Anger and frustration in Canada’s most populous province after lockdown measures put in place

'I’m somewhere between sad, heartbroken and still very angry', says head of Ontario's advisory

FILE PHOTO: An aisle of non-essential goods is seen cordoned off at a Walmart store, as new measures are imposed on big box stores due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada April 8, 2021. REUTERS/Carlos Osorio     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY/File Photo
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Dr Peter Juni feels like he has been screaming into the void for the past year.

The scientific director of Ontario’s Science Advisory Table has spent the past dozen months advising the politicians of Canada’s largest province on how to get through the pandemic.

So when the provincial government announced restrictions last week that went against much of his advice, Dr Juni was shocked.

It was not the first time his advice went unheeded. In January, he and his colleagues warned the government that a third wave of Covid-19 cases was coming.

But instead of listening, the provincial government eased restrictions in February. Now the province is in the middle of its worst outbreak of the pandemic.

On Sunday, 4,250 new cases of Covid-19 were reported across Ontario. The province’s seven-day average of new cases has been about 4,300.

That is up from around 3,500 cases a week ago. Hospitals are stretched to capacity and critical care and emergency departments are struggling to cope.

“We are in a really serious situation,” Dr Juni said. “It could have been avoided.

"Anybody who suggests it could not have been avoided is not being truthful. We said so, we warned early.”

On Friday Ontario’s leader, Premier Doug Ford, announced sweeping measures intended to curb the rising cases.

They included banning outdoor recreation such as golf, tennis and soccer, and closing playgrounds.

Mr Ford also extended a stay-at-home order for another two weeks and gave police powers to question anyone outside as to why they were not at home.

Ontario's latest restrictions

  • Stay-at-home extended until May 20
  • As of April 19, only essential travel from Quebec and Manitoba will be allowed
  • Religious, wedding and funeral services limited to 10 people
  • Organisers of events that break rules may be fined a minimum of $10,000
  • Those attending may be fined $750

The measures were roundly condemned and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association said on Saturday that it was preparing to challenge them in court.

Some local police departments criticised the measures and said they would not be using their new “powers”.

“The service will not be randomly stopping vehicles for no reason during the pandemic or afterwards,” tweeted Steve Tanner, the chief of police for the municipality of Halton, west of Toronto.

On Saturday, the government quickly relented and said police would no longer be allowed to stop people without cause, and that playgrounds would remain open.

Dr Naheed Dosani, a palliative care physician in Toronto, said the damage had already been done.

“Black and brown communities are still feeling like they will be targeted," Dr Dosani said.

"We’ve already had incidences where this has happened and this is not the answer to get us through Covid-19. We cannot police our way out of this pandemic.”

He called the current situation in Ontario a “humanitarian catastrophe.”

When Dr Juni heard the government’s plans, he was dumbstruck.

“It was clearly pointing to a misunderstanding of the epidemiology of this disease,” he said of the new restrictions.

Dr Juni contemplated resigning from his position on the advisory board but ultimately felt compelled to keep advocating for a better, more scientific approach to fighting the pandemic.

"It would create a vacuum, which could potentially make things considerably worse," he told The National.

New Covid-19 modelling released on Friday suggested Ontario could top 20,000 cases a day if strong measures were not imposed.

But many in the medical and epidemiological fields criticised the government for not focusing on how Covid-19 was being transmitted across the province.

“What I was hoping for was a compassionate approach to supporting essential workers, including paid sick leave,” Dr Dosani said.

“We have workers who are going to work sick and having to choose between their health and paying their bills.

"They can’t afford to go for a Covid test or take one day off. We’re also hoping for paid time off for vaccinations.”

Experts say that by not offering paid sick leave, the government is putting vulnerable people at even more risk. It is also leaving it up to businesses to try to protect their employees.

Jamal Severin-Watson, who owns a cafe in Toronto, decided to close his business for the next two weeks to protect his staff after listening to Mr Ford’s announcement.

“It just felt like the right move for me,” Mr Severin-Watson said. “There was not an amount of money I could make where I could justify [keeping the business open].”

He is doing what he believes the government should be doing and paying his staff for the two weeks they will be out of work.

“If [the government] is serious about this, pay us to stay home and we gladly will,” Mr Severin-Watson said.

Two days after the province announced its new restrictions and a day after they were forced to amend them, Dr Juni is still upset.

“I’m somewhere between sad, heartbroken and still very angry. It's just not right,” he said.

Dr Juni said the government must correct its muddled plan by issuing new directives that better serve its population.

“This needs to be done within hours,” he said. “We need now a strict, uncomplicated, clear definition of essential workers and completely clear communication about what is essential and what is not essential, with shutdowns of everything that is not essential.”

Dr Juni is not sure why the provincial government missed the mark with the new restrictions.

“This is like a case of broken telephone,” he said.

“If you still after all this time, after all the experience, after all the scientific evidence that has accumulated, to suggest that you could actually get this under control without addressing the root causes, this points towards severe communication issues."