Our Times 3

How the Romanov dynasty bested Doug Ford in pandemic management

Canadian PoliticsLabourCOVID-19

The Romanov dynasty, which ruled Russia from 1613 until 1917, managed a pandemic in the late-18th century more effectively than the Doug Ford government in Ontario. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

The year is 1771. Count Grigory Orlov has been sent to Moscow to try to manage an increasingly volatile situation: plague has ravaged the city for over a year, and now citizens are rioting and parts of the city are in flames.

As it would happen, Orlov was able to find a solution to the seemingly intractable problems afflicting Russia’s largest city: paid sick days.

Yes, fellow denizens of Medieval Ontario, I have bad news for you. The tyrannical absolute monarchy of the Empress Catherine the Great of Russia was able to recognize this simple but essential component of pandemic management faster than our own Doug Ford.

Crisis in Ontario

As I write these words at the end of April 2021, more than thirteen months since the pandemic first announced its arrival in Ontario, there have been more than 450,000 total cases of COVID-19 reported in the province and nearly 8,000 people have died. Ontario has staggered through an endless loop of half-hearted lockdowns, which have often increased or decreased the number of individuals allowed to socialize together, but have rarely addressed the most significant vector of transmission: infected people going to work.

It is no surprise that the former-drug-dealer-turned-hyper-conservative-premier has prioritized the profits of businesses like Amazon (multiple outbreaks at its warehouses), construction projects like the Well condominium site (at least 70 cases early in 2021), or factories and food processing plants like Belmont Meats (site of one of the first major spreaders of the UK variant in Ontario).

Refusing to seriously shut down most businesses has meant that Ontario workers have had to keep going to work, even as dangerous variants pushed the needle on a third wave. This third wave is now poised to throw the province into complete catastrophe, with ICUs rapidly approaching the point of such overload that they will be forced to let patients die for lack of resources.

Bodies in the streets

It’s a bleak scenario, and the people of 18th century Moscow could relate. When the plague began ravaging Russia in 1770—brought back by soldiers after an imperialist scuffle with the Ottoman Empire—the initial response was skepticism and denial. The general whose troops were infected refused to evacuate the towns they had infested, and it quickly spread, killing even the general himself.

By late 1770, the chief physician of Moscow’s General Hospital identified that the bubonic plague was in the city and that measures needed to be taken swiftly to quarantine and prevent spread. But the man in charge of public health for the city did not believe it and little was done.

It was a disastrous mistake. By late 1771, as many as 1,000 people a day were dying. Many fled the city as bodies piled up in the streets—an image endorsed by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently— despite prisoners being compelled to collect and bury the bodies at night. The governor and police chief of the city bailed out, leaving a sanitation inspector named Jacon Lerche effectively in charge of plague management.

Lerche tried to impose a lockdown, shutting down businesses, factories and public buildings, but the authorities had completely lost the trust of Moscow’s citizens. Though the emergency measures were a step in the right direction, Muscovites had spent nearly a year at the mercy of the plague with no support from their leaders, and were in no mood to lose access to the modest respite that could still be found in the taverns or churches. Riots broke out in September and the city’s mostly wooden structures burned.

Parallel pandemics

Plague riot in Moscow, by Ernst Lissner.

Much of the story from Moscow, to this point, feels reminiscent of the last thirteen months in Ontario. As in Moscow, Ontario’s pandemic began with the premier telling people not to worry, to go on holidays and enjoy their spring break (which proved to be a catalyst for Ontario’s first wave of COVID). As in Moscow, frontline doctors have desperately pleaded for the province to take the crisis seriously and impose measures to manage it, while leading public health officials like David Williams have spinelessly provided cover for the Ford government’s prioritization of profits.

And in Ontario, just as in Moscow, an increasing swathe of society has lost faith in its governors, with a range of consequences. Doug Ford’s popularity has plummeted, especially among those most unnecessarily exposed to danger like teachers and warehouse workers. At the same time, many people have been drawn into the backwaters of COVID conspiracy theories, anti-mask rallies, vaccine hesitancy, and a general unwillingness to follow public health restrictions.

The latter typically only makes the situation worse, as did the riots in Moscow in September 1771. But in both cases, public trust had been so eroded by a cynical and contradictory government response that it was almost inevitable that people would rebel, even if that rebellion was counter-productive.

But this is where these stories diverge because Doug Ford, despite crying on television and promising to do so, has still refused to introduce an effective program of paid sick days for people potentially infected with COVID-19. On April 28, the province announced a woefully inadequate three-day sick leave program (despite the virus having a two-week incubation period), which was quickly dismissed as a confusing and contradictory mess of a policy. For instance, claiming the provincial sick leave would lead to a claw back from the existing, weak federal Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit program, making Ford’s three days almost entirely useless.

Paying people to stay home

The simple measure—paying people to stay home while they are sick—has been demanded in Ontario from the outset of the pandemic. In fact, many communities were already calling for a permanent paid sick day program before the pandemic even began, and such a system would have made a tremendous difference and saved thousands of lives had it been in place.

It certainly did in Moscow. Dispatched to the city to try to rescue it from disaster, Count Orlov immediately convened a panel of doctors and medical experts to map out a real solution to the epidemic. It was immediately made clear that the only way to stop the crisis was to limit the spread of the disease. And the only way to do that was to isolate anyone who was sick.

So Orlov’s panel did the obvious thing: they paid people to stay in quarantine.

In fact, the panel created a comprehensive new quarantine system for everyone in the city, on the promise that compliance would mean a quicker solution to the plague and resumption of normal life. Compliance was further incentivized by paying people so that they weren’t desperate to get to work in order to cover their rent.

The new plan earned the trust of most of the city’s people. Rioting ceased and the quarantine measures rapidly cut down the number of cases. Where more than 20,000 Muscovites died in September, that number was reduced to less than 1,000 by December. Proper public health measures will do that.

So yes, Doug Ford is being outpaced in the realm of pandemic management by the tyrannical Romanov dynasty who governed at a time when bloodletting and miasma theories were still considered legitimate medical practice. If even they could figure out that paid sick days are key to managing a pandemic, it should be fantastically embarrassing that Doug Ford cannot.

But let’s be honest: Doug Ford doesn’t care if he looks like an idiot. He doesn’t care if you get sick, he doesn’t care if you die. He cares only for the profits that he and his friends in big business can make in exploiting this crisis. Doug Ford is a monster who has the blood of thousands of mostly working class people on his hands, and it may yet take a riot to stop the bleeding.

Tyler A. Shipley is professor of culture, society and commerce at the Humber College Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning and author of Canada in the World: Settler Capitalism and the Colonial Imagination.


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