Ontario Premier Doug Ford's most common response to questions about his governments action - or inaction - in response to the pandemic has been "we're listening to the experts." It's a deferral to expertise from a man who has a history of deriding 'elites', but there is at least some evidence that he's being honest who he's listening to in the context of COVID-19. 

The problem? Public health authorities have demonstrated that they're unable or unwilling to push for the measures necessary to combat the virus and mitigate a 2nd wave.

I'm not an epidemiologist, or a public health expert. I'll defer to those experts on understanding how spread occurs. Like many news junkies, I've learned a whole lot about aerosol spread and contact tracing, etc. these past few months.

But as a social scientist and public policy scholar, several aspects of the provincial (and federal, and local) response to the pandemic have been deeply frustrating: 1) Ford's public deference to experts belies the obvious political factors that (necessarily) influence his government's decision-making; 2) public health authorities have have demonstrated an incomplete understanding, or lack of diligence regarding, human behaviour, leading them to an innate conservativism/caution that has made the spread worse; 3) both health authorities and politicians have made a total hash of communications around key aspects of public health measures, which undoubtedly extended the severity of the 1st wave and is actively contributing to the 2nd wave.

Yes, we need to remember that the pandemic is not just a health emergency but an economic one. Governments around the world have struggled to balance health and safety with the horrible impacts of unemployment and the threat to many businesses, jobs, livelihoods, etc. The question of how far to go in imposing restrictions on individual liberties is also a values-based or ideological one. Evidence or expertise can only go so far because these decisions are not merely technocratic matters. It would be folly to pretend there's a scientific or 'evidence-based' formula to striking the right balance. But some politicians have spoken about health measures as if they are the problem, and not the virus itself. Thus, a balance that favours re-opening bars and gyms is likely, in the long run, to be more damaging to the economic side of things, not just the health side of things, if it contributes to the 2nd wave (and authorities are saying it has in Ontario, Manitoba, etc.) and in turn leads to another full lockdown.

In the early weeks and months of the pandemic public health authorities in Canada at all levels made a complete mess of messaging about masks. In the very early period, this was understandable. There is little question that the very real PPE shortage helped influence messaging that masks were not particularly useful. I'm sympathetic to concerns that private hoarding of masks could have contributed to severe shortages and threatened front-line workers, especially hospitals. But... once the PPE shortage was no longer a major issue, and we knew aerosol emissions was the key transmission method, there was still mass reluctance on the part of health authorities about imposing mandatory mask wearing in indoor public spaces. The province refused to act. Very slowly, municipal councils began passing bylaws, months into the pandemic. As recently as August, Bonnie Henry, BC's top doc, still resisted what she deemed "heavy-handed" mask policies. This looked terrible at the time, and looks even worse as BC's situation has deteriorated.

Local public health authorities also publicly opined that they worried about pitting 'neighbour against neighbour' by imposing mask policies, as if the risk of lawlessness was a greater threat than viral spread. The strong preference for 'recommending' over mandating was pretty swiftly disproven once local bylaws were in place, both in terms of compliance and in terms of the lack of social upheaval that resulted. People react to clear and strong rules, not vague messaging, especially when the only way to get people to wear masks also involved them overcoming cultural norms against them. 

In short, it's possible that public health experts know the science, but they fail to understand the social science, of spread prevention.

But because we don't know what advice is actually being given, it's the decision makers who ultimately should shoulder the blame. For example, we also saw unwarranted caution with respect to masks in daycares. Ontario's guidelines when daycares first reopened at the end of July did not impose a clear indoor mask-wearing rule for caregivers. These guidelines were revised as of September 1st to come into alignment with the policy for schools reopening. In our system of government, the people responsible for these calls are Doug Ford and his cabinet.

Most recently, the public health communication over testing has been simply atrocious. A massive backlog has developed as more and more people seek testing (including many parents of children who develop symptoms of being sick). The lack of preparedness on this aspect is galling, a total policy failure when the province has had 7 months to prepare ahead of a 2nd wave. But the backlog has now compelled authorities to recommend people not show up to main testing sites if they are asymptomatic, a preposterously foolish notion that will undoubtedly discourage some from bothering to get tested even if they may have been exposed. 

In fact, the litany of policy failures the Ford government is racking up would be impressive if we weren't living in a literal emergency. The government was abysmally slow on sensible and commonsense policies like masks. It managed to build up testing after some delay, but has let our testing capacity plateau to the point that the backlog itself is now a legitimate emergency. The unwillingness to put real resources and innovating thinking into the re-opening of schools is proving to be the disaster critics warned about. The province seems to have been unable to develop an effective tracing regime (or, at least, are not being transparent about where cases are emanating. Fully half of newly reported cases are coming in with no known source. Locally, authorities sometimes refuse to name the locations of specific outbreaks).

And most disturbingly, in the face of a 2nd wave, the province is sitting on its hands. Lowering gathering limits in the private context is woefully insufficient. Those who did not respect guidelines before will not change their behaviour based on such a tepid response. Indoor bars, restaurants, and gyms should not be open while this thing explodes all around us. Have we learned nothing from the spring? If this is the 'expert' guidance the Premier is acting on, we may need new experts. We definitely need new politicians.