Pandemic response to become battleground in Ontario election

Ontario’s experience in the pandemic and the state of the province’s health care system should be top of mind as voters head to the polls in June, say opposition parties, offering a preview of one battleground on which the provincial election will be fought.

Memories of the decrepit conditions Canada’s military discovered when called into the province’s long-term care homes, or the small businesses decimated by restrictions that allowed big box stores to be open are still fresh, said NDP leader Andrea Horwath.

“The decisions that were made impacted people. They hurt people and folks don’t forget that,” she in an interview with CTV News Toronto on Sunday.

Horwath blamed a backlog of surgeries on what she called chronic underfunding and understaffing of the health care system — vulnerabilities laid bare by the pandemic. Her pitch to voters is that to better care for Ontarians, health care facilities must be properly staffed so they have capacity for unexpected demands.

“Our health care system is in really bad shape, and that’s why we’ve made big commitments about hiring 30,000 nurses, hiring 10,000 [personal support workers] and really putting together a solid plan,” Horwath said.

Ontario’s Liberals pointed to the ramifications of decisions by Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives to reopen too early in 2021, setting the stage for a catastrophic third wave that pushed the province’s intensive care system to its limit.

“The Ford government decided to reopen and that caused definitively the most catastrophic third wave,” said Dr. Nathan Stall, the Liberal party candidate in Toronto-St. Paul.

Stall was on Ontario’s Science Advisory Table, which recommended against the reopening steps, he said. The province moved ahead anyway, and frustrated, he quit the advisory body to run for office.

“The people we elect are ones that make important decisions,” he said. “We need people who understand the science and aren’t going to compromise on that.”

He pointed to Andrea Horwath’s belief in August 2021 that it was a charter right for education workers to refuse vaccination — a position she quickly backtracked on — and PC Leader Doug Ford’s endorsement of expanded police powers to stop the spread — a position for which he quickly apologized for.

“It’s about being consistent, following recommendations of public health,” Stall said, pitching a plan that involved building up a provincial stockpile of PPE, expanding laboratory capacity, investing in public health communications and promoting indoor air quality.

The PCs did not provide an interview subject for this story on Sunday. However, they have previously said they are proud of their record shepherding the province through a pandemic.

On Saturday, Ford exited his campaign bus and in a short scrum referenced the proposed budget that included a plan to boost spending on health care infrastructure by about $10 billion over the next 10 years. The spending measures are intended to increase hospital capacity by adding some 3,000 additional beds.

Sunday is Doctor’s Day, according to the Ontario Medical Association, which bought an ad in Yonge-Dundas Square containing a collage to celebrate physicians during the pandemic.

“It really represents the care, determination and sacrifice that physicians have made in the last two years,” OMA President Dr. Adam Kassam said in an interview.

But behind the pictures of care are warning signs of a profession hit hard by the pandemic.

“It has been an extremely challenging two years. Three quarters of doctors have reported some level of burnout. There is a crisis in this profession,” he said.

The prescription, he said, included funding to reduce the backlog of surgeries, ensure an expansion of mental health care, invest in pandemic preparedness and digital systems in the pandemic.

He said every voter should be thinking about which party can best address the challenges of the health care system — but stopped short of endorsing any candidate or party.

“We know this has been a chronic problem. It’s been 30 years of underfunding, across party lines,” he said.