Muddling through the management of a viral pandemic

By MPP Toby Barrett

On Dec. 31, 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) received report of a cluster of pneumonia cases in Wuhan, Hubei Province of China. On Jan. 3, and Jan. 8, 2020, Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health emailed this information to all 354 Ontario public health units.

By Jan. 23, 2020, the WHO had identified the outbreak as very high risk in China, and globally.

Canada’s first presumptive case of the Coronavirus was a Toronto male who had just returned from Wuhan on Jan. 25. By the end of February, COVID-19 had spread to over 50 countries.

As Ontario’s Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk reflects in her Special Report on COVID-19 Preparedness and Management, 2020 will be known as the year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nobody could have predicted the toll this would take, and continues to take, on lives and the economy in Canada.

The Auditor General’s report found key lessons of the 2003 SARS outbreak had not been implemented by the time COVID-19 hit Ontario. In 2015, my legislation on emerging infectious diseases passed and became law under the previous government. However, it appears little within my framework legislation saw concrete implementation.

According to Lysyk, Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health did not fully exercise his powers under the Health Protection and Promotion Act to respond to COVID-19. He did not issue directives to local Medical Officers of Health to ensure public health units responded consistently.

For instance, it was the province and not the Chief Medical Officer of Health that finally issued an emergency order in early October 2020 to require masking for the public. Norfolk County had mandated the indoor use of masks on July 24, and Haldimand did so on July 27.

Variations in management and operations among public health units contributed to fragmentation and inconsistencies across Ontario. Public health in other jurisdictions, such as British Columbia, Alberta and Quebec, is more simply organized. Sadly, public health reforms recommended by the SARS Commission 15 years ago were not fully implemented. Currently, Ontario’s 34 public health units are still operating independently, and best practices rarely shared.

My staff dealt with a myriad of inconsistencies between the province and the local health unit in the pandemic’s first months. This created confusion for constituents who would listen to Premier Ford’s daily news conferences and believed they understood the rules only to find the local medical officer of health had issued tighter restrictions. Local health units cannot loosen restrictions, but can go above-and-beyond.

While there are many examples, the most controversial surrounded farmers’ bunkhouses. In Haldimand-Norfolk, there is a cap of only three workers per bunkhouse permitted, no matter the square footage of the living space. Haldimand-Norfolk was the only jurisdiction in North America to impose such a restriction.

Another example centred around restrictions on cottage owners whose primary residence was not in Haldimand-Norfolk. While carwashes went dry in towns across the riding, operators were confused and angry to find these facilities open in towns like Tillsonburg and Brantford. Similarly, when the Premier encouraged us to get outside for exercise, residents in our riding were not allowed on local trails.

Despite the on-going scramble, people in Ontario and their institutions are doing an admirable job navigating these unprecedented times.Toby Barrett is the MPP for Haldimand-Norfolk