With people recognizing the everyday heroism of frontline workers during this pandemic, I would like to give a shout out to those working in public health.

Public Health officials are not always recognized as much as their counterparts in emergency rooms or family clinics. Things such as education campaigns, flu shot reminders, research and sometimes-controversial harm reduction initiatives can be easy for your average person to brush aside. But the battle against COVID-19 will be won by the incredible labour of public health workers and they deserve all the praise in the world for their efforts, which have gotten most people on board with social distancing.

Perhaps public ignorance is part of why the province targeted public health for cuts and restructuring this past year, something that garnered relatively little fanfare compared to cuts to education and autism programming.

But people should have a better understanding now of what makes public health so vital – and why we cannot afford to cut it.

The province began downloading public health unit costs to municipalities this year, earning scorn and putting municipal leaders in an awkward position. Public health units also received information last year the government would amalgamate the 35 units into 10. That has not yet come to pass but a modernization review was underway before COVID-19 hit.

It is uncertain at this point how many units the province will amalgamate, moves which would assuredly be done with cost savings in mind. I am sure some adjustments will be welcome efficiencies. But anything that can be reasonably interpreted as a cut will, and should, be extremely unpopular.

The costs of investing in public health to prevent illness will generally be cheaper than the costs of treating that illness down the line. Although there may be some duplication in public health work, amalgamating units is questionable as an answer, when there is plenty of local-specific health issues that need a local-specific response. We have seen that during the pandemic in our tri-county area, where numbers differed drastically in the City of Kawartha Lakes due to the outbreak at Pinecrest Nursing home in Bobcaygeon.

The crisis has shown what makes public health so important – to prevent the spread of illness before people reach emergency rooms and hospital beds. Whenever we are safe from COVID-19, any government will have a hard time slashing public health.

By the end of this, based on Ontario’s projections, tens of thousands of Ontarians will owe their lives to the work of public health.

But the service will remain just as important even when COVID-19 fades into memory. Harm reduction and illness prevention are vital, even if underrated. This crisis has also taught us to be more mindful of serious health threats to come. We need health units to be prepared for the next pandemic, whenever it is.

It was not right for the province to download costs to municipalities, a copout to save costs when ultimately, the taxpayers still bear the bill. The County has complained about getting more of the bill when they have little say in health unit spending and it is a fair argument. The province may feel pressed to find more savings, but municipalities are also under economic pressure and do not have the same ability to absorb costs.

When the dust settles after COVID-19, the public needs to stand up and protect public health, just as public health protected them. We cannot take it for granted.

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