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As we continue to endure the ravages of COVID-19 worldwide, several provincial governments in Canada have decided to pretend that the pandemic no longer exists. In recent weeks, we have seen announcements that nearly all restrictions will be lifted. The justification for this is that we must now “live with COVID”. In reality, the lifting of restrictions will mean many will die with COVID instead.

Spearheading this change in policy has been Premier Scott Moe of Saskatchewan, Premier Doug Ford of Ontario, and Premier Jason Kenney of Alberta. All three provinces are set to end all restrictions as early as March. This includes vaccine passports, capacity restrictions, and mask mandates. Jason Kenney has already moved in this direction, with his government going so far as ending mask mandates for schools. Quebec is planning to drop its vaccine passport on March 14 as well, with Manitoba following suit in mid-March. 

It is important to note that these provinces have had some of the worst hospitalization rates, with Ontario and Alberta both having more than 1,500 hospitalizations. During the most recent Omicron wave, Saskatchewan reported its highest levels of hospitalization in the whole of the pandemic. Though Scott Moe, Jason Kenney, and Doug Ford will no doubt deny it, the decision to remove all restrictions is not driven by science, but by profit. The call for a “return to normal” really is a call for putting profits over people.

Dangerous anti-scientific lies peddled by premiers and media

The justification for the removal of restrictions peddled by these premiers simply does not hold up to scrutiny. The general argument used is a call for a “return to normal” and a rejection of evidence that restrictions impede COVID at all.

Scott Moe stated that “Lockdown and vaccinations do not seem to be stopping the transmission of the Omicron variant.” He continued, highlighting that “Omicron [is] a much quicker style of infection, and it seems to be less severe.” This was backed up by similar statements from Jason Kenney, who stated that “The threat of COVID-19 to public health no longer outweighs the damaging impact of restrictions.” 

Kenney in particular has been completely hypocritical in his justifications, hiding behind the idea that the unvaccinated are being stigmatized due to vaccine mandates. “In a way, it reminds me of the attitudes that circulated in North America during the 1980s towards those with HIV-AIDS,” Kenney stated in a press conference on the removal of restrictions. This is extremely hypocritical coming from Kenney, a man who protested in the 1980s to prevent gay couples from seeing loved ones who were dying from HIV-AIDS. 

To support their positions, characters like Kenney and Moe play off the generalized sense of fatigue with lockdowns, and an increasing level of lockdown skepticism. This increase in skepticism should not be surprising, given that governments have seemingly done everything to undermine the effectiveness of lockdowns: restricting social gatherings while leaving workplaces and schools open, refusing to take action against employers like Amazon and Cargill whose workplaces become the sites of massive outbreaks, and rushing reopenings for the sake of protecting profits. They can also point to a much-publicized academic paper that claimed that lockdowns have been ineffective at preventing deaths from COVID. What hasn’t been publicized are the many flaws of this study, not the least of which is that it was written by economists rather than epidemiologists, and that it has not been peer-reviewed. The fact is that COVID is spread by social interaction, and the scientific consensus remains that limiting social interaction limits the spread of the virus. 

This push for a return to normal has been coupled with misinformation peddled by mainstream news outlets like The New York Times and other outlets, which have placed enormous focus on moving on and back to normal as opposed to the overwhelming number of deaths currently occurring across the world. In Canada alone, 35,000 people have died of COVID-19, with dozens of deaths happening every day in many provinces across the country. To put this into context, only 45,000 Canadians were killed in World War II, the largest military conflict in the country’s history.

Some in the media have suggested that there should be a ‘herd immunity’’ approach in the hopes that COVID-19 can become endemic. However, as we have previously explained, this is a recipe for new variants of the virus. With more people infected, it is not only likely that a new variant will arise, but inevitable. It is also possible that future variants of the virus will be even more dangerous than Omicron. There is absolutely no connection between how lethal a virus is and how infectious it is. By allowing infections to run wild by removing restrictions so recklessly, the capitalist class is rolling the dice on a new variant arising. 

This means that a “learn to live with COVID” approach actually means “learn to die with COVID”. There is no scientific basis for the position that removing restrictions will not increase infections. The virus is spread through social interaction, and increasing social interaction during a pandemic will have disastrous results. Around 15 per cent of Canada’s population is immunocompromised in some way, which is almost double the number of unvaccinated adults. The removal of restrictions puts these people in danger and will lead to many more deaths. 

Profits over people

Despite the posturing over the question of individual freedoms, the main driver behind removing restrictions is profit. In fact, Omicron is a testament to the profit-driven nature of the pandemic response. The reason Omicron arose as a variant in Africa is largely due to the lack of vaccines actually available in poorer countries. While Africa languishes at a 14 per cent vaccination rate, Pfizer, BioNTech, and Moderna, who have patents on vaccine production and distribution, are making combined profits of more than $1,000 every second! This alone is a recipe for new variants internationally.

The question of restrictions is no different. It is not a question of individual freedoms, but a question of profit. This is openly admitted by the CEOs and business leaders in Canada. After Doug Ford announced the easing of restrictions, Dan Kelly, CEO of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, stated “We’re going to have to get public-health officials and governments to say ‘It’s time to go back to your office.’” 

Similarly, the CEO of the Ontario Chamber of Commerce applauded Ford’s announcement as “extremely encouraging and welcome news” and stated, “Employees will also need help getting back to work…This is not zero risk, but it’s managing a risk.” 

These business leaders are admitting that there will be an increase in infections. The only argument is that we must learn to live with it, while they continue to accumulate profit. The health of working class people is a secondary consideration. 

For workers’ control of health and safety!

So far, the ruling class in Canada has attempted to pose the question of restrictions and public safety measures as a simple yes-or-no question: either the rights of individual workers will be restricted, or we learn to live with COVID. However, this argument is just used to cover the reality of the botched pandemic response. Consistently throughout the pandemic, we have seen that the highest rates of infections have been within workplaces, yet workers have been forced to work throughout the entire pandemic with no sick pay, no sick leave, and with chronic staffing shortages—all of which aggravate the chances of COVID outbreaks. 

We are where we are, two years into a global pandemic, because of the profit-driven policies of the capitalist class, and this is no different. So long as the bosses continue to dictate the policies for health and safety, we will continue to have a scattered and ineffective pandemic response. Restrictions, closures, followed by a lifting of restrictions which inevitably leads to new variants, and a repeat of the cycle. The reality is that COVID has only gotten to this point because of the policies of those in power. COVID itself arose accidentally, but the ongoing pandemic is caused by capitalism. 

What is needed is for workers to democratically control health and safety. We must collectively and democratically decide policies that protect our communities. Free testing for all, PPE publicly provided, nationalization of the pharmaceutical industry for the free distribution of vaccines for all, as well as sick leave and hazard pay, would all be measures that could blunt and eradicate COVID-19. Only working class people in control of society can implement such a program. As long as we rely on the likes of Ford, Kenney, and Scott to run our society, we will have to live and die with COVID.