It’s funny how trauma makes us forget. Sort of like how an intracranial hematoma can cause a gap in memory, so too can a shock to society or the economy. My case in point is the recent round of applause from mainstream media outlets for Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s response to the coronavirus epidemic. It’s almost as if Agent J from Men in Black whipped out the neuralyzer and deleted any memory of Ford’s attacks on essential workers and the healthcare system the moment he declared a state of emergency.
In a time of crisis, public anxiety creates a great demand for leadership. And, in our desperation to have that demand filled, we lower our standards. You know the saying — desperate times call for desperate measures.
Sure, Ford has notably changed his tone as the gravity of the pandemic became irrefutable (although that should have been clear months ago given the dramatic responses of other countries). He’s even displayed a considerable degree of seemingly genuine human emotion. Amazing.
He’s no longer urging Ontarians to go out and enjoy themselves as he had prior to March break. He has even gone on TV and thanked the frontline workers he had previously denied a $15 minimum wage. He has also praised healthcare workers, whose hospital funding he had previously cut below the rate of inflation and population growth. He even disavowed U.S. president and mass child detainer Donald Trump, but only after the international laughingstock of a leader had ordered 3M to stop shipping lifesaving masks to Canada. Not doing so would have been political suicide, so let’s hold our applause.
In any regular situation, these are moral judgements that would be expected of a fourth-grader. But in a time of crisis, it seems, they become the hallmarks of a great leader. History is nothing if not rife with examples of genocidal war criminals who ended up in most historians’ good books simply by holding steady during a crisis. Since we’re off to the races with wartime comparisons, let’s take Winston Churchill, widely remembered in the West as a great war hero who defeated Hitler during World War II, as an example. In reality, Communist Russia was the main engine of Nazism's destruction. What is Churchill not remembered for? Perhaps writing things like “I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes” in reference to Britain’s colonial holdings in India.
Why is a man who advocated gassing Indigenous people remembered as a great statesman? Crisis.
Perhaps a new strain of Stockholm syndrome is spreading along with the virus. As psychology professor Thomas Strentz, author of the book Psychological Aspects of Crisis Negotiation, put it, “The victim’s need to survive is stronger than his impulse to hate the person who has created the dilemma.”
Of course, Ford didn’t create this emergency — though his cuts to paid sick days and his defunding of the healthcare system has no doubt exacerbated it. But he has profited politically from it, and that profit has not been earned.
Take a minute to consider the impact of cancelling paid sick days and requiring workers to obtain a note from a doctor in the context of a pandemic. A policy that Ford only relaxed in mid-March, after the Canadian Medical Association described Ontario’s mandatory doctors notes as a “public health risk.” If you're feeling sick, you either have to go to work, or go to a doctor’s office, causing unnecessary transmission of whatever virus you may be carrying. Add that to the cuts Ford made to municipal health funding, which have increased the phenomenon of “hallway medicine” that Ford himself campaigned on ending. That these policies had an impact on viral transmission, especially in the most vital early days, is undeniable.
There is virtually no limit to the political opportunities — negative and positive — that lie in society’s recovery from this pandemic. The scale ranges from yet another series of corporate bailouts for tax haven companies and a hyper-authoritarian surveillance state similar to China’s; to a universal basic income, expanded social services, and a drastically increased minimum wage; to the usual calls to eat the rich and so on. Ford’s government has already used the crisis as an excuse to suspend environmental oversight laws. Exactly how loosening environmental laws is going to help the province fight zoonotic viruses linked to environmental destruction and the growing proximity between humans and animals beats the hell out of me.
It should serve as no surprise that one of the writers behind a recent list of hot takes praising Doug Ford’s “heroic” coronavirus response was Michael Taube, a speechwriter for former prime minister Stephen Harper. This is a man whose job was to make Conservative leaders look good. Given that conservative ideologies are now under threat due to the social demands required to combat the COVID-19 crisis, he won’t be short of work, unlike the rest of us.
The blame can’t entirely be pinned on Ford and the Conservatives though. The Ontario NDP has effectively abdicated responsibility as the Official Opposition by sitting on their hands while Ford suspends environmental oversight laws. The truth is that none or very few of our political leaders are bringing effective solutions to the table — giving Ford’s superficial change of tone an air of legitimacy.
If nothing else, COVID-19 has unearthed two fundamental economic fissures that must be addressed. One is that an economy where the most essential workers are paid the least is not only morally indefensible but also a recipe for disaster. The second is that a financial system almost wholly dependent on the continued consumption of one extremely volatile commodity, oil, is equally in peril. It’s time for a new deal for all, and given that other existential threat we’ve currently put on the backburner, climate change, it needs to be a green one.
Of all the countries ravaged by COVID-19, one of the best responses has come from South Korea. And what path have they taken in recovery? In elections last month, the country’s Democratic party won an overwhelming victory with a mandate for a Green New Deal-style plan for the country’s COVID-19 recovery. If such transformations are possible in South Korea, one of the world’s largest investors in coal, then they’re possible in Canada too.
If it doesn’t happen now, I’m afraid it never will.