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Ontario in a crisis, hopefully with relief in sight

UPDATE: This editorial has been updated to reflect some news that was announced after The Local went to press.

UPDATE: This editorial has been updated to reflect some news that was announced after The Local went to press.

Although there have been few details announced, it’s beginning to look like Ontario workers may get the paid sick leave so desperately needed to help them and their families through this pandemic, and to stop the spread of infection through workplaces.

Doug Ford's announcement about sick days came late last week, while he himself was quarantining. presumably with pay, after months of saying a provincial policy was unnecessary. He now says people who have to quarantine shouldn't have to worry about job security or lack of income.

This is welcome news, but must come soon, and must be based on a continuation of wages, so that workers feeling ill can choose to stay home and know it won’t affect their pay cheque.

Speed is essential as hospitals and intensive care units set new records daily, and are in danger of being overwhelmed, with many patients who have been infected at their workplace.

Last week, Peel and Toronto public health units, recognizing the importance of preventing more workplace outbreaks, ordered businesses with more than five COVID cases to close, and we are beginning to hear about those closures. That is a good example to set across the province.

Hopefully, employees of these workplaces will continue to receive their wages.

Until late last week, Ford had continued  to direct any conversation of paid sick leave to the federal program, which is something, but not enough, and doesn’t come soon enough for those working paycheque to paycheque.

The NDP has tried to push provincially-legislated sick leave for the past year, with no success.

But this is no longer a political issue, a partisan decision. It’s one of life or death, for many workers, for their families, and for those who come in contact with them. 

Members of the Ontario Science Table, members of the provincial Vaccine Distribution Task Force, and many other medical experts have been telling us in very strong terms that adequate sick pay for low-income essential workers, along with redefining what is truly essential and shutting down everything else, is what is needed now.

The variants of concern, they said, is a new pandemic.

That plea came last week along with criticism of the provincial order to close playgrounds and give police special powers to pull over drivers and fine them if they haven’t got a good reason for being on the road. That advice was not coming from scientists or medical experts.

In less than 24 hours Ford had reversed both those orders, and kudos to him for realizing it needed to be done, but he did not address sick leave at that time.

Last Tuesday, the Science Table members stepped up the strength of their message, calling for an easily-accessible emergency sick pay program, paying for time off for vaccinations, speeding up vaccinations for essential workers and communities most at risk.

It also addressed the risk of people moving around the province, and people gathering indoors, though it said people could and should, for mental health, be able to meet in small groups outside.

Ford has said repeatedly he listens to his health experts, but he also listens to his cabinet, and then tries to balance what is likely at times polar opposite advice. That is no longer working, and he appears to be recognizing that.

We are approaching a health care crisis. Deathly ill patients are being moved from hospital to hospital by helicopter, tents with beds and medical equipment are being set up in hospital parking lots, intensive care units are reaching capacity, and health care workers are exhausted. The government is dealing with those catastrophes by begging other premiers who are also in the midst of a pandemic to send health care workers and vaccine to Ontario.

Doctors are telling us they are increasingly treating entire families, who contracted COVID because one family member was infected at work. 

When it was long-term care homes where most outbreaks were occurring and seniors were dying, it took a bit of time, but finally provincial governments across the country acknowledged what needed to be done and followed through. Thanks to improvements that were made and vaccinations being directed at those facilities first, there is good news on that front. Lives have been saved.

But now COVID is infecting younger people, many of them low-income, minimum wage essential workers who are looking after the welfare of the privileged who get to work from home at their well-paying jobs. These essential workers are putting themselves at risk so that others can enjoy a foray outside to pick up groceries, or sustenance at the LCBO.

How much worse does this have to get before even more drastic shutdowns are required, and the importance of sick pay to prevent workplace outbreaks is addressed?

Mistakes have been made at all levels of government, mostly from not having adequate information on which to base their decisions. That is no longer the case. If the province is indeed going to provide some relief, it must be soon. We had hoped, even expected it would be happening as this paper went to press last week, or as readers were receiving a copy of their Local Wednesday. Fingers were crossed for that good news. While it looks like it may be on the horizon, there is no time for delay. It can’t come soon enough.

Penny Coles

The Local