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Ontario Hansard - 20-May2021

Ms. Peggy Sattler: I rise today, on behalf of the official opposition, to respond to the motion that is before us, which extends the extraordinary emergency powers that this government gave itself under the reopening Ontario act for a further year. I’m going to say at the outset that the official opposition will not be supporting this motion.

I want to acknowledge the Solicitor General’s recognition of the sacrifices of the front-line workers who have kept our province going throughout these 14 long, painful and agonizing months that we have experienced in this province.

She recognized the health care heroes who have been valiantly working on our behalf on the front lines in hospitals and long-term-care homes, who are exhausted by the effort that they have made. We hear from nurses and PSWs who have experienced profound PTSD because of what they have endured throughout this pandemic. I think it’s great that the Solicitor General acknowledged that.

She also talked about the essential workers who have, at great personal risk, been working in grocery stores and pharmacies, gas stations, delivery services, manufacturing plants, warehouses. They have been going to work every day throughout this pandemic knowing that they could risk taking the virus home to their families but doing the work that was necessary to keep our province’s economy afloat.

But this motion that is before us repays the sacrifices that these workers have made in our province by stripping collective agreements of long-held bargaining rights in terms of how they organize their workplaces. You don’t treat heroes this way. I’ve heard front-line health care workers say that the emergency powers in the reopening Ontario act take health care workers and others from heroes to zeros because of the impact that this legislation has on their workplace.

Speaker, there is no justification, no reason for this government to continue the emergency orders that are set out in the reopening Ontario act. The power to take emergency measures to keep Ontarians safe if we do experience that fourth wave of the virus—those powers are already available to the government. The existing Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act already gives the government the ability that would be necessary to put in place public health measures that may be needed to protect Ontarians from another phase of the virus. The Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act already allows for a phased approach to reopening. There is no possible justification for this one-year extension on the emergency orders, unless it is to continue the attack on worker rights that we have seen repeatedly taken by this government since it was elected in 2018.

The other thing I would question is whether these emergency powers have had any discernible impact on Ontario’s success in dealing with the pandemic. These emergency orders allow employers to override collective agreements. They did nothing to prevent the third wave. These emergency orders have been in place since last summer, and that is when we saw the second wave through December and January—and then the third wave, of course, that we are still in the throes of right now.

There were claims at the time from the government that these orders, this attack on collective bargaining, were necessary to help adjust staffing shortages by redeploying staff where they were needed. We have not seen that that ability had any impact whatsoever on staffing shortages. We are still hearing of staffing shortages in long-term-care homes, in health care facilities across the province. So you can’t even say that these orders were effective in helping the government respond to this very serious public health emergency that we have been living through.

I want to remind the government that there are two significant dates coming up in just a matter of months. On June 30, the PSW wage enhancement program will be expiring. The pandemic pay, the wage top-up that was given to PSWs to recognize the heroic work they have been doing in long-term-care homes and in home and community care settings, is set to expire. We know that if this government were serious about wanting to address staffing shortages among PSWs, the one thing they could do right now is make that wage enhancement permanent. PSWs deserve to be compensated fairly for the vital work they do to support vulnerable Ontarians.

We also know that, on September 25, this government’s paid sick days plan, this meagre three-day program that the government set up, will be expiring. Workers who need to stay home because they have symptoms of COVID-19—and this will be particularly important in light of the possibility of a fourth wave. We want workers to be able to stay home if they have symptoms of COVID-19, but they won’t be able to do that after September 25 because this government failed to put in place the permanent paid sick days that workers need to protect themselves and their families and their communities—and in particular, those essential workers, those front-line workers, those health care heroes I talked about earlier.

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We know that throughout this pandemic there are nurses, PSWs and other health care professionals in hospitals and other health care settings who have been forced to take vacation days. They have been forced to stay home without pay if they have had to isolate for the 14-day period of quarantine, if there has been a COVID-19 exposure. Those workers, who are doing such incredible, important work for all of us on the front lines, shouldn’t have to take a financial hit if they are staying home to protect their co-workers, to protect their family members, to protect their communities. Yet this government has stood by and allowed that to continue to happen, allowed health care workers to be forced to take unpaid leaves of absence or use up the vacation days to which they’re entitled if they need to able to self-quarantine.

The other thing I wanted to talk about is that it’s not just sick pay or sick days or vacation days that will be affected by this extension of the emergency orders. The powers set out in the reopening Ontario act allow the government to override worker rights in many, many areas of the collective agreements. It allows override of article 7, the grievance and arbitration procedure; article 9, seniority provisions; article 10, contracting out; article 11, the work of the bargaining unit; article 12, leaves of absence; article 13, sick leave; article 14, hours of work; article 16, holidays; article 17, holidays; and article 18, vacation. All of these provisions in collective agreements that workers have fought so hard for are now at risk because of this government and the power that it has taken to override collective agreements. Think about the impact of that on the workers in this province. Think about the impact on those workers who have risen to the challenge of keeping our province going throughout this pandemic. Their vacations can be arbitrarily cancelled. Their shifts can be changed.

For example, if they work the day shift, if they have child care arrangements in place to enable them to work the day shift when they have children at home—their shift could all of a sudden be changed from the day shift to night shift.

Their job, their position could be eliminated, and they could be reassigned, with no say whatsoever, to another position. Their hours of work can be changed without any input or agreement from the employee who is affected. Leaves of absence can be cancelled or denied. They can be moved to another site.

Again, think about the transportation needs of people who may rely on public transit to get to their workplace in the morning. All of the plans that people have made to get to their place of work can be upended, because all of a sudden a worker can be reassigned to another site.

And, I think most troublingly, contractors and volunteers can be brought in to do work, as long as there is not a layoff. These contract workers, these volunteers can be brought in to a unionized workplace and take on the bargaining unit work, and the worker who had been doing that job can simply be reassigned. There is no question that this is a profound attack on worker rights and, honestly, it’s an affront to democracy. As I said, it is absolutely no way to recognize the heroism of the workers who have come through for all Ontarians during this period of crisis.

But I have to say, I don’t think the nurses in this province will too surprised by this motion that is before us, by this government’s interest in keeping that extraordinary power that they gave themselves under the reopening Ontario act. Why I say the nurses won’t be surprised is because in 2019, they and many other public sector workers discovered, with Bill 124, that their rights to collectively bargain wages had been taken away by this government. Bill 124, at the time, said that wage settlements had to be within 1%. And what we hear from nurses is that there has not been—not just nurses; others. But I want to recognize nurses. We just came out of Nursing Week in this province and International Nurses Day. I think all of us have felt more strongly than ever how grateful we are to nurses and other health care professionals.

Nurses in Ontario have not had a wage increase on par with inflation for more than a decade, and yet what we saw with Bill 124 is that it enshrines, it embeds below-inflation wage increases in perpetuity—not in perpetuity; until June 2, 2022, when we’re going to have another government elected in this province. This government decided that nurses and other public sector workers deserved no more than a 1% wage increase per year.

I can tell you that recognizing the sacrifices of nurses and other health care heroes certainly means more than stripping them of their collective bargaining rights and stripping them of a wage increase that is even equal to inflation.

So we are not going to be supporting this motion. We are going to continue to call for a full public inquiry into the actions that this government has taken. I talked about the fact that there are big questions about how effective the reopening Ontario act and the emergency measures that are set out in the act have been in terms of responding to COVID-19. Yesterday, I was able to join the leader of the Ontario NDP, Andrea Horwath, in her call for a full judicial inquiry into Ontario’s COVID-19 response, which of course includes the measures that are authorized under the reopening Ontario act.

Speaker, we have seen a public health crisis in Ontario that has led to more than 8,500 Ontarians losing their lives. Almost 4,000 of those Ontarians were seniors in long-term-care homes. We have seen scathing reports from the Auditor General, from the long-term-care commission that talked about this government’s negligence, frankly, in applying the lessons learned from wave 1 of the virus to wave 2 to help prevent those deaths in long-term-care homes. As a result, we all know that more seniors lost their lives and more families have been left grieving because of the loss of their loved ones in long-term care after the second wave compared to the first wave. Despite this government’s promise of an iron ring around long-term care, we know that nothing of the sort was put in place in Ontario’s long-term-care homes.

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We need a full judicial inquiry into Ontario’s emergency response to COVID-19 because there is good evidence, there is research from health care professionals, that shows that the impact of this pandemic has been more deadly, has dragged on longer than it needed to if effective measures were put in place at the time that they were necessary.

We are still facing the potential overwhelming of our hospital system. I think all of us have been encouraged over the last week or so by the reduction in the number of cases. We know that the number of people who are being hospitalized and who are occupying ICU beds is coming down incrementally, but our health care system is still in a very, very fragile position. Our health care system is still very much at risk of being overwhelmed if we are not able to make our way through this last phase of the virus.

All of us heard at the very beginning of this pandemic from front-line workers—from health care workers, in particular—who were not being provided the PPE that they needed from their employers. I remember being on the phone with nurses at London Health Sciences Centre who were in tears. I was in tears; they were in tears when they talked about their fear, their deep anxiety that they were putting themselves at risk and, more importantly, that they were risking the health of their families. We had nurses who were setting up mobile homes in their driveways so that they didn’t have to go into the house when they returned from their shift. They stayed in these mobile homes and didn’t see their families throughout those early days of the pandemic.

Speaker, this is another question that has to be investigated by a judicial inquiry into Ontario’s COVID-19 response: Why did this government not learn the lessons of SARS? Why did they not apply the precautionary principle in health care settings and workplaces across this province? There was a lot that was not known about the virus when COVID-19 was first identified, and yet the precautionary principle says that you have to assume the worst and put measures in place that are going to protect workers.

Going back to those nurses who were on the phone with me in tears: They were being told that N95 masks were being rationed in their workplaces. They were being kept locked under a desk. They were given one N95 mask a day. They were being asked to reuse N95 masks. That is not the way to apply the precautionary principle and protect health care workers.

There are a lot of other questions that need to be answered about Ontario’s pandemic response that could be addressed by a full judicial inquiry into the COVID-19 measures that were put in place.

Going back to paid sick days, to those front-line workers who on September 25 are no longer going to be able to access the program that this government finally put in place, after more than a year of advocacy and efforts by health care professionals who were telling the government—more than stripping workers of their rights under collective agreements, what is needed is a program of paid sick days that workers could access when they are too sick to go to work. That is the way to address staffing shortages, for one thing, in this province.

We heard from the study that was done by Peel Public Health in the fall and winter of 2020—this report was issued in January of this year. Over that period, Peel Public Health interviewed 8,000 essential workers in Peel who had COVID-19 symptoms. Guess what, Speaker? Two thousand of those 8,000—one quarter; one out of four of those workers—continued to go to work even though they were symptomatic. They did not do this because they wanted to expose their co-workers to infection. They didn’t do it because they wanted to expose other transit riders as they rode in packed transit vehicles to work. They didn’t want to expose them to the virus. They didn’t do it because they wanted to expose their neighbours in the densely packed residential areas that they lived in. They didn’t want to expose them to the virus. But they had to feed their families. They had to go to work so that they could get their paycheque, so that they could pay the rent at the end of the month. And yet, it took months and months of advocacy, of calls from a broad cross-section of organizations to get this government to do anything, to implement a program of paid sick days.

When you reflect on the kind of coalition that was built around paid sick days, it included health care professionals, it included medical officers of health, and it included boards of health. We know that boards of health in those 34 different public health units are made up of municipal councillors and they’re made up of community representatives. Business leaders and community leaders sit on boards of health. Every single board of health in this province—all 34 boards of health—co-signed a letter to the Premier back in, I think, February calling on this government, urgently, to implement a program of paid sick days for workers in this province.

Also in that coalition that was pushing for paid sick days we saw mayors. We saw the mayor of Brampton, the mayor of Mississauga and the mayor of Toronto also pushing this government to act. We saw small businesses. Even the Ontario Chamber of Commerce recognized the value of paid sick days to protect their workers and to protect themselves from workers feeling that they had no choice but to come to work sick.

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Yet, as I say, it took months and months and months before we finally saw a policy response from this government. That is something that a public inquiry could also look into. Why did it take so long? How many lives could have been saved if the government had acted more quickly on paid sick days? Certainly, that is an issue that has to be addressed. It’s an interesting contrast to the measures that were put in place by the reopening Ontario act—the measures that this government intends to extend for another year.

The other issues that we need to look at in terms of Ontario’s emergency response include, of course, the devastation that happened in our long-term-care homes, and in particular, the role of private sector for-profit long-term-care-home operators and how the actions of those private long-term-care-home operators increased the death toll in the long-term-care facilities. There have been multiple analyses that have looked at the number of deaths in long-term-care homes that are privately operated versus long-term-care homes that are non-profits or publicly owned by municipalities. Those analyses have consistently shown that the outcomes and the risk of death was much lower for the workers who are in those non-profit or publicly owned homes.

At the same time, we have seen the for-profit operators of these homes take in huge bonuses. Huge shareholder bonuses have been paid out to many of those for-profit operators at the same time that the homes that these for-profit operators were managing were experiencing a devastating death toll among the residents.

We have to look at PSWs and how this government responded to the calls for four hours of daily hands-on care. That has been recognized as essential to ensure that long-term-care-home residents are treated with the dignity and the respect they deserve, and so that PSWs can do the work they are trained to do and long to do with residents. Instead, we heard agonizing accounts from PSWs who spoke to the long-term-care commission about the personal pain they experienced as they watched residents die with no one there, and they were running around in a home that was chronically understaffed.

This government’s temporary pandemic pay wage enhancement was really the only thing they could come up with to try to deal with the PSW shortage in long-term care, and we know that they had to be pushed into extending that pandemic pay, even until June 3, and have consistently refused to acknowledge that one of the most impactful reasons for the shortage of PSWs is the lack of fair compensation and the fact that many of the jobs for PSWs in long-term-care homes are not full-time jobs. They are not jobs that come with any kind of security, that come with benefits, pensions or those kinds of things.

To make PSW jobs good jobs would go a long way to not only addressing the staffing shortages, but improving quality of life for the residents who are cared for by PSWs—and also making PSWs, that critically important role, a more satisfying and rewarding occupation for the people who are doing that work.

Speaker, as we look to the reopening of Ontario—I think in about 35 minutes we’re going to be hearing from the Premier about the plans—I think we have to reflect on this government’s previous reopening plans for the province, and look carefully at what went wrong during those previous reopenings and what we need to make sure we do right in the reopening that is approaching.

We know that in February, for example, the government released a disastrous colour-coded framework that was immediately criticized by medical experts for setting completely wrong benchmarks in terms of how the colour-coding was going to work, but also for being very confusing to Ontarians. We need to look at why the government decided to ignore the public health advice that they were getting at the time from the science advisory table about not moving forward with reopening as quickly as they were doing. We all know the consequences of that reopening too early that happened in February.

Hopefully, unlike the long-term-care sector, where the government failed to learn and apply the lessons from phase 1 to phase 2, as we approach the next period of reopening in the province, the government will learn the lessons from those previous failed reopenings that put Ontarians at risk.

The other thing we certainly have to be looking at is the timing of the government’s responses to COVID-19. We were hearing medical experts saying, for example, as early as December, “Don’t think about reopening. Now is not the time. We need to take decisive action.” This was actually in November and early December. The government needed to act decisively, and instead we saw dithering from this government. Then, finally, there was an announcement before Christmas that there was going to be a provincial shutdown on Boxing Day, five days later. What is the message that is conveyed when the government signals that we are in a very, very serious emergency, that this is a crisis and people need to take this seriously, and yet it says, “Take the next five days and shop and enjoy yourselves until the next state of shutdown is going to be in effect”?

I don’t want to suggest that it isn’t important to give businesses and families in this province the time that is necessary to plan.

But going back to that colour-coded framework and the metrics that were set out there—this government needs to be transparent about what metrics are going to be used to decide the phased reopening approach in this province.

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Ontarians deserve to know. They deserve to have some hope as they, and we, are all watching those daily case counts, waiting until, as Dr. Williams and others have said, there is a sustained period of case counts below 1,000. Ontarians deserve to know what is going to be necessary, what the government is going to be looking at, as those phases of reopening occur. That is the kind of information that gives people confidence, that gives people faith that this government is acting on good information, acting on evidence, acting on advice from scientists and others who understand what metrics to be looking for.

Maybe at 3 o’clock, Ontarians will get that information about the metrics, and I certainly hope so.

But that is another issue that should be addressed by a public inquiry into Ontario’s response—the impact of those mixed messages that were given by this government, the impact of poorly communicating the expectations of Ontarians in terms of following public health advice and, in fact, the impact of directives that were at times contradictory, and what this meant for both public confidence in what the government was asking people to do and the impact of the pandemic and transmission and infection.

Speaker, other issues that we need to be looking at include this government’s support for small businesses—what we often heard from this government was this stated commitment to small business and other businesses in the province and this recognition of the importance of keeping our economy going. But instead of doing what the medical experts were telling them and paying small businesses to stay closed, this government took an approach that businesses had to be open even if it undermined the health of the people of this province. That was because they didn’t want to invest the money—they didn’t want to make the investment in helping businesses stay afloat, helping businesses survive the pandemic, until they had to be pushed into doing something in their March budget.

We had been hearing from small businesses from the very beginning of the pandemic about the need for a rent support program, about the need for additional financial assistance.

In my riding, in London West, I heard from a lot of small businesses who didn’t qualify for any of the federal programs, who were worried about the federal loan program, because that would have to be repaid and they didn’t know if it made any economic sense to access that federal loan. It would just put them further under water. They didn’t qualify for some of the other federal programs. They were looking to the province for support, but it took months and months for the province to do anything, even in the face of very serious problems that were identified right away with the federal-provincial commercial rent support program, which required small businesses not to apply directly to the government for commercial rent support, but to ask their landlords to apply to the federal government for commercial rent support. I know, in London West, there were a lot of small businesses who told me that their landlords had no interest in applying to that program or else didn’t qualify because of the criteria that were in place for that program.

That was all known very early in the pandemic—the problems with the commercial rent support program—but again, it took months for this government to revise the way that program was designed and do something that allowed business owners to apply directly for commercial rent support.

The small business grant program that this government has introduced—I’m sure that all of us have been hearing from business owners in our ridings about the problems with that program, as well: the criteria that make many businesses ineligible to apply for the program, and then also all of the problems in terms of the rollout of the grant money. Businesses that have qualified have submitted their applications and have to wait, in some cases, months for that grant money to appear. And we know that the additional $20,000 comes nowhere near making up the kind of revenue losses that businesses have experienced in the province of Ontario.

Education is another area that really has to be looked at closely. This government’s response to keeping students and education workers safe in Ontario schools has to be investigated very carefully through a process like this judicial inquiry that the Ontario NDP is calling for.

We hear the Minister of Education repeatedly say how safe Ontario schools were when schools were open, citing data from the asymptomatic testing program, which was completely inadequate to give an accurate sense of the extent of COVID-19 infection in our schools. This government refused to put in place the measures that public health experts had said were needed: to reduce class sizes, to improve ventilation, to ensure that there was broad asymptomatic testing. Those were the measures that were necessary earlier in this pandemic in order to keep schools as safe as possible for education workers and students.

It took some time and political pressure, frankly, from parents and from teachers in this province to get the government to recognize that education workers have to be a priority for vaccination, if we are truly committed to ensuring that our kids are able to get back to school so that they can participate in that in-person learning that is so critical to their academic success, to their emotional and social development, and to their mental health and well-being. If we are serious about that, then we need to take the measures that are necessary to get kids back in the classroom, and that includes vaccinating education workers.

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On the topic of vaccination, there are some legitimate questions that people have raised about the rollout of the vaccination program in this province. We saw the government drag its heels on setting up a vaccine task force which was only put in place in December, although they had known for some time that vaccines would be coming. The vaccinations started, and then there was a Christmas break.

A lot of people had questions about the slowness of the vaccination program. As you know, the government said that it was all related to supply, but we saw from the vaccine tracker efforts that were under way from medical professionals in this province—who have really stepped up, quite frankly, as watchdogs of this government, to give the public accurate information about the number of vaccines in freezers and the number of vaccines in arms. We need to look at why it took so much time, for example, to get long-term-care-home residents vaccinated. They quite rightly were at the top of the priority list, but it took several months, much longer than it should have, to get those long-term-care-home residents vaccinated.

We also have to look at the equity implications of the government’s vaccine rollout.

Now, of course, I’m sure that all of us are getting emails and phone calls about second doses. We haven’t heard clarity from this government as to the plans for second doses, and in particular, second doses of AstraZeneca.

Speaker, I just want to offer some comments now in my role as democratic reform critic for the official opposition.

The mess, the chaos that we have seen in this province in terms of the response to COVID-19—it didn’t have to be this way. One only has to look at countries like New Zealand that operate on a system of proportional representation to see the benefits of collaboration, coordination and consensus across party lines. We have not seen that from this government ever, in terms of the response to this public health emergency.

Even from the very first days, the government presented legislation that had already been developed. We had several emergency sessions in the chamber shortly after the pandemic was declared to deal with those pieces of legislation, but at no time did the government approach the official opposition and the other parties to say, “What do you think the government as a whole should be doing to deal with this public health emergency?”

In New Zealand, a special committee was established, chaired by the opposition, that looked not only at reviewing government legislation, but at proactively identifying what needed to be done, what kinds of emergency responses needed to be taken. We are all aware of the success of that governance model in New Zealand, where they have basically eradicated COVID-19. Of course, they have the advantage of being an island, but I think there are a lot of lessons that can be learned from the New Zealand model—not only from that process of collaboration, consensus and coordination that is embedded in a proportional representation model of governance, but also in the decisions that were made as a result of that governance model.

Number one: Listen to the science. We saw the science advisory table in Ontario that was providing advice to the government in a behind-closed-doors way. We saw that science advisory table, fed up with the fact that its advice was not listened to, issue a very clear statement in April about what will work to control COVID-19 and what won’t work to control COVID-19. As we know, one of the things that they clearly identified as what won’t work is discouraging people from participating in outdoor recreational activities, and yet this government chose to announce in the middle of April that all outdoor recreational amenities would be closed.

The government stated that what will work to control COVID-19 is a proper program of paid sick days, and yet this government chose to introduce a program that provides only three paid sick days, and only until September 25. Shortly after the government released its program, we heard Dr. Brown from the science advisory table say very forthrightly—when asked, “Is the government’s program of three paid sick days going to be effective?” Dr. Brown said no.

In New Zealand, they listened to the science. The measures they put in place were informed very clearly by medical evidence, by the guidance of health care professionals and public health experts who understood the kinds of measures that were needed to address COVID-19.

The other thing that the New Zealand model showed us is the importance of prioritizing both health and economic considerations. Both have to be equally recognized.

Too often, we saw this government see-saw between one or the other. They had to reopen really fast in order to get the economy moving again, even if it jeopardized the health of Ontarians. That’s what we saw in the last round of reopening that led directly to the third wave.

An analysis of New Zealand’s system of all-party co-operation and governance showed that this approach saved lives. It saved lives by ensuring that opposition ideas were shared prior to legislation being brought forward and acted on by the government at the time.

Another lesson from New Zealand’s experience in responding to COVID-19 is that people’s trust, people’s confidence in the government relies on transparency and accountability. It relies on understanding why the measures that the government is asking them to follow are being put in place. It relies on giving people the information that the government is using to make decisions, for example, about the phased reopening of the economy. That is what is so desperately needed in this province: People need to have hope that we are going to come through this. They need to have something to look forward to. They need to be able to plan for what needs to happen in order for the economy to move forward.

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Speaker, I think that as we look to the next—certainly to the end of this year, certainly over the period that this motion is going to be extending these emergency orders, until July 2022—that’s after the next election, I just realized. As we look to these coming months, we are going to be facing multiple, multiple challenges. There is going to be a legacy in terms of the impact on our health care system—and we know that, in the cancelled surgeries, trying to get people the health care services they need, dealing with the reforms that are necessary in our long-term-care system, helping ensure that our economy is back on track, putting in place measures that will enable a she-covery to help women come through this pandemic.

These challenges will require, more than ever, consensus, co-operation and collaboration across party lines. I urge this government to take that approach instead of arbitrary, autocratic measures like what is proposed today.


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