Farmers Forum staff
SIMCOE — Dr. Matt Strauss, the straight-shooting Haldimand-Norfolk medical officer of health who was hired after farmers denounced the pandemic policies of his predecessor, recently announced he’s leaving the job on April 1.
The region’s previous medical officer, Dr. Shanker Nesathurai, sparked a March 2021 farmer protest due to onerous COVID-19 restrictions imposed on temporary foreign agricultural workers that exceeded the rules required by the province. Nesathurai left in May 2021.
Growers were steamed by Nesathurai’s low bunkhouse capacity limits and a late follow-up order that workers be picked up in separate vehicles from the airport. It proved to be the final straw, according to retired vegetable farmer Frank Schonberger, an organizer of an ensuing tractorcade protest.
“In any other county besides Haldimand-Norfolk, those workers could just hop on the bus,” recalled Schonberger, who was reluctant to suggest that the protest action led to the change of medical officers.
The local board of health appointed Strauss, a critical-care physician and assistant professor of medicine at Queen’s University, in July 2021.
Strauss was a beacon of rational thought during the pandemic. He was pro vaccine and publicly questioned the need for lockdowns, mask mandates and giving the shot to children — all of which made him a lightning rod. He once cheekily tweeted that he would rather his children get COVID than a McDonald’s happy meal.
While activist pressure prompted a reconsideration of Strauss’s hiring two months later, the board stuck by its decision and kept him.
Schonberger said that Strauss reversed his predecessor’s additional on-farm measures in time for the 2022 growing season and also met with farmers to discuss their concerns. “We’re going to miss him,” he said. “We wish he could stay longer.”
Strauss believes the community sought his services because it’s a rural place dominated by commonsense farmers. “I think that just demographically, there are a lot of farmers in that community,” Strauss told Rupa Subramanya in a recent video interview on True North news website.
Strauss contrasted farmers with the “ivory tower” thinking of Toronto academics and their pandemic computer models. “I think that in an agricultural community, as a farmer you can come up with a computer model on how to grow rutabagas that are bigger and more delicious than anyone else’s. But if you find out six months later that your theory doesn’t hold water … you might lose the farm.
“So I think throughout the world when you go to these rural agricultural places, you’re going to find a lot more common sense and a lot less reliance on the so-called experts of the mainstream media, and media-think,” he told Subramanya.
Haldimand-Norfolk had a COVID-19 mortality rate 30 % lower than the provincial average during the pandemic. Though he doesn’t take credit for it, Strauss has noted that this performance occurred without imposing pandemic measures stricter than the rest of the province.
The doctor has also appeared increasingly correct following the omicron wave of early 2022. “We engaged in a lot of cruel and coercive measures this past winter … and what we found was … the majority of Ontarians got COVID anyway,” Strauss told TV Ontario host Steve Paikin in a September 2022 broadcast.