A young girl engages in distance learning from her living room on a tablet.
Schools in Ontario are closed to in-person learning until Jan. 17, 2022. Credit: Solen Feyissa / Unsplash

Ontario Premier Doug Ford has announced new, tough measures to slow the spread of the Omicron COVID-19 variant, but he is more than two weeks late and short by many millions in necessary investments.

Just a week ago, the premier was blithely saying schools would reopen after the Christmas holidays and that life would go on, more or less, as normal.

Ontario’s leading scientific experts on the pandemic were singing a different tune.

Notable among those experts was Dr. Peter Jüni, the scientific director of the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table. Weeks ago, Jüni warned that, given its high rate of transmissibility, Omicron could quickly create a crisis for Ontario’s (and Canada’s) healthcare system.

Early in December, Dr. Jüni was desperately trying to convince Ontarians and their government to get over their “wishful thinking” about Omicron and instead needed to wait and see how it the virus would play out in the Ontario context (which, he noted, had very different immunization rates than South Africa). He said Ontario needed to dispel with the “myth” that this new, highly transmissible variant causes milder illnesses than Delta or other variants of COVID.

“We simply don’t know,” he said at the time.  

Jüni wanted people to understand what he called the “unprecedented” nature of the new variant, which was about to become the dominant one in Canada.

“People cannot imagine the sheer scale of what we are talking about here. It is really challenging,” Jüni said.

At that time, the Ontario science table had established that every 100 new Omicron cases would cause an additional 410 infections, a reproduction rate about four times that of previous variants.

The impact of Omicron, Jüni and his fellow scientists warned, would be devastating – unless the authorities took quick and decisive action immediately.

For the most part, the Ontario government chose to ignore those warnings.

The Ford government made some feeble gestures, but they were woefully inadequate.

For instance, toward the end of December, Ford’s folks announced that indoor social gatherings would be legally limited to ten people. But it buried that announcement. It made little effort to publicize the new limits.

When I could not even find the new social gathering limits on the Ontario government website, I asked Ford’s senior communications people to help me, which they did.

They directed me to a laconic sentence, tucked beneath a list of other (weak and tentative) measures.

In a second email to the same communications advisors, I asked what steps the government was taking to make sure 15 million Ontarians were aware of this new rule. There was no reply.

The answer was clear, in any case: nothing.

Doug Ford was more worried about being seen as the Grinch who stole Christmas than about protecting Ontario’s hospitals and other health facilities from a new and dangerous threat.

Ford does the right thing after too much delay

It’s late in the game, but the Ontario premier says is now all in.

At the premier’s Monday morning news conference, Ford warned about the imminent likelihood of hundreds of thousands of new COVID cases per day. He used the word tsunami to describe the expected impact of Omicron.

What makes Omicron so dangerous is the extremely high transmission rate. Even if only a small percentage of those who contract Omicron will require hospitalization it will be a small percentage of a much larger number than with the Alpha or Delta variants.

Ford, who had recently been nonchalant about the coming threat, invited us to do the math. A conservative estimate of a hundred thousand new cases would produce 1,000 new COVID patients in Ontario’s hospitals each and every day, he said, a staggering number, and far more than our system can handle.

That’s why the government is shutting down restaurants, cinemas, bars, gyms, concert halls, bingo halls, pool parlours – even private, in-person music lessons.

It is also limiting indoor social gatherings to five people – and, unlike their passive approach during the holiday period, the Ford folks mean it this time.

Retail stores can stay open, but only at half capacity. And there will no more fans at hockey or basketball games.

The Ford government’s most contentious decision is to keep the province’s schools closed and return Ontario’s kids and teachers to online learning.

Some parents are relieved. To them, it did not seem safe to be sending their kids back to school with COVID case numbers rising so rapidly.

But other parents are beside themselves with fear and anger. They don’t know how they’ll manage now, having to simultaneously cope, yet again, with work and their kids’ education. Closing down in-person education could mean more women will reluctantly choose to leave the workforce.

Teachers’ groups and school boards are, mostly, breathing a bit of a sigh of relief.

They were not happy with the government’s previous plan to re-open classrooms. At the same time as Ford’s team was reassuring parents schools would be safe, the government was announcing it would stop reporting cases of COVID in schools. When parents, teachers and school board officials got that news their reaction was almost universal shock and horror.

Some parents were literally in tears.

Now, the government has a chance to get things right with regard to schools. It can make a big course correction by taking some serious steps make sure educational institutions are fully prepared when in-person learning starts again.

Here is how one parent (who also happens to be my daughter) put it, in a social media post:

Ok. Countdown’s on. Will Ford’s government actually implement what kids and educators need to go back to school in person in 2 weeks?

-vaccine mandates for students

-smaller class sizes

-prioritize boosters for teachers and school staff

-more than 5 rapid antigen tests per student.

One necessary measure the parent does not mention would be to install state-of-the-art ventilation and air filtration in each and every school in the province.

Some school boards report that they’ve made some progress in that area; some have little to report. But just about all school districts still have a long way to go.

To transform the physical plants of all Ontario schools into safer and healthier environments both the provincial and federal governments will have to put some serious money on the table – and quickly. But this is an urgent need that should not be put off until the next fiscal year.

Ventilation is not rocket science. The technology is not out-of-reach.

What we need is for governments to fully comprehend its importance, and recognize how an intelligent investment to provide safe school environments now will pay off handsomely down the road.

In the U.S., a story of reckless indifference

Ford was late in taking necessary steps to slow the progress of Omicron and give the health system a chance to cope. But at least he came around.

South of the border, in the U.S., Omicron case counts are even worse than in Canada, and yet no political leader of stature dares take the kind of stand Ford took.

The Democratic president and Democratic governors in states such as New York, Michigan and California seem to be cowed by the loud voices on the right. They are relying on a single tool in the public health toolbox, vaccination, to fight the virus. They do not dare take the necessary steps to limit public gatherings. They do not want to deal with the outraged and at times violent backlash that would ensue.

While most NHL teams in Canada now have to play before near-empty houses, on Monday evening, hours after Ford’s announcement in Toronto, the Edmonton Oilers played the New York Rangers before a packed Madison Square Gardens in Manhattan, with nary a mask in sight.

To politicians on the right in the U.S., COVID is not a public health challenge; it is a wedge issue. Florida’s Republican Governor Ron DeSantis will de-fund local school boards that require their students and staff to wear masks.

While fellow small-c (and big-C) Conservative Doug Ford was meeting with his cabinet to come up with plans to confront the Omicron threat, DeSantis was receiving a Defender of Freedom award from a so-called Christian organization.

“In Florida, you can mark it down, we will not let anyone shut you down and we are gonna make sure our rights are respected. That’s what we’ve done and that’s what we will continue to do,” DeSantis told a packed New Year’s Eve crowd at a “Let Us Worship” concert in Miami.

Florida’s strategy for fighting Omicron – like that of many other U.S. states, such as Texas and North Dakota – can be summed up in the slogan on a sign one anti-mask protester held up at a rally in Michigan: “Let the weak die.”

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover news for the rest of us from Parliament Hill. Karl has been a journalist and filmmaker for over 25 years, including eight years as the producer of the CBC...