The tricky tale of Doug Ford and Ontario's chief medical officer

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Ontario Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams answers questions during a news conference on May 29, 2020. Image: Screenshot of Premier of Ontario Video/YouTube

Ontario isn't doing well in the daily reality show where chief medical officers of the provinces perform. Scoring from left to right (geographically) you get B.C.'s Bonnie Henry and Alberta's Deena Hinshaw followed in various orders by the next seven and, as Ignazio Silone wrote in his immortal novel, Fontamara, about the place of Italian peasants in the cosmic social order that starts with God: "Then nothing. Then nothing. Then nothing. Then [I paraphrase] Dr. David Williams in Ontario."

The Ford government clearly knew they had a problem when they brought in a "troubleshooter" from the Dalla Lana School of Public Health in early April. But he didn't directly confront the trouble, which was, at least partly, Williams and his deputy. They never seemed to grasp, or at least explain, what testing was about and actually looked proud when they were able to keep the numbers down versus goosing them upward, where success elsewhere has lain.

The use of tests to get early warning of outbreaks or predict what's about to happen, to "get ahead of this thing" as others say, didn't seem on their radar. I couldn't bear too much of Williams' briefings but did hear him repeat phrases about how the guidelines wouldn't "indicate" a test is necessary if there are no overt symptoms. They tried him on prime time briefings with DOFO and the ministers but that lasted one session by my count, though I admittedly tend to bug out when he starts up. He returned to his own sleepy mid-afternoon slot.

Last week, Williams declared he had to up his game on public messaging, a truly scary thing to picture. He gives briefings behind a desk looking like he's trying to meld his chest and chin into the desktop by way of paper scattered on it while muttering phrases as he shuffles the piles he's nosediving into. He's been personally responsible for reviving a fine phrase: shovelling fog.

If you think that's unfair, consider this, about one of Ford's bursts of frustration: "I didn't see it as taking (us) to the woodshed, myself. We were working on it and when the premier joined our command thing to make some comments and ask some questions, it was right along the line of what we were doing. It's nice when you're exactly on the same direction as the premier."

Ford has dug himself into defending Williams since he's so often claimed he's taking his advice though he depersonalizes it by saying, "the chief medical officer." That would make firing him tough. No one wants to risk losing trust in public officials right now. But the government continues to mortgage its cred to the phrase.

It was presumably a brilliant strategy to give them cover and distance, but it may've handed Williams a power he didn't seek since if Ford dumps him, what gives with all those "advices" he took? He's made himself hostage to probably the least Machiavellian figure at Queen's Park.

Better to treat these experts with a certain bemusement and sometimes contempt: Ford's predecessor, Bill Davis, said he could always find an expert to say what he wanted to hear. This sounds contemptuous of expertise but OTOH makes clear that real decisions always remain in the hands of elected leaders.

DOFO's strength isn't close analysis. It's a bent toward passion and concern. He seems able to yoke that to a sense that the rules don't apply to him but, well, nobody's perfect. Davis knew you could hire people for the complicated stuff and was canny at doing it. Ford's more like leave them in place, parachute in a troubleshooter and hope for the best.

I know this sounds close to not trusting the science, which has become a somewhat sacred phrase. Or even "believe in science," as a U.S. doctor said this week -- as in, Trump doesn't. But I don't think science is a creed, like religion. And devoutly accepting someone's version of it would mean, I'm afraid, trusting scientists who, especially at more bureaucratic levels, can be prone to petty careerism like anyone else. Better to, as Ronald Reagan said in a basically self-negating slogan, trust but verify -- a phrase beloved of Doug Ford.

Rick Salutin writes about current affairs and politics. This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Image: Screenshot of Premier of Ontario Video/YouTube

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