The Perfect Enemy | COVID-19 not on candidates’ minds or lips as voters grapple with inflation
July 1, 2022

COVID-19 not on candidates’ minds or lips as voters grapple with inflation

COVID-19 not on candidates’ minds or lips as voters grapple with inflation  Hamilton Spectator

Read Time:4 Minute

Monique Taylor hears a lot about money while knocking on doors on the Hamilton Mountain.

The price of gas, which can be more than two dollars a litre. High inflation, now at a 31-year high and creeping toward seven per cent, is boosting the cost of housing, groceries and other essentials.

What she doesn’t hear much about is COVID-19.

“When we talk about anything, like health care or economic recovery, we’re talking about the pandemic because it touched everything,” the NDP incumbent says. “But yeah, I don’t really hear anyone talking about the COVID at their doorsteps. Everyone is tired and COVID exhaustion is a real thing.”

Candidates are hearing about the price of gas while knocking on doors.The Hamilton Spectator file photo

The world is nearly three years into the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 40,000 Canadians, including at least 561 in Hamilton, and its footprint can be seen everywhere.

Hospitalizations have declined, but remain high. The death toll rises slowly, but steadily. There are nearly a dozen high-risk outbreaks in the city. The vaccine third-dose booster program fell well short of expectations, and experts fret about a fall surge in a province with no particular plan to cope with it.

Yet if the day-to-day rhetoric of political candidates from the leading parties in the provincial election is taken at face value, the pandemic is best seen in the rear-view mirror.

With the occasional exception, Hamilton-area candidates from the PC party, NDP and Liberal party don’t mention COVID-19, vaccines, nor how the province should cope with future waves.

A Spectator review of their social media output, for instance, shows most of the 38 area candidates stopped posting about anything to do with the pandemic shortly before the election writ was drawn up in May.

Even the party platforms mostly treat COVID-19 as a relic of the recent past and focus largely on recovery, with scant mention of the virus in the here and now. However, each party platform makes a variety of promises for more and better support for long-term-care homes, nurses and hospitals, all areas hammered by the pandemic.

Nelson Wiseman, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Toronto, said the vanishing nature of COVID as a subject of political discussion is less the result of parties and their candidates avoiding inconvenient truths than it is responding to what they think voters want.

“The parties just reflect the people,” said Wiseman. “The parties are going to push on issues that they believe voters will respond to, and right now that is not talking about COVID-19.”

Nelson Wiseman, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Toronto, said the vanishing nature of COVID as a subject of political discussion is less the result of parties and their candidates avoiding inconvenient truths than it is responding to what they think voters want.

The virus is circulating widely — just how widely is not entirely clear because the province dismantled the widespread PCR testing regime — and its effects are readily seen in hospitalizations and employee absenteeism.

But Wiseman said the reduced impact of the disease, the combined effects of vaccines and the decreased severity of the Omicron variant, pushed the pandemic into the background as the war in Ukraine and skyrocketing inflation took centre stage.

It is just bad politics for candidates to talk about COVID-19 when voters are struggling to pay for gas or put food on the table, he said.

The three leading parties all insist they haven’t forgotten about COVID-19.

No one from the Progressive Conservatives would speak to The Spectator. But in an unsigned, emailed statement, a party spokesperson said “Ontario has fared better than many jurisdictions during the COVID-19 pandemic.” The statement pointed to investments in long-term care and hospitals over the government of Doug Ford, and promises to do more in the party platform.

The statement did not address vaccines, or how the province would cope with future infection waves.

The Liberal party also did not provide an official for an interview, but in an email party spokesperson Andrea Ernesaks pointed to party leader Steven Del Duca’s May promise to make COVID-19 vaccines part of the mandatory vaccination schedule for children, one of the few times vaccinations became part of the election debate.

Party platforms for the Progressive Conservatives, NDP and Liberals mostly treat COVID-19 as a relic of the recent past, and focus largely on recovery with scant mention of the virus in the here and now. However, each party platform makes a variety of promises for more and better support for long-term-care homes, nurses and hospitals, all areas hammered by the pandemic.

The party platform is also unique among the three leading parties because it refers to the pandemic as an ongoing crisis.

The NDP platform is focused on pandemic recovery, calling for funding and supports for the health-care system and businesses. That rhetoric has remained consistent, even after NDP Leader and Hamilton Centre incumbent Andrea Horwath contracted the virus earlier this month.

Horwath had all but stopped tweeting about COVID-19 in early April, notably mentioning it when Toronto Mayor John Tory became infected on April 14, and when she and Green Party Ontario Leader Mike Schreiner were diagnosed with COVID-19 on May 18 and May 19 respectively.

Hamilton Mountain incumbent Taylor, who responded to The Spectator’s interview request to the NDP, said the party is acutely aware of the ongoing threat posed by the virus.

However, she also said voters are stressed on multiple fronts, with the rising cost of living becoming the most common issue she hears on the campaign trail.

Wiseman said elections are usually about what is most in front of the faces of citizens. And with most pandemic restrictions removed, businesses reopening and life starting to resemble pre-pandemic days, it is not surprising COVID isn’t a hot-button issue.

Should the virus surge again, that will be an issue for the winner of the election to grapple with, he said.