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A Coronavirus Hell of Kenney’s Own Making

The COVID-19 devil runs free, yet again, in Alberta and the premier has no excuse.

Andrew Nikiforuk 3 May

Tyee contributing editor Andrew Nikiforuk is an award-winning journalist whose books and articles focus on epidemics, the energy industry, nature and more.

Alberta has now recorded more daily confirmed COVID-19 cases on a per capita basis than any other Canadian province or U.S. state.

That’s more than 2,400 cases a day in a province of four million people. Nearly 30 per cent of the infected are children.

With a rising infection rate of 12 per cent, one in eight Albertans test positive for the virus, likely in the form of its many variants, breaking all previous provincial records.*

These numbers reflect, first and foremost, Premier Jason Kenney’s callous and persistent disregard for scientific findings and mathematical reality. He apparently does not understand or deliberately ignores the inconvenient truth that the virus spreads exponentially and therefore, left to its own devices, explosively. And that the faster and wider it spreads, the more it strengthens through mutation.

Because premiers have at their disposal any expert advice they choose to summon, and also the use of Google, all of this was knowable to Kenney a year ago. Yet even during the second wave last fall, he did not impose restrictions until COVID-19 threatened to totally overwhelm the province’s ICU capacity.

And now he’s daring fate again, behaving in the same reckless fashion.

As a consequence, Alberta now has 508.2 cases per 100,000 citizens. That’s double the rate in hard-hit Ontario and more than triple the rate in British Columbia.

As Lethbridge Mayor Chris Spearman lamented to the CBC last weekend: “We have done the least of the provinces. We’ve tolerated protests against masks and at the hospital and rapid vaccination clinic.”

Once you let the devil in the door, he often runs the house. Kenney again has waved him right in.

Failing to outrun the variants

A man with high opinions of himself, Kenney thought he could outrun the variants with vaccines. He lost that gamble totally, and now young citizens are struggling for air in hospitals with tubes in their tracheas. One 17-year-old woman in Magrath tragically died within five days of exposure. When governments give a dangerous virus free rein, bad things happen.

What explains Kenny’s dithering and wholesale aversion to leading in the public’s interest? The brash libertarian, probably the most unpopular premier in Alberta’s history, set the tone in his politicking by signalling he really doesn’t believe the government should restrict anything — including the movement of viruses.

Then when Kenney began to fiddle with closing, opening and closing again in response to lurching COVID-19 rates, 17 members of his own caucus flung his own don’t-tread-on-me notions back in his face, protesting such measures. Last month they openly chastised their premier and called for a regional approach that would allow areas with low infection rates to avoid restrictions.

The only problem with this idea is that the scientific evidence shows this kind of inequality doesn’t work in a pandemic for a logical reason. People travel from zones of high transmission to zones of low infection to avoid restrictions. In the process, they faithfully spread the virus.

Meanwhile, however, calls for Kenney to resign are reportedly growing among United Conservative Party influentials.

So, to appease his rebellious MLAs, Kenney has now done the unthinkable. He created, last week, a two-tiered pandemic system for Alberta based on half measures or no measures of consequence.

Cities like Calgary, Edmonton, Red Deer and Fort McMurray got one set of rules, including the closure of high schools and gyms along with the threat of curfew.

Meanwhile rural Alberta, where the virus is also running amuck, got another set of rules: the equivalent of don’t worry, you can ignore the science.

Stoking division

To compound the confusion, the previous day Kenney proclaimed, “There’s a false idea that lockdowns stop viral spread, that they can be effective in every instance.”

That’s not what the science says at all. In fact, England only stopped its variants with a harsh three-month lockdown.

Kenney has stoked potentially deadly division and disinformation about the virus in other ways. For example, he has welcomed increasingly ugly anti-mask protests as legitimate forms of democratic debate. A notorious Edmonton church openly violated COVID-19 distance and masking rules for four months before the province took any action. What kind of message does that send to Albertans?

In a province where the premier doesn’t apparently give a damn, the enforcement of COVID-19 rules has become a joke throughout the province.

This willful dereliction of duty in the face of a public emergency prompted this sharp tweet from Shannon Phillips, NDP MLA for Lethbridge West:

“Conservatives used to be a party where self-discipline, rule of law, and understanding rights come w/ responsibilities was the narrative. Now it’s do what you want, disregard others, break the law, reject responsibility, just yell, blame, lie with no intellectual anchor.”

Discriminatory messages

Let’s not forget that Kenney didn’t see anything wrong when the cabinet minister in charge of vaccine distribution and other politicos took off for trips aboard last Christmas, until Albertans pointed out injustice and the double standard. Everyone knows that Kenney is a do-as-I-say guy, not a do-as-I-do leader.

Kenney’s messaging malpractice has at times been racist. He repeatedly has been tone deaf to how and why COVID-19 disproportionately attacks people of colour and essential workers. They are often one and the same population.

When last year the virus ravaged the largely immigrant workforce of the U.S.-owned meat packer Cargill — then one of the largest outbreaks in North America — Kenney refused to shut down the contaminated workplace. Several workers died, and the outbreak spread throughout the community of High River.

And when COVID-19 ran rampant last fall through Calgary’s northeast, a thriving immigrant community of 120,000, Kenney's response was equally racist. Flaunting his ignorance of the science, he intimated that the whole problem had nothing to do with essential workers toiling in badly ventilated buildings or having to deal face to face with the public.

Kenney falsely argued that infection rates in Calgary’s northeast were due to “big family gatherings at home.” In Kenney’s world, no infection ever happens in the workplace.

Tellingly, government pandemic support for Calgary’s northeast did not arrive until last December. That response came in the form of free self-isolation hotels and information packages in foreign languages in the midst of a punishing second wave. Don’t even ask about sick benefits.

Kenney is now so fearful of making any decision that might antagonize his ideological base that he did nothing when COVID-19 cases surged through the school system last month.

Instead, he left it up to the Calgary Board of Education and Calgary Catholic School District to make the independent decision to shut down or not. That way, the premier of Alberta didn’t have to speak truth to science-blind constituents in order to protect young Albertans.

Kenney now hopes that he will be able to avoid any more restrictions by using the province’s exhausted health-care system as a sort of shock absorber.

Right now, 150 beds are full. There’s the capacity to expand to 425 — except there aren’t enough qualified personnel to staff them. The calculated political decision to fill hospitals with sick citizens in order to avoid proper public health restrictions in the community is nothing short of cowardly, incompetent and abusive.

The price of failed leadership

In January, experts warned that the variants represented a new pandemic. They advised prudent and conservative leaders to stamp out the new threat or face an ongoing catastrophe.

The experts advised these things for a reason. Because they are more contagious, the variants are much harder to bring under control. The English proved this reality with a lengthy and severe lockdown the hard way. So, too, did Portugal, Ireland and Denmark.

Last week, the Lancet published another study showing that jurisdictions that choose the approach called elimination — making a cluster of hard decisions to eliminate the virus within their borders — have achieved better outcomes socially, politically, economically and health wise.

Kenney has repeatedly disavowed elimination in favor of the failed strategy of mitigation, which typically translates into a circus of openings and closings that fail to solve the problem, instead eroding public trust.

In contrast, elimination uses a lockdown, followed by rigorous testing, tracing and quarantining, to achieve a health goal that frees the population from future restrictions.

OECD countries that opted for elimination (Australia, Iceland, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea) have recorded about 25 times lower deaths per million people than other OECD countries that championed mitigation. Unlike Alberta, their economies thrived.

The evidence also shows that jurisdictions that opted for elimination strongly minimized restrictions on civil liberties while the mitigators like Kenney’s Alberta locked their populations in COVID hell.

Eliminating the virus also gives people more freedom and choice. New Zealand, for example, is not panicking about vaccinating its people, because they are free of the virus.

Meanwhile, Alberta has belatedly realized that its linear vaccination program cannot outpace an exponential virus. Moreover, history shows repeatedly that no vaccination program can work without strong public health measures.

The Lancet study also highlights another truth made evident by Kenney’s failing COVID gamble. Relying solely on vaccines to control the pandemic is very risky for several reasons. The rollouts and uptakes for vaccinations are uneven; immunity is limited to perhaps 200 days, and new COVID variants keep emerging.

One workforce enjoys Kenney’s protection. He has closed Alberta’s legislature for two weeks out of viral precaution. For everyone else in Alberta, no such luck.

Kenny could have chosen a different path for Alberta. But that would have required leadership. Instead, a conceited political gambler has defended a failing strategy, squandered the province’s resources, ignored the best science, pandered to pandemic deniers and betrayed its citizens.

It’s time to pray for Alberta.

*Story updated on May 3 at 9:30 p.m. to reflect tests do not indicate one in eight Albertans carry the virus.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Coronavirus

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