The public shouldn't be 'blamed' for COVID-19 pandemic situation in Ontario, infectious disease expert warns

Elisabetta Bianchini
·5 min read

While Ontario’s stay-at-home order is in place, initially resulting in confused reactions from people in the province last week, an infectious disease expert is stressing that the public shouldn’t be “blamed” for the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Since the beginning of the pandemic we've known that if people stay apart, that's going to decrease the chance of transmission but obviously, that doesn't take into account jobs and family, and childcare and all that,” Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti, infectious disease specialist with Trillium Health Partners, told Yahoo Canada.

“I think that's the only message that we've been hearing,...it's almost like people are being told that we're in this mess because of you, we’re in this mess because you guys can't stay home hard enough.”

Last week, Dr. David Williams, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, said the province continues to see COVID-19 cases and outbreaks linked to Christmas and New Year’s Eve gatherings.

“The community transmission is way too high. Why? Because people are continually not adhering and taking those precautions,” Dr. Williams said at a press conference on Thursday.

“If you don’t fraternize, if you don’t connect with a lot of people except your household, if you stay vigilant in that, if you do your distancing, wearing your mask, hand hygiene, staying home if you’re ill, getting testing if you need to...if everybody did that we would be out of this but people are not doing that.”

Dr. Chakrabarti stressed that although household transmission is “massive,” many of those cases involve someone bringing it home from essential workplaces, including factories. He said that just urging people to stay home is almost “insulting,” in the sense that it ignores the reality for essential workers who can’t do so.

“Sure, having people hang out at Christmas didn't help but I think that to kind of put the blame squarely on what people are doing, I think it’s a bit disingenuous,” Dr. Chakrabarti said.

He added that additional resources like paid sick leave, focused testing brought to these sites and supported isolation can help mitigate COVID-19 spread.

“We can do things right now to help stop the spread but we just have to remember that this is a very complicated pandemic and it's not just what we end up doing, there are other aspects to it that need to be addressed, some of it has to do with governmental policy,” Dr. Chakrabarti said, adding that this also includes addressing structural and socioeconomic inequities.

According to a report from the Decent Work and Health Network, 58 per cent of workers in Canada do not have paid sick days. Back in 2018, the current Ontario government made the decision to eliminate the province’s guaranteed two paid sick days.

“Workers without paid sick days are more likely to be in low-wage jobs, which are disproportionately held by women, racialized workers and workers with disabilities,” the report reads. “About half of workers making over $50,000 do not have paid sick days, but that number jumps to over 70 per cent for workers making $25,000 or less.”

A lack of paid sick days in Ontario, and across the country, has been heavily criticized throughout the pandemic. Doug Ford said he will not “duplicate areas of support” when the federal government has the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit (CRSB), which allows Canadians to receive $450 a week if they have to due to COVID-19, for a maximum of two weeks.

‘We probably will be seeing coronavirus again’

In addition to working to prevent COVID-19 transmission, Dr. Chakrabarti identified it’s important to remember that even with vaccines being administered, this is likely not the end of the coronavirus forever.

“Going into the future, we really need to keep in mind that we probably will be seeing coronavirus again,” he said. “Maybe not necessarily in the pandemic form but it'll likely be something that comes in a seasonal form, like influenza.”

As more people get vaccinated, officials have said that about 70 per cent of the population needs to receive a vaccine to achieve herd immunity. Dr. Chakrabarti explained that immunity is on a spectrum and this does not mean that if 70 per cent immunity isn’t achieved there will be a “raging pandemic.”

“The first thing we have to remember is that once we start to get to the point where we've vaccinated...vulnerable people, you're now significantly reducing admissions to hospital,” he said. “That's actually right now, apart from saving lives and decreasing morbidity, that's actually our number one priority right now.”

Dr. Chakrabarti said the goal is to mitigate the risk of spreading COVID-19 and keeping contacts low is important but generally speaking, outdoor activities are safer than being indoors.

“I think being outside is quite safe,” he said. “I've always said I would rather have 50 people skating outside or tobogganing, than have 10 people together indoors watching TV.”