On Jan. 20, 2022, Premier Doug Ford announced that Ontario will begin lifting COVID restrictions on Jan. 31. This announcement came less than 24 hours after the province reported 60 new COVID deaths—the highest daily death toll Ontario has seen since February 2021—and less than 48 hours after the announcement of an all-time high of 4,183 COVID hospitalizations.

In such a situation, Ford’s celebratory announcement seems ill-advised; however, it is completely in line with the government’s shameless downplaying of the deaths caused by the current wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Since the Omicron variant was discovered in Ontario in late 2021, the government and the capitalist media have repeatedly minimized the danger it represents. “I want to reassure Ontarians that we are prepared and ready to respond to this or any other new variant,” said the Chief Medical Officer of Health on Nov. 29, 2021, before stating that Ontario “[has] the infrastructure in place to manage outbreaks, including high volume capacity for testing”. That same day, Ford said that Omicron was “not cause for panic”. Multiple media outlets echoed this sentiment, referring to the variant as “mild” and stressing that it is less likely to cause hospitalization than previous variants.

Only a month after the government dismissed concerns and insisted Ontario was prepared for Omicron, testing in the province was gutted: PCR tests are currently only ‘recommended’ for symptomatic people in hospitals, long-term care or retirement homes; healthcare workers; school staff and students; and First Nations individuals. Since these changes were made on Dec. 31, the daily case count has been unreliable to the point that it is meaningless. The vast majority of symptomatic people are not able to get officially tested, and therefore are not reflected in case counts—not to mention those who are asymptomatic and have been in contact with positive cases (anyone remember contact tracing?). 

How could the government place such limits on such a vital service? As government restrictions have been imposed and removed seemingly at random, working-class people have come to rely on case counts in order to make decisions for their own safety. Unfortunately for us, as Omicron spreads and cases surge, the demand for testing has far outstripped capacity. Amidst a staffing crisis in Ontario’s hospitals, driven by burnout and underfunding, they cannot spare the nurses to administer tests. Meanwhile, the labs processing the tests were quickly overwhelmed by the sheer volume of incoming samples. So much for Ontario’s “robust” testing infrastructure!

The collapse of Ontario’s testing capacity is a disaster for the working class, but it is a boon to the government and the bosses. Deceptively low figures serve to counter the political backlash and demands for action that they will face for allowing the situation to get to this point. (“I led the province, eyes wide open, into the worst wave of COVID hospitalizations so far” is hardly a catchy campaign slogan for Doug Ford’s upcoming re-election campaign.)

When one considers that we are seeing record case numbers even though most symptomatic people can’t get tested, it becomes clear that we are facing a much worse wave than the case count numbers currently show. This is particularly obvious when we examine the data on hospital admissions, ICU admissions, and deaths. Hospitalizations are currently higher than they’ve ever been, while the rates of ICU beds filled and COVID-related deaths are as high as they have been in earlier waves of the pandemic.

Ontario hospitalization rate Apr. 2020 – Jan. 2022 (CBC)

These are not just statistics. Each COVID death is a lost life—these are people who have been taken from their friends, families, and communities, and who cannot be replaced. Yet these deaths have been callously downplayed by politicians and the media. On Jan. 19, the same day that 60 new COVID deaths were reported for the first time since Feb. 2021, this startling number was practically a footnote in articles by the CBC and Global News about how the Omicron wave is almost over—how there are “glimmers of hope” and reasons to be optimistic.

If these deaths had been caused by almost anything else, headlines would be screaming about them non-stop. Can you imagine the headlines if 60 Ontarians were being killed by terrorists every day? The media and the government wouldn’t talk about anything else. They would eulogize the lives lost, the families broken, the communities torn apart. The figures certainly wouldn’t be an afterthought in articles assuring us that the wave of terrorism is almost over. 

Ontario COVID deaths Apr. 2020 – Jan. 2022 (CBC)

It is possible that Omicron is indeed less lethal than previous variants of COVID-19; it may even be probable. Perhaps Omicron is just as lethal to the unvaccinated but high rates of vaccination as well as immunity from prior infections cause it to present as less lethal. Perhaps the virus has genuinely mutated to become less lethal but more contagious. We do not yet have the data needed to come to a decisive conclusion. However, what is clear is that the bosses and capitalist politicians latched onto the possibility that a less severe variant presented a less severe threat to the functioning of the economy. What they failed to take into account is that a small percentage of a large number is still more people than a large percentage of a small number. One per cent of 7,000 is greater than six per cent of 1,000. Even if Omicron is indeed less lethal but more contagious, unmitigated spread always had the potential to once again overwhelm the hospitals and ICUs. We are now watching this play out before our eyes.

7-day averagesMay 10, 2020 (1st wave)Jan. 19, 2021 (2nd wave)May 10, 2021 (3rd wave)Jan. 19, 2022 (current/4th wave)
Case count383.62,893.43,016.99,058
ICU beds filled214392.3861.4558.7
Source: https://newsinteractives.cbc.ca/coronavirustracker/

The Ford government has once again put working-class lives on the line in their quest to make sure big businesses keep making profits. Without consulting leading doctors or the unions, they decided to ‘let it rip’, and through their gutting of testing, they have suppressed information that points to this being their strategy. This has led to yet another entirely predictable disaster. It has been made abundantly clear over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic that the working class cannot rely on the government and the bosses to protect our safety. Over and over again, it has been left up to us to figure out how best to protect ourselves and our families from the virus, with many of us relying on the case count data to figure out the right steps.

There is an urgent need to re-fund our healthcare system, which has been decimated by austerity, and to properly compensate the nurses and other healthcare workers who have spent two grueling years fighting to save lives in the face of government inaction and mismanagement. As part of that re-funding, the government must spend the money to put actual robust, high-capacity testing systems into place. We absolutely need accurate case load data, not only so we can keep ourselves safe but so that we can understand and fight Omicron. With these inaccurate numbers, it is also more difficult to build the political will necessary for the working class to take societal action to make sure case rates aren’t out of control.

It is also well past time for accurate reporting from the media, putting appropriate weight on these deaths and stressing that these are people—not footnotes or statistics. To do otherwise serves only to prop up the Ford government and gloss over their catastrophic mismanagement of Omicron.