Opinion-Policy Nexus

Parts of Canada are already battling a second wave of the coronavirus pandemic and the struggle promises to be at least as difficult as it was in the first wave, if not more so.

Ontario and Quebec are reporting more new cases of COVID-19 every day in mid-October than they were at the peak of Wave One in April. Manitoba reached a daily record last week and has an active case count that is second only to Quebec’s on a per-capita basis; the province slapped restrictions on Winnipeg that are similar to those reimposed on health clubs, bars and restaurants in Montreal, Quebec City, Ottawa, Toronto and Peel and York regions.

And here we go again on the long-term care front!

Although operators of LTC homes know what to expect this time, their residents face another harrowing few months. By last Thursday, 71 of Ontario’s 626 LTC homes had reported outbreaks, with active cases affecting a total of 159 residents and 199 employees. Two Toronto homes each had more than two dozen infected patients. 

Ontario’s Doug Ford government failed to adopt the sort of precautions that Quebec Premier Francois Legault took in his province – spending heavily to train 10,000 personal service workers and hiring a COVID manager and an infection-control specialist for each of the province’s 400 LTC facilities. These Quebec measures may earn Ontario the dubious distinction of replacing Quebec as country’s epicentre of LTC cases in Wave Two.

Relief from Ottawa is not yet sight. In the Throne Speech a month ago, the Trudeau government signalled that LTC issues would receive priority attention, and in an address to the nation a few hours later, the Prime Minister promised to work with the provinces to establish a “national standard” for long-term care.

Last week, he backed off a bit, saying he would push the provincial premiers toward harmonized “norms” for LTC homes across the country. “I don’t think that seniors should be better protected in certain regions than others so we need to work together to offer quality care to all seniors and I will certainly be discussing this with the provinces,” he said.

It is a fine principle but damnably difficult to satisfy. The premiers are drawing a hard line. They are not disposed to trade any more of their jurisdiction over health in return for a few paltry billions in federal cash or tax points. They have been down that road before, and they know that federal largesse declines as provincial costs rise. In the end they will probably agree, grudgingly, to accept Ottawa’s money in exchange for a few “norms.” The norms will fall well short of a national standard.

Provincial resistance is one obstacle that will make it more difficult for the federal government to cope with the second wave than with the first. Wave One came as a shock and provincial governments looked instinctively to Ottawa for leadership. After roughly six months of following the federal lead – rules for handwashing, mask-wearing, social-distancing, voluntary isolating and working from home – the provinces want to reopen their economies, get their people back to work and recoup lost tax revenues. 

A second obstacle is a change in public attitude. Back in March, Canadians were frightened. Never having encountered anything like COVID-19, they accepted lifestyle, travel and workplace restrictions without undue complaint. They carried on with grace (and a measure of black humour).

But now, frustrated, fatigued and having tasted partial release as the Wave One curve flattened, they want freedom from restrictions. They want to resume normal family and social lives, to be rid of masks and social distancing.

Led by Ottawa, the two levels of government were amazingly successfully in winning public cooperation from March to August in Wave One. It will be much harder to stuff people back into a COVID cocoon for Wave Two. 

If our political leaders cannot the public on side again, Wave Two could be long and deadly.

Cambridge resident Geoffrey Stevens, an author and former Ottawa columnist and managing editor of the Globe and Mail, teaches political science at the University of Guelph. His column appears Mondays. He welcomes comments at [email protected].


Monday, October 19, 2020 - 09:46