Doug Ford must go big on COVID-19 spending

March 22, 2020

Ontario Premier Doug Ford will be in the spotlight this week.

Last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced $27 billion in new federal spending to support workers and businesses affected by COVID-19. This week, it’s the premier’s turn to step up. Ford’s budget update will tell Ontarians exactly how far he is willing to go to get us through this crisis.

The premier’s recent policy moves are welcome. Protecting sick workers from job loss, ending the need for doctors’ notes, and suspending eviction orders are important moves. But they fall short of providing the income supports Ontarians desperately need.

Starting this Wednesday, that must change. The premier must go big, and spend big, if he wants to hold back the tide of misery that is coming our way.

The funding Trudeau announced last week was equal to an eight-per-cent increase in federal program spending.

Given provincial responsibilities, Doug Ford’s response must be just as great — or greater — to have any hope of keeping Ontario households safe and solvent. That means at least $12 billion in new provincial funding, immediately. It also means making plans to spend more as needs become clearer in the weeks and months ahead.

As we see more COVID-19 cases, the human and economic toll will continue to grow. With entire industries shuttered, Ontario’s economy will nosedive in the months ahead. Hundreds of thousands will be out of work, many with no income and no savings. Without help from government, households will be in desperate straits.

Some Ontarians will be forced on to social assistance. The requirement that recipients exhaust their assets before receiving assistance should be waived, as should the requirement that Ontario Works recipients look for work — there is none. Finally, social assistance rates must rise.

The province must also be prepared to support the housing costs of those who lose their incomes to COVID-19.

All working Ontarians who are sick or in isolation must be paid to stay home. We must support the call to ensure that all workers have seven paid emergency leave days per year from now on, and a further 14 days for all those unable to work because of the current pandemic.

If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that under-investing in health care is a grave mistake. Yet Ontario insists on doing so. We spend less per capita on health care than any province in Canada.

Ontario has fewer hospital beds than any other advanced country except Mexico. We have fewer nurses per capita than any other province. We have not stockpiled enough personal protective equipment to protect health-care workers, or enough ventilators to keep our loved ones breathing.

There is no excuse for any of this. Last fall, the Ontario government announced a funding increase of two per cent for health care this year. But because of inflation, population growth, and an aging population, though, we need to spend at least 4.6 per cent more each year just to maintain health care at current levels. And, in this time of crisis, we need to spend much more.

The same goes for social services, many of which were targeted for major spending cuts in the 2019 budget. We must support our most vulnerable Ontarians and the government departments and community agencies that serve them.

Food banks rely on volunteers, yet many volunteers are seniors who may no longer feel safe doing the work. Shelters need more space to allow for social distancing. Whatever the service, we need to keep all the organizations that fill a social need on their feet and strong.

We must also remember that municipalities provide many core and emergency services but are not allowed to run operating deficits. The province must provide cities and towns with the funding and regulatory tools they need to act fast and address issues as they emerge.

Let’s be clear: There is nothing normal about these times. To get through this crisis, we must put money in people’s pockets, strengthen health and social services, and support every worker who is still on the job because we need them working.

Ontario’s response must be equal to the challenge before us. The spotlight is on you, Premier Ford.

Randy Robinson is Ontario Director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. This piece was originally published in the Toronto Star