened their curves. Meanwhile, new Covid cases in regions with less severe restrictions such as York, Hamilton, Windsor-Essex, Durham, Eastern Ontario, and Middlesex-London are also rising, some sharply.
York Region and Windsor Essex will be shifted into the “Grey – Lockdown” zone on Monday.
The argument for closing down all “non-essential” businesses and restaurants (including heated restaurant patios) in Peel and Toronto was that such measures would reduce overall social interaction and that this reduction in social interaction would lead to reduced Covid transmission. The argument of this post is that treating all neighbourhoods within a public health zone in the same manner (Toronto has three million people in its public health zone and Peel has 1.45 million), simply won’t work. This is because the lockdowns do nothing to help essential workers who have no choice but to go to work and interact with others in the workplace on their employers’ terms. And in both Peel and Toronto, the residents of some neighbourhoods are overwhelmingly essential workers while the residents of other, wealthier neighbourhoods, have jobs that allow them to choose to work from home.
In fact, the lockdowns as implemented in Peel and Toronto do nothing for anyone whose boss wants them to be at the workplace – whether that workplace is deemed essential or not or whether it is safe or not. A majority of the working population falls into this category and the Toronto and Peel data shows that in neighbourhoods where the vast majority of people can’t choose to stay home, Covid rates are up to 10 times higher than wealthier neighbourhoods where a majority of residents have the freedom to work from home.
Put bluntly, Ontario’s primarily white, comfortably-off neighbourhoods do not have a Covid crisis while the province’s lower-income, often racialized neighbourhoods, are getting hammered. To do nothing to protect the people who are most at risk of getting sick from Covid is simply inexcusable. But doing nothing to protect a majority of Toronto and Peel residents from Covid is exactly what imposing the provincial “Grey – Lockdown” zones on Peel and Toronto actually does.
Then there are the political choices made by the Ford government as to what is open and what is closed under “Grey – Lockdown” zone restrictions. In theory, the key distinction is between “essential” and “non-essential” businesses. Essential businesses (e.g. supermarkets) may remain open while non-essential businesses must close. But that is not how it works on the ground.
For example, Ontario has decided to allow all big box stores (Walmart, Costco, etc.) to remain completely open under “Grey – Lockdown” zone restrictions even though the space devoted to food in these stores is only around 15%. At the same time, it has closed down all non-essential retail in the public health regions covering Toronto and Peel that sell the same things as the big box stores. This is grossly unfair to large chains like The Bay (who went to court to challenge the Ontario rules Thursday morning) but more importantly, is putting thousands of small and medium size retailers out of business by shutting them down during the all important Christmas shopping season.
In addition to the Toronto and Peel “Grey-Lockdowns” doing nothing for the 60% of the population most at risk because they are required to go to work, a significant majority of those 18 and under are going to school and the lockdown also does nothing to protect them. This is particularly a problem in schools that serve hard-hit neighbourhoods. In Toronto, as the results of early school rapid testing are released, schools in these neighbourhoods are beginning to close. Fraser Mustard Early Learning Academy in Toronto’s Thorncliffe Park is closed until at least Dec. 14. Another nearby school, Thorncliffe Park Public School closed due to increasing COVID-19 cases among student and staff. Marc Garneau Collegiate, serving the same neighbourhood, is also closed.
Finally, little that was learned from the devastation in Ontario’s nursing homes during the first wave is being applied to protect long-term care residents and staff in the second wave. These nursing homes are regulated by the provincial government so it is ultimately the provincial government that is responsible for the fact that the province is pretty much seeing a repeat in its long-term care facilities of the devastating death toll that occurred in the first wave. According to provincial statistics, 118 of its 626 long-term care homes are experiencing an outbreak. As of December 10, 623 long-term care residents currently have COVID and 24 new deaths were reported just in the past 24 hours. The 24 new deaths reported from long-term care residences were out of 35 new Covid deaths reported on December 10 in Ontario as a whole. That’s two-thirds of Ontario new deaths due to Covid occurring in long-term care homes – just a shade below the percentage that was recorded from long-term care residences in Ontario during the first wave.
In summary, the “one-size fits all” approach being used by the Ford government simply isn’t working. What needs to be implemented are public health measures that are targeted at the neighbourhood and institutional (e.g., long-term care facility, workplace, school, etc.) level, not at the regional, public health unit level as is now the case. Transmission is happening in factories, distribution centres and other essential workplaces and workers in these facilities are going back to their families in crowded living conditions and infecting them. In a large urban region such as the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), people who work in these facilities live in certain neighbourhoods and not in others. This rather obvious insight has to drive all public health measures or the measures will fail.
The solutions to these neighbourhood-based problems are not particularly original: provincial paid sick leave must be implemented immediately: newly available rapid tests must be conducted weekly in Covid friendly workplaces such as factories, distribution centres and food processing plants: there needs to be far more inspections of factories and distribution centres to ensure that employers are taking the necessary protective measures to keep their high-risk workplaces safe; mobile testing sites must be set up in high-rate neighbourhoods and these sites must not require advanced online reservations and should allow for symptomatic and asymptomatic testing (both would represent changes to the current Ontario testing rules); rapid testing in schools needs to be expanded to all schools in high-rate neighbourhoods; isolation facilities (and the rental of hotel rooms for those testing positive) must be put in place in all hard-hit neighbourhoods so that infected household members can be immediately removed from their crowded residences; residential eviction bans must be implemented; and those testing positive must be contacted within 24 hours of being tested followed by aggressive isolation and contact tracing.
With progress on these measures, all of the GTA could be moved into a refined version of the Red Zone. It makes absolutely no sense to have different GTA regions operating under a different set of restrictions as all regions have high-rate neighbourhoods as well as low-rate neighbourhoods. Moreover, people in Toronto and Peel can simply hop in their cars and make the 15-minute drive to a crowded mall in a GTA region where malls are open.
Under a refined Red Zone designation, all non-essential retail establishments would be treated the same with big box stores like Walmart playing by the same rules as other non-essential retailers. This means that if big box stores can sell non-essential goods, then all stores operating under Red Zone restrictions can open and sell non-essential goods. Moreover, inside and heated patio dining would be allowed to open with strict capacity rules that allow for adequate social distancing. Whether this is 25% or 50% should be up to the experts but a maximum of 10 customers per eating establishment (the current Red Zone rule) makes absolutely no sense as it doesn’t take into account the size of the restaurant.
Again, shifting all of the GTA into a refined Red Zone would only happen after the flattening of the curve in Toronto and Peel and some momentum behind the implementation of the measures detailed above.
The data is clear, and has been since the Spring: Ontarians who are poor, under-housed and racialized are disproportionately attacked by COVID-19. The reason for this is first and foremost that poor, under-housed and racialized Ontarians are vastly over-represented amongst essential workers who do not have the choice to stay at home and keep their jobs.
And yet, deep into the second wave, this central feature of the pandemic has not been central to the Ontario government’s pandemic response. The current “one size fits all” restrictions have so far failed to protect the vast majority of people getting infected by COVID-19. As a result, lockdowns in hot spots like Toronto and Peel are on track to be longer, harder and more devastating for everyone.
In the first wave, lockdowns worked instantly in richer, whiter Toronto neighbourhoods but failed to flatten the curve in the poorest, most racialized ones.
And the same thing is happening again. Over a recent four-week period, the Star reports that the 20 Toronto neighbourhoods with the highest proportions of visible minorities recorded more than 3,300 cases. The 20 whitest neighbourhoods reported just 360. As detailed above, this racialized tilt is not a function of race itself but rather a function of who performs essential but low-paying work and is more likely to live in sub-standard housing.
At heart, a change in our approach to fighting Covid that focusses on the factors that are really driving the pandemic is about protecting the people who allow the more comfortably off to stay safe and work from home.
The fact that nine months into the pandemic, our governments and public health officials continue to ignore the majority of Ontarians who have to go to work to feed their kids and pay the rent is an absolute disgrace.
Ethan Phillips is the editor of Canada Fact Check and a practicing public policy and government relations consultant with 35 years experience researching, writing and consulting on Canadian and global public policy issues.
He can be reached at Canadafactcheck@gmail.com.
Canada Fact Check is an independent news platform dedicated to transparency, democratic reform, government accountability and corporate responsibility.
The editor of Canada Fact Check is Ethan Phillips, a practicing public policy and government relations consultant with 35 years experience researching, writing and consulting on Canadian and global public policy issues.
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