Ontario’s COVID crisis: ‘This scenario was entirely preventable’

Anger rises alongside COVID-19 infections in Canadian province, as healthcare workers want more action from government.

A paramedic transports a patient to Mount Sinai Hospital as the number of COVID-19 cases continues to grow in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on April 17, 2020 [File: Carlos Osorio/Reuters]

Montreal, Canada – Dr Naheed Dosani says healthcare workers in Ontario are angry.

Working tirelessly amid a recent surge of COVID-19 infections, which have quickly filled up intensive care units across the Canadian province, hospital staff are “dealing with immense trauma (and) moral injury” as they treat scores of coronavirus patients, said Dosani.

But what makes it even more difficult, the Toronto-based palliative care physician and health justice activist told Al Jazeera, is watching the Ontario government put measures in place that he says will not do enough to get the pandemic under control.

“This entire humanitarian catastrophe should never have happened. Had the Ontario government just listened to the experts and made the important decisions … around public health restrictions, we would never have been here,” Dosani said.

“This whole scenario was entirely preventable.”

Surging infections

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau warned on April 6 that Canada was facing a “very serious” third wave of the pandemic, and this week, the national seven-day average of new coronavirus cases surpassed that of the United States per capita.

Ontario, the country’s most populous province, has been one of the hardest-hit places, with new, more easily transmissible strains of the virus spreading rapidly. According to Ontario’s COVID-19 advisory table, the so-called variants of concern accounted for 67 percent of all infections as of March 29. The variants also increased the risk of hospitalisation by 63 percent; intensive care admissions by 103 percent, and death by 56 percent.

As of April 17, total coronavirus cases in Ontario were at 2,801 per 100,000 people, while as of Sunday, its seven-day average of new daily infections stood at 4,341 and 741 COVID-19 patients were in intensive care. The Globe and Mail newspaper reported that 1,040 COVID-19 patients were in ICUs countrywide on April 12, surpassing the second wave’s peak by around 150 people.

Total coronavirus cases in Ontario were at 2,801 per 100,000 people as of April 17 [File: Carlos Osorio/Reuters]

While the Canadian federal government is responsible for securing COVID-19 vaccines and making nationwide recommendations during the pandemic, healthcare is controlled at the provincial level in Canada, meaning that each province has put its own plan in place to tackle the virus.

Premier Doug Ford says his government is acting as quickly as possible and taking a science-based approach, restricting in-person shopping and dining, ordering schools to return to remote learning and bolstering the vaccination effort this month. On April 7, Ford imposed a province-wide stay-at-home order and declared Ontario’s third state of emergency since the pandemic began.

“Even the people that were showing us the charts and where we were going … the capacity at the ICUs and these variants have taken off even beyond what they told us,” Ford told reporters during a news conference that day. “And the second I found out yesterday, immediately I asked them to write up the orders.”

But for weeks before that, Ford had been easing restrictions based on case counts in various regions across Ontario despite health experts urging the right-wing, populist premier to keep measures in place as projections showed hospital ICUs could fill up and daily case counts could reach record levels.

“The actual number of cases in ICU is well within our projected range, and in fact, is closer to our best-case scenario, rather than the worst,” a panel of Ontario health experts that has released COVID-19 modelling data throughout the pandemic said on April 7, rejecting the idea that Ford was only informed a day earlier about hospital capacity.

Experts called for the province to more narrowly define what constitutes an “essential” workplace, and provide more coronavirus vaccines to hard-hit neighbourhoods, especially those home to essential workers of colour, who have been disproportionately affected by the disease throughout the pandemic.

Many also pressed Ford to guarantee paid sick leave for workers, arguing workplace outbreaks are fuelling the spread of infections as workers cannot afford to stay home without pay if they get sick. But he repeatedly rebuffed that idea, accusing proponents of “playing politics”.

Police enforcement

As health workers and medical associations continued to urge the premier to tighten restrictions, speed up vaccine distribution and provide more help for front-line workers, Ford on Friday extended the provincial stay-at-home order for two more weeks and ordered Ontario’s borders shut to interprovincial travel.

He also announced the closure of a range of outdoor spaces, including playgrounds – despite a lack of evidence that those settings are driving infection rates – and gave police the power to stop anyone to ask for their address and why they are not at home, and to stop vehicles.

“We are making difficult, but necessary decisions to reduce mobility and keep people in the safety of their own homes,” he said in a statement.

In a province where Black, Indigenous and other minority groups for years have been disproportionately targeted by police “carding” practices – police stopping people on the streets and demanding they identify themselves – the outcry was immediate. A study last year also found that racialised Canadians also were bearing the brunt of coronavirus rule enforcement.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford has said his government is listening to health experts in its COVID-19 response [File: Carlos Osorio/Reuters]

A day later, Ford went back on the decision, saying playgrounds could stay open and police would only be allowed to stop individuals believed to be participating in an organised event or holding a social gathering, Canadian media reported.

“We can’t police our way out of this pandemic,” Dosani told Al Jazeera. “Why does it require an uproar, why does it require a backlash, why do health workers and the people of Ontario have to scream and yell, up in arms, for our government to listen?”

‘I’m scared’

Trudeau announced plans on Sunday to send federal healthcare workers to Ontario, as well as to deploy rapid COVID-19 testing to provincial hot spots, “especially for essential workers and workplaces”.

In the meantime, front-line health workers like critical care nurse Birgit Umaigba continue to treat scores of COVID-19 patients. Umaigma said she goes into every shift afraid – both of contracting the disease herself and spreading it as she moves between patients and hospitals in the Toronto area.

But with nursing shortages – a longstanding problem that has worsened during the pandemic – and a need to put food on the table for herself and her nine-year-old daughter, Umaigba said she has no choice.

“Every day I go in I’m scared,” she told Al Jazeera. “I honestly sometimes don’t even want to go, but I still show up because we’re already so short [staffed], ICU nurses, and I have to also provide for my family. It’s a scary situation. There’s so much anxiety in the air.”

Umaigba said she contracted COVID-19 once so far during the pandemic and was exposed to the virus in another instance; both times, she had to spend two weeks self-isolating at home without pay. She said paid sick leave would go a long way for front-line workers.

“I’m seeing a population of mostly racialised people being admitted to ICU and from what I gather, a lot of these people are working-class, underpaid factory workers who don’t have access to any paid sick leave or any day off that’s paid for them to go and get the vaccine,” she said.

“I don’t have access to paid sick leave, yet I keep giving myself at the bedside to save lives. That is wrong on every level. The least the government can do for me is guarantee me paid sick leave when I fall sick when working on the front-line, and for so many other people that do the same.”

Source: Al Jazeera