During this pandemic, a certain strain of political leaders and elites have sought to consign us to the Titanic without life-jackets or lifeboats. Instead, they have wished us “a bon voyage” on a badly ventilated ship in an ocean full of variant icebergs.
In plain English, they have admitted that they don’t want to lead in difficult times let alone make difficult decisions, and that ordinary citizens should just fuck off.
And that’s exactly what Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, a sunshine politician, did last week by removing public health measures and protocols that protected ordinary people from harm.
As the Delta variant surges among the unvaccinated and the vaccinated alike, Kenney decided to abandon masks on public transit, give up on contact tracing, reduce testing to the bare minimum, and ignore the real risks to children — that’s 15 per cent of the population that has not been vaccinated.
The consequences, as the Edmonton Zone Medical Staff Association have written, will be profoundly destructive: “In particular, we believe that the elimination of assessment centres and testing will not only place Albertans at risk, but will place Alberta and Canada in a situation where our public health data will be viewed as unreliable with potential negative implications for Alberta tourism and for Albertans travelling to other destinations.”
Without a shred of evidence, Kenney and his chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, also announced that the pandemic had entered an “endemic phase” and that it was time to treat COVID just like another flu or cold virus. (It is really a thrombotic viral fever, but we’ll save that argument for another column.)
Kenney’s shift in approach has been called everything from a reckless gambit to repugnant callousness. It is all that and something more disturbing — a modern government admitting it can no longer deal promptly and effectively with undeniable threats to the greater community. Alberta’s is not the first government do so, and don’t expect it to be the last.
Kenney’s new unscientific policies serve a convenient purpose. By banishing the pandemic, the low-in-the-polls premier can now resume attacks on public health care and demand a five-per-cent wage cut for nurses all in the name of “efficiency.”
In other words, the COVID-19 mess is but an unfortunate obstacle to Kenney’s plutocratic agenda of serving the rich and cutting government services for everybody else. The solution: end the pandemic and eliminate all public health interventions.
Kenney’s actions mimic the scandalous behaviour of England’s Boris Johnson and that of Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis. Both men recklessly abandoned restrictions and denied COVID realities this summer.
DeSantis, a Trump extremist, is probably Kenney’s key inspiration here. On July 1 he abandoned all COVID protocols, vowing never to return to restrictions or mask mandates.
DeSantis was just confirming a stance that had become obvious. One newspaper investigation found that his administration repeatedly failed to address the threats posed by the pandemic. His government “suppressed unfavourable facts, dispensed dangerous misinformation, dismissed public health professionals and promoted the views of scientific dissenters.”
After pardoning the breakers of COVID rules last month, DeSantis mocked the practice of wearing masks as an assault on “freedom.”
And so what does the face of freedom now look like in Florida one month later? Ugly. That sunny state is now experiencing record number of cases — more than 100,000 active infections.
DeSantis’s denial of science has put a record 11,000 citizens in hospitals. Every day, on average, 58 Floridians are dying. In the absence of any other protections or restrictions, the Delta variant is just ripping through the unvaccinated population. Not surprisingly, the state now leads the U.S. in hospitalization of young children too. In Florida, the unvaccinated are free to die.
Kenney’s decision to abandon Albertans, Florida-style, to the unpredictable evolution of a novel virus defies not only basic science but every conservative tenet of what good governance means.
A responsible government simply doesn’t gamble with their citizens’ health or knowingly put them at risk unless they simply don’t give a damn anymore.
And that appears to be the case in Alberta.
Certainly, Kenney and his people are in full Delta denial. The variant arose in India last year and has killed millions there while spreading to 100 countries.
Unlike the original strain, it represents an entirely different kind of risk. Because it spreads faster than chicken pox, just a fleeting contact will leave the unmasked with an infection. “Without a doubt, increased transmissibility, coupled with potential increases in disease severity and immune escape, makes Delta especially dangerous,” concludes the American Society of Microbiology.
Most alarming, the variant appears to be infecting and hospitalizing more children than the original strain.
So Delta has raised the bar for vaccine campaigns. The more transmissible a virus, the more people a government needs to vaccinate to create community protection.
Given the current pace of vaccination and the rapid evolution of variants, many scientists question whether herd immunity can be reached. So what governments need to do is press harder on the gas pedal, not let off.
According to a recent study on a Delta outbreak in Guandong province, the viral loads of this variant are 1,000 times higher than that of the original Wuhan strain. That makes the variant much more infectious, which means that it can spread within shorter timeframes, such as four days after exposure instead of the previous average of six.
Given these new parameters, the researchers recommended more frequent population testing.
Alberta is lessening testing.
The China study also recommended quarantine during the pre-symptomatic period.
Alberta is getting rid of that too.
A similar study on a July 4 outbreak in Cape Cod convinced the U.S. Centers for Disease Control to reverse its premature recommendation that vaccinated people take off their masks indoors. To control that outbreak, authorities reinstated masks and stepped up testing.
Meanwhile, Alberta is hands-off when it comes to masks, the best protection against an airborne virus.
The Delta variant poses other challenges because it has the ability to evade some vaccines. Israeli data suggests that 40 per cent of those vaccinated with Pfizer shots are vulnerable to infection. If the vaccinated can infect the unvaccinated and vice versa, that’s a big problem, especially in Alberta where nearly two million Albertans remain unvaccinated.
Sleeping through summer
So just when a new enemy has appeared at the gate, Kenney has thrown down the drawbridge, banished all defenses and told Albertans to ignore the media’s fear mongering.
Instead, he promised Albertans “the best summer ever.” A summer, it turns out, of stifling heat, thick smoke, drought, spiralling COVID rates and fearfully outraged citizens demonstrating against Kenney’s dropping of health measures.
The protesters are unlikely to compel sanity at the top. The province’s dismissal of effective public health tools violates one of the most important tenets of pandemic fighting: deploying a layered approach.
Only a combination of vaccines, masks, physical distancing, ventilation and public testing can limit the spread of this evolving virus.
As soon as authorities remove one or most of these protective layers, they are willfully inviting viral exponential growth.
Governments that allow exponential viral surges are no better than arsonists. The Israeli physicist Meir Rubin puts it this way: “Anything that grows exponentially should be kept as close to zero as possible. If you aim for elimination, in the worst case you will have an outbreak. But if you aim for containment, you are almost guaranteed to lose control.”
For the record, Kenney and Hinshaw deliberately let two waves of the pandemic explode exponentially by refusing to act quickly or responsibly.
They also rejected an elimination strategy, which has performed best in terms of civil rights and healthy economies.
Now Kenney and Hinshaw are betting everything on vaccines as the one and only intervention. This defies reason and public health history. No vaccine anywhere has singlehandedly ended a pandemic. (It took decades to eradicate smallpox and that required a wide variety of tools including testing and isolation.)
Although mRNA vaccines have proven highly effective at preventing disease and death, they are not impervious. Uneven rollout combined with time-limited immunity, vaccination hesitation and the emergence of new variants means that vaccines alone cannot control the pandemic.
Too bad, kids
What sort of political leader places at risk the health and future of his province’s 600,000 children under the age of 12? Kenney has largely ignored the fact that children are equally susceptible to COVID infections as adults and equally likely to transmit. In fact, more than one-fifth of infections in Alberta have occurred in children.
A variety of studies have also demonstrated that parents of children are at high risk of infection and requiring hospitalization. Children can come down with Long COVID, a debilitating collection of ailments.
Eliminating widespread testing, tracing and mandatory isolation just as schools are about to open as the Delta variant surges in the province guarantees that a maximum number of children will be infected this fall.
Both Kenney and Hinshaw have ignored these basic facts. Instead, they argue that Canadian kids are more likely to get a sports injury than COVID.
That’s simply a spurious and outrageous comparison. No child comes home with a sports injury and then infects a parent or grandparent with a sports injury that could put them in a coma on a ventilation tube.
Kenney and Hinshaw have also avoided the importance of ventilation in schools, a critical public health intervention. The sociologist Zeynep Tufekci recently identified the critical questions every parent should be asking in a NYT column:
“Can windows in classrooms be opened, and will they be? Are HEPA filters, which cost a few hundred dollars each, being used in classrooms? Has the air-conditioning, if used, been adjusted to bring in outside air, and have its filters been upgraded to better catch pathogens? Have classroom ventilation rates been evaluated, for example by using carbon dioxide monitors?”
Pandemic does not mean endemic
By removing all protective measures, Kenney has told Albertans to “live with the virus” and that we must accept the plague as an endemic problem.
But as Alberta pediatrician Tehseen Ladha has noted, COVID doesn’t fit that description. An endemic disease implies that is has reached a steady state in the community. But that’s not the reality for COVID anywhere in the world, noted Ladha: “Weʼre still in a period of exponential growth with a novel variant and insufficient vaccination to reach herd immunity.”
Variants are the product of runaway infections in a community because RNA viruses mutate all the time. Over time, natural selection will favour variants that spread faster and that’s what the world is now experiencing. No one can predict when or how a virus might become more deadly.
So whenever a government drops controls to prevent infections or responds poorly to outbreaks, they have effectively turned their people into variant factories. Which means they are not only telling their own citizens to fuck off; they are saying that to the world.
Boris Johnson’s lax approach in England created the Alpha variant. Jair Bolsonaro denied biology and cursed Brazil with the Gamma variant. Modi’s shoddy governance of India gave the world the Delta variant.
Kenney’s policies may produce a variant that makes humanity pine for the Delta. Variants should really be named after their political makers.
Reducing the probability of the emergence of a variant that erases the effectiveness of vaccines should be our collective public health responsibility.
That means keeping COVID numbers low or near elimination with layers of intervention that includes testing, isolation and good ventilation along with vaccine campaigns around the world.
Nobody wants to go back to square one with this pandemic. But Kenney and Hinshaw are gambling that COVID will evolve to a benign state or another inconsequential cold. Evolutionary biologists know viral evolution offers no such guarantees. A variant could easily become more deadly.
In a recent paper, a group of evolution experts emphasized what Alberta’s opening experiment is denying. “Weak epidemic control measures that allow for extended transmission in humans increase the evolutionary potential of zoonotic pathogens because they allow for stronger selection and more mutations.”
In other words, if a government is not suppressing transmission using strong and rapid public health interventions, it is inviting the worst-case scenario.
In his brilliant essay on why civilizations fail entitled “Immoderate Greatness,” U.S. ecologist William Ophuls notes that governments stop working for their citizens when elites lose their consensus, and no one can keep track of the complexity anymore.
Whenever governments stop solving problems and give up on their citizens, lots of bad things start to happen. “Selfishness crowds out sacrifice, the interests of the mass and elites diverge, and the elite itself is divided into warring factions,” writes Ophuls. Trust evaporates, and social disintegration fills the void.
All summer long the media has tallied countless examples of failed governance. Half the United States remains unvaccinated because the government is no longer trusted. A state as wealthy as Texas can’t build a reliable electricity grid capable of withstanding extreme cold. In China, engineers failed to design modern cities resistant to extreme flooding. The Middle East has failed to provide reliable power during heat waves. And on it goes.
This pandemic has once again revealed what U.S. historian Barbara Tuchman observed years ago: “To admit error and cut losses is rare among individuals, unknown among states.”
We are entering a long emergency, and politicians like Jason Kenney are already giving up on their citizens and the do-or-die challenges thrust upon all of us.