Protecting Ourselves From the Variants

Despite declining COVID numbers across Ontario and, to a lesser extent, in Toronto, we’re entering a time of greater danger.

As most of us know by now, the UK variant already spreading through the population is expected to be the dominant form of the virus by next month.  A random screening this week found that more than 5% of new cases in Ontario were the more transmissible UK variant, many of them from an outbreak in Simcoe Muskoka.

Variants originating in South Africa and Brazil, though currently much less common, are thought to be both deadlier and more resistant to vaccines, in addition to spreading more easily.

As usual, protecting ourselves requires both government action and personal responsibility. How best to protect ourselves personally is not yet entirely clear, as   public health officials continue to study the variants. But a safe assumption is that what we’ve been doing up till now is no longer good enough.

Up to now, we’ve been told to stay six feet away and wear a mask. We’ve been told we’re most at risk if we’ve been exposed to someone with COVID for 15 minutes.

With the variants, it’s very possible that you could catch the virus with contact of much shorter duration. Six feet might still be okay, but greater distances may be safer. And you’ll need better masks than the ones you got last spring or summer – with at least three layers, preferably with two layers of tightly-woven fabric such as cotton on linen and a third filter-type layer such as non-woven polypropylene.

In some European countries, government guidance now includes recommendations to use medical masks, and in the U.S., Dr. Fauci has been wearing two masks. For next week’s newsletter, I’ll try to gather more information on safe masking.

The Federal Government has already taken measures to guard against the variants, most notably new travel restrictions which should slow their entry into the country. But because the variants are already here, much more needs to be done.

Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health has repeatedly said that access to paid sick days is “essential” to controlling the spread.

To understand why, let’s start with the evidence on who is most likely to get COVID: essential workers who can’t work from home and are exposed to higher workplace risks; those who can’t avoid crowded conditions on public transit or at home. In other words, the working poor.

Only about 10 percent of these folks we rely on as personal support workers or grocery store cashiers have paid sick leave. The two paid days everyone used to get was eliminated by the provincial government in 2019.

In short, those most likely to get COVID and spread it are the least able to take time off work. If you were barely able to pay rent or put food on the table and you or a member of your family had symptoms, would you get tested, knowing that a positive test would mean not being able to support your family? Should anyone be in that situation during a pandemic?

Even if you’re indifferent to the social justice aspect of it, isn’t it simply a prudent measure to keep us all safer?

For both reasons – fairness to front-line workers and to reduce COVID spread – City Council and Mayor Tory have added their support, asking the Province to provide up to 10 paid sick days annually, during the pandemic.

There is another very troubling aspect to the relationship between COVID and the working poor. People of colour, in Toronto as elsewhere, have gotten COVID in much higher percentages than their share of the population. That’s not because the virus discriminates but because those living and working in poverty are disproportionately racialized.

That’s not ground-breaking news, but the pandemic has certainly shone a light on the inequality in our society.

We’ve needed to deal with that for a long time but haven’t – and that needs to change. Because this is Black History Month, today’s music video is Change Is Gonna Come, performed by Al Green. The song was written by Sam Cooke in 1964, shortly before he was killed, and unlike the better-known civil rights anthems made popular by white folk singers, this one is raw and emotional, coming from a lived experience.

– John