In nearly every speech that Jason Kenney gives on his province’s pandemic efforts, he inserts a variation on one key theme: Some Albertans say the public-health measures that shut down major parts of human activity over the past three months are an overreaction. “Why did you bother doing this? We hardly have anybody in hospital.”
There is also a recent push from the Premier to emphasize how the COVID-19 lockdown in Alberta has been relatively limited compared with other provinces. Construction and manufacturing never shut down, he says, and 85 per cent of provincial businesses continued to operate throughout.
Bafflingly, the Alberta Premier referred to COVID-19 as an “influenza” in the legislature – of course, it’s not – and suggested homeless people have “a very high level of immune resistance” to COVID-19. He also said officials need to craft a public-policy response that protects the seniors, the immunocompromised and those with comorbidities from the virus without indefinitely impairing “the social and economic, as well as the mental health and physiological health, of the broader population for potentially a year.”
Mr. Kenney’s critics compared his recent remarks with the actions of U.S. President Donald Trump, who has sidelined public-health officials, touted dangerous COVID-19 treatments and pushed for business reopenings even before hospitals in New York and Detroit were overwhelmed by ill patients.
“I’m afraid our Premier’s Trumpian narrative – which says that this is no worse than the flu and only a danger to the elderly – is going to lead to infections and deaths that could have been avoided," said Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.
But Mr. Kenney’s broader message throughout the pandemic has been far more careful than his most egregious remarks. Whenever he talks about the people who believe governments have overreacted, he defends the lockdown as necessary. He says the potential loss of life could have been much greater – one only has to look at other advanced, developed countries with first-rate medical systems (i.e., Italy, Spain and the United States) that have seen much higher death rates from COVID-19.
But in at least referencing a constituency that believes the shutdown has been too severe, the Alberta Premier is giving recognition to those who have felt the economic pain of the pandemic more than the health effects.
There are parts of Alberta, and the country, that have been largely untouched by the disease itself but have been rocked by the lockdown that has shut down most travel, and many factories, restaurants, aesthetic studios and barbershops. People are surviving financially with aid programs from both the federal and provincial governments, and lines of credit.
It is easy for people with relatively secure desk jobs, working from home, to say shut it all down. It’s not as clear a calculation for those who are close to losing their businesses or have already lost their jobs. Many are key parts of Mr. Kenney’s conservative base. Even if many Canadians disagree, the feeling is real.
Alberta, at this moment, is in a fortunate position when it comes to COVID-19. Active cases are down to just more than 300. Testing hasn’t got to the 20,000 a day Mr. Kenney pledged – and promised serological tests that will look for immunity still seem far away from reality – but Alberta is still the testing leader in Canada. The terrible, avoidable outbreak at Cargill Ltd.’s meat-processing facility in High River has retreated for now – although the threat of new cases of COVID-19 in congregate settings such as slaughterhouses, in a second wave of the virus, is ever-present.
The province is keen to speed up its reopening plans. Both Mr. Kenney and Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, have suggested that the province will be able to move to the next phase of reopening plans earlier than scheduled.
Dr. Hinshaw’s office will likely be advising the provincial cabinet over the weekend as to whether the province will be able to move to Phase 2 of its relaunch strategy early this month, rather than the June 19 date previously stated. Libraries, movie theatres, and even some Phase 3-related recreation and fitness centres, could open earlier than anyone expected.
Alberta’s unemployment rate stood above 15 per cent in May, and Mr. Kenney has predicted that it could go as high as 25 per cent. Alberta’s economy was already lagging before the pandemic hit.
But Mr. Kenney wants people to feel confident that his government isn’t recklessly diving back into a reopening that could create the conditions for new waves of the disease. To do that, he will have to find a careful balance between his government’s laser-like focus on rebuilding the Alberta economy – with a strong United Conservative Party bent toward oil and gas jobs – and a COVID-19 threat likely to continue into next year, and beyond. Many of those who financially need to go back to work still won’t feel safe being out in public again.
This difficult dynamic is going to become even more so as the months go on, government aid programs peter out and the true economic impact of the lockdown becomes clearer. There are contrasting signs that jobs could come back more quickly than expected in the months ahead, but also that business insolvencies could jump as multibillion-dollar government support programs end.
Most people feel torn individually between yearning for a level of normalcy and wanting to guard against a devastating and still-mysterious virus. It’s not surprising our governments wrestle with the same conflict.
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