but Doug Ford’s conservatives keep doing it anyway
We’ve understood that quarantines can be an effective tool to reduce the spread of a disease since the 14th century. It’s not a difficult concept: if a contagious person interacts with fewer other people, there are fewer opportunities for the spread of infection. 2020 provided us with several lessons in how effective this approach can be. Nations like Taiwan and New Zealand which locked down quickly and thoroughly at the first appearance of Covid effectively contained it well enough that by the summer of 2020 they were able to pack stadiums elbow to elbow with sports fans safely once again.
Ontario Canada enacted a lockdown, too, but the province’s heart clearly wasn’t in it, and this led them to undermine the whole concept pretty much right away. The first list of essential businesses to receive an exemption to pandemic restrictions was 74 categories long, leading some to wonder whether it might just be simpler to publish a list of what wasn’t exempted. The result was a lockdown as full of holes as a sieve made entirely out of Swiss cheese. A second wave should have surprised no one, and Ontario’s recent decision to lift restrictions just as more transmittable variants made their appearance has predictably triggered a third.
But I’d like to focus on two million Ontarians in particular: students in Ontario schools. When the pandemic came along and lockdowns closed schools, neoliberal economics lost its mind. If children were home, parents would have to be home with them. Without warehousing children in schools, how could their parents be optimally exploited? Every individual restaurant or salon owner pressuring legislators to reopen contributed to pressure to put children back into classrooms. In its eagerness to reopen schools, Ontario got recommendations from the world renowned Sick Kids Hospital on what measures should be put in place to keep students as safe as possible. To meet those recommendations, primarily focussed on allowing for effective in-class social distancing and a thorough regimen of surface cleaning, would come with an estimated price tag of $3.2 Billion in new spending.
To you or I, that’s an astronomical number, but for the wealthiest province in the world’s tenth wealthiest nation, it would only represent a little more than 1.5% of the budget. Conveniently, the federal government had already opened the floodgates on providing extra financial support for provinces to deal with Covid, so Ontario was sitting on $12 Billion in unspent pandemic support at the time, enough to meet safe schools recommendations four times over without dipping into its own coffers to do so. Nonetheless, Ontario’s government balked at this price, and grudgingly provided less than one tenth of what medical professionals told us would be necessary to keep children and their families safe. Instead of one new custodian per school to provide extra cleaning, only one school in four got extra custodial staff. Instead of enough teachers for safely smaller classrooms, only one school out of every sixteen got only one extra teacher.
The primary problem was that overcrowding in Ontario schools had already become common well before the pandemic came along. Funding for Ontario schools before Covid was not keeping up with inflation. Per student education spending continued to decline. Some classrooms regularly saw as many as 40 students, with parts of the province seeing enormous leaps in student crowding, pushing facilities to their limits. Evidence shows that smaller class sizes would save lives, but Doug Ford opposed smaller class sizes. Plans to return students to classrooms thus provided them with zero expanded facilities, and involved simply cramming the same kids into the same overcrowded buildings on the same schedule. The province made a public promise to clean all “high-touch areas” in schools twice per day, but they budgeted only two additional hours of custodial time a day in total to do that job. You try cleaning every surface that kids touch in an entire school in only an hour, and let us know how that works out.
So the issue wasn’t that the government of Ontario couldn’t easily afford to reopen schools far more safely. They simply decided that protecting Ontario school children and families just wasn’t a priority for them. Protecting Ontario communities from Covid transmission through schools just wasn’t a good use of billions of dollars they already had available expressly for that sort of purpose. For parents with school children, this couldn’t be a bigger nightmare. Some wealthier families could afford to set up private classrooms with tutors at home or put their children into private schools that might be safer, while parents who couldn’t afford other child care options were forced to send their kids into crowded schools just to return to work.
In the time since those decisions were made, medical science has had plenty of opportunity to learn more about how Covid spreads, and the particular role played by children in that spread. It turns out that children are key to the Covid outbreak expansion. Children are just as likely to contract it and transmit it as adults are, but they are less likely to show obvious symptoms. This means that more child cases go undetected while they’re infectious. Early contact tracing studies only tested kids who displayed symptoms. In retrospect, these were obviously biased, given that young children are more likely to be asymptomatic. Later we learned that children definitely transmit the virus more efficiently to others around them. They can do so for weeks.
We should also note that in addition to announcing $300 million in “new” spending on schools, this same government had quietly removed a full billion dollars of money they had already promised schools from their budgets. That money would have gone to things like fixing broken HVAC systems and ensuring that there are enough sinks, which are exactly the kind of things that might be particularly important during a pandemic. So at the same time conservatives claimed they’re funnelling three hundred million dollars into schools, when we add all the numbers together they were actually taking another seven hundred million dollars out of schools. In the middle of a pandemic. How much of Ontario’s second and third Covid waves are related to transmission in schools? We may never know, but we can be absolutely certain that it’s more than it had to be. At the time of this writing, students are the bulk of new cases in some Ontario communities as a deadly third wave continues to pick up speed.
Analysis of where the limited efforts that have been made to protect Ontario schools have come from reveals that 95% of the help schools received came not from the province, but from the federal government. The same federal government that the province likes to use as a punching bag. If there’s provincial consistency to be found here, it’s primarily in the form of consistently refusing to take expert advice. Evidence shows that paid sick days save lives. Doug Ford opposes paid sick days. Evidence shows that eviction bans save lives. Doug Ford has made it easier to evict people than ever before. If the expert advice of medical professionals recommends it, you can assume that Ontario’s Conservatives are against it.
So what’s the worst that can happen, apart from needlessly leading to more Covid deaths in Ontario communities? Well, if you’re a big fan of Doug Ford, you’ll be glad to know that no matter how many Ontarians die, he’ll be just fine. When former premier Mike Harris’s government policies lead to 7 deaths and 2300 illnesses in Walkerton’s water crisis, citizens went to the courts to hold the government to account, but Doug Ford changed the law so that when his policies mean more coronavirus deaths, citizens won’t be able to seek justice in the courts. It is no longer possible for Ontario citizens to effectively sue their government for negligence or malfeasance, even when decisions are made in bad faith, and even when it costs lives.
You can tell where his priorities really lie.
What really makes this whole story a tragedy is the poor justification used for ignoring medical advice, which is inevitably that in the politics of the right, the economy always, always comes first. We might have to make some sacrifices, the thinking goes, to protect the economy. Once you’re in the habit of ignoring evidence of one kind, I suppose it gets easier to ignore it in other areas as well. In actuality there is no tough decision to be made between protecting public health and protecting the economy. You protect both or you protect neither, because they are directly related.
Among countries with available GDP data, the relationship we see between the health and economic impacts of the pandemic shows us clearly: as well as saving lives, countries controlling the outbreak effectively have also adopted the best economic strategy. Countries that locked down first and most thoroughly are now also seeing the quickest and most robust economic recovery. Wherever you see people yelling that a lockdown for the sake of containing the second wave of the pandemic is somehow an attack on small businesses, do feel free to remind them that in countries like New Zealand and Taiwan that locked down a lot harder, people have returned to a more normal life for months already and all of their restaurants and hair salons and fitness classes are open safely. Locking down hard enough and long enough to actually contain the virus allowed them to have a relatively normal holiday season, after all. Sweden refused to impose lockdowns and mask mandates “to protect the economy.” Denmark imposed mask mandates and quarantines. So how did that work out? Denmark’s economy shrank 4.1%, while Sweden’s economy shrank 4.5%, with a six times higher per capita death rate.
There’s not only a lesson to learn from this about how sacrificing students to a pandemic really won’t protect the economy. There’s another even bigger lesson about the bigger challenge that’s coming behind the pandemic. You’ve doubtless also seen right wing politicians insisting that by preventing strong action on climate change, they are protecting the economy, and it is equally false. Taking climate change seriously could contribute an extra $26 Trillion to the global economy. Meanwhile, not taking climate change seriously endangers $158 Trillion — about twice the entire world’s total annual economic output — in our lifetimes. So how many lives will we throw away making that problem worse based on not understanding the economic impacts?