Postcard From Toronto

2 June 2021

by Catherine Brennan

A couple of week’s ago, I went to my first anti-lockdown rally. I went because I needed to publicly show my questioning of blanket, nonsensical restrictions in Toronto. While big box stores remained open, small, local businesses were closed; schools and churches remained closed, while golf is now open – FORE! I thought, surely we will see a developing plan of action? None came. Just the same lockdown since last November. So I went to show up for the loss of care due to lockdown harms – lost primary care, chronic care, cancer and cardiac care, mental health care, chronic loneliness for the isolated elderly, and last but not least, a lost year or two for our young people.

Going to rallies isn’t my thing. I’m not big on shouting and burning bras. A women my age needs all the support she can get. I went because my local MPs didn’t return my polite emails asking them for the reasons around the overlapping, illogical lockdowns. Keeping up with Ontario’s non reopening plans (the province in which Toronto sits, its logo – “Yours To Discover” – a wistful reminder of past meanderings, currently not permitted by a stay-at-home-order which no-one knows for sure still exists) I wanted to know what risk assessments had been done to validate lockdown. “We are following public health guidelines…” was the auto-response. We were told our numbers needed to go down by the daily TV announcements.

What numbers? I wondered. Good question.

Sometimes it’s cases, sometimes it’s ICU beds, and sometimes it’s projected modelling numbers. Confused yet? Let’s put it this way: if Ontario’s re-opening roadmap were plugged into your Google maps, the whole server would get fried. The numbers which we thought we were lowering by staying home, I shudder to say it, to ‘flatten the curve’, those nebulous cases are no longer the key factors to lifting lockdown. Now it’s vaccinations. When I reread that I thought I read it as ‘vacations’, which I think we could all use, were it not for Toronto’s Quarantine Hotels which we’re required to visit for three days upon return, which may, or may not, be safe. You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave… But back to vaccinations as the new metric. According to our Chief Medical Officer, Teresa Tam, we’re aiming for 75% first vaccination rate. When I say “we”, I really mean those at our Ontario Science Table, another equally nebulous advisory group (like the U.K.’s SAGE) which advises our Government to maintain lockdowns based on their worst case scenario models – they don’t do optimism.

Whatever is actually going on, and who is really driving this Hogtown Bus, is anyone’s guess, as a plague of ‘It-Wasn’t-Me-Itis’ has afflicted our Premier Doug Ford. Premier Ford recently sent letters to teachers’ unions and various medical people to ask for their opinion on whether schools should reopen. He maintained that it wasn’t him who had closed the school because they’re unsafe, but their lack of consensus. (Feel free to step out for a breath of fresh air if you feel dizzy.) Ford wanted everyone’s opinion, each dipping an oar into Toronto’s titanic misadventure, all rowing in different directions. No wonder we are lost. Leadership by committee is no leadership at all. Despite overwhelming real world evidence from Europe, Texas, and British Columbia (Canada’s most western province), that schools are safe, Ontario cannot risk being opened. Toronto kids are considered vectors. Vectors? Isn’t that a math thing? Who knows? It all adds up to no school – and online school is no substitute. Despite my polite, unanswered letters to my local MPs, kids in Ontario haven’t played any sports in over a year. Even hockey, Canada’s national game, has been removed from the Covid curriculum.

I have to admit, I felt somewhat nervous about going to the rally. Would I be arrested? What would these protesters be like? An unruly mob, frothing at the mouth with questionable personal hygiene? One left-leaning politician (and in Canada we’re all rather left-leaning – so this guy is practically falling over), warned that these rallies were full of white supremacists. While I am white, and no amount of self-tan can disguise my Irish legs, I struggled to find anyone to fit that description so cruelly slurred by the noticeably absent MP. How did he know who attended when he himself wasn’t there? So I asked my friend, she of Russian-Jewish parents who fled the pogroms living in barns for two years – was she secretly a white supremacist? I asked the lovely black couple who, very sensibly, set up lawn chairs to enjoy the convivial atmosphere. Why are you here, I asked. They answered, like so many other people I spoke with, that they were worried for their kids, whose lives have been on hold. They too had called their local politicians only to hear canned responses. Like me, they wondered whether a better balance might be struck between absolute risk and relative risk. They were disturbed by the political deafness on how lockdowns have affected kids’ welfare. These were not anti-maskers, anti-vaxxers or any other of the ad hominem name-calling around dissent these days. They were there to show support in a time of great isolation.

Lest you think I am being flippant in my attitude to the pandemic, I am not. I can assure you I take it very seriously. My father is a doctor who works in long term care, my mother has not left her house in 15 months and is afraid, and my in-laws have various health challenges leaving them immunocompromised. I’m not going about licking door handles and I employ as much sense as I can. Heck, I’ve even gotten the on-again/off-again AZ vaccine. But at some point we need to ask: how much are we prepared to risk losing in pursuit of absolute safetyism? Do we risk living at all? And when Toronto’s political class sees fit to open golf courses before schools, I wonder if we are seeking a correct balance. No amount of letters from paediatric specialists from our world renowned Sick Kids’ Hospital, who all assert lockdown has resulted in a shocking rise in mental health distress in children and young adults, has gotten through to the political clubhouse.

Why is Ontario still in lockdown? Our numbers are in steady decline (today’s are 226 new cases in Toronto, a city of 5.298 million; 916 in Ontario, with a population of 14 million), and our vaccination rates are soaring close to 70% for first dose administrations, and all of our LTC residents have received both. It’s been a long slog trying to make sense of the rules. While we didn’t have the Scotch egg debacle, we have hula hoop circles in parks to mark where people can safely gather. Actually, much of our Covid response has been similar to the UK’s; blanket lockdowns, curiously aligned messaging across all mainstream media, with continuous moving of the goalposts and a ramping up of fear throughout. We also have the same healthcare system as the U.K. which this virus has exposed as overwrought and under supported, with hallway medicine a chronic issue, especially during cold and flu season.

It’s hard to remain sane during this. I’ve had friends call me a ‘Trumper’, they’ve questioned whether I care about my kids’ safety when I sent them to school, and in general I’ve been on the ‘wrong side’ of the debate. It’s been uncomfortable. I never expected politicians to get it all right, but I did expect them to admit when they were wrong and adjust course. In fact, in the beginning I had a kind of inflated sense of confidence. After all, Toronto was ground zero in 2003 for the first SARS epidemic. We even wrote the book on it. But then we threw the book out, and the organisation with it. In May 2019 somebody decided to axe the GPHIN – our world class Global Public Health Intelligence Network, a network set up to have boots on the ground to avoid the next big outbreak. Because we have always known there would be another. Who axed it and why? There are a couple of name and “pennywise, pound foolish” comes to mind. But mostly it’s another case of It-Wasn’t-Me-Itis.

So here we are, more than a year later, huddled under these blanket lockdowns, the Emergency Measures Act extended into December, despite most of cabinet being absent for the vote. Perhaps they’ve not heard of Zoom? Torontonians are exhausted and deflated. Even the last minute announcement to allow fully vaccinated front line workers attend hockey games couldn’t lift our spirits. It didn’t help that The Maple Leafs lost (Go Leafs, Gone!) and the vaccinated people all wore masks, despite the CDC down south nixing the need for masks after vaccination. So is this it? Are we all the invisible threat? Do we need protecting from each other forever? Even with vaccinations? My friends, as our minister says before he takes away all of our toys at Ford’s Freaky Fridays, we need a better story. We need a new story without fear as the central character. We need to see our sacrifices did not go to waste. We need leadership that takes the lead, rather than another survey. We need to support communities and children in need of resources, not restrictions. We need to rebuild public trust in our institutions. We need to recognise that life cannot go on in this continuous state of limbo, and we need to come together in co-operation, not segregate into ever smaller factions. We need to do it now. The costs are too great. We risk losing so much that there’ll be nothing left to re-open. Remember back when we thought hoarding toilet paper was the answer? It still isn’t, and neither are blanket lockdowns.