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Alberta Premier Jason Kenney at a news conference in Calgary, on Sept. 15, 2020.

Todd Korol/The Canadian Press

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney says his government’s approach to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has until recently included some of the least-stringent restrictions in the country, struck the right balance between a public-health crisis and the economy.

While Alberta fared relatively well in the spring and appeared to manage the pandemic even as it opened its economy faster and more widely than other places in the country through the summer, the province has been hit harder by the second wave.

Alberta now has the highest per capita rates of confirmed infections in Canada by a wide margin, the second-highest rates of hospitalizations and intensive-care admissions, and fatality rates that are currently above the Canadian average. There are outbreaks at more than 150 long-term care and retirement homes.

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Mr. Kenney bristles at those comparisons, describing them as “Alberta bashing” while noting the province is still doing better than most American states and much of Europe. He also stresses that Alberta’s numbers, particularly for deaths, are considerably better than Ontario and Quebec when viewed over the course of the entire pandemic.

He rejects the idea that the province has become an outlier during the second wave and says the critique that his United Conservative Party government put the economy above public health is rooted in a “false premise.”

“The economy is not some discrete sphere of financial transactions – it is woven into everybody’s life,” Mr. Kenney said during a year-end interview with The Globe and Mail.

“... When I talk about livelihoods, I’m talking about the broader impact on people’s lives rather than just narrowly focusing on one aspect of public health.”

The Premier has previously boasted that Alberta took a lighter touch than other places in Canada in terms of restrictions and was quicker to open up. Even as cases began to rapidly increase in the fall, Mr. Kenney rejected calls for a lockdown and instead relied on appealing to Albertans’ sense of “personal responsibility” to follow voluntary rules.

He has argued that lockdowns are a violation of people’s rights and pointed to negative consequences on businesses, people’s finances and mental health to argue that they must be an absolute last resort.

The Premier reached for that last resort this month when it became clear the health care system was headed toward a breaking point. The number of people in hospital quadrupled in a month as hospitals and intensive-care units were pushed past capacity.

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The government ordered restaurants, bars and other businesses to close at least until early January, banned all types of social gatherings and expanded mandatory mask rules across the province. Two weeks earlier, the province cancelled in-person classes for older grades and announced that all students will stay home for an extra week following the holiday break.

Mr. Kenney said it would have been irresponsible to turn to strict measures unless they were absolutely necessary.

“I don’t believe that permanently destroying hundreds of thousands of jobs, tens of thousands of businesses, and causing even more of a mental- and emotional-health crisis, accelerating the addictions crisis, and endless other collateral damage is something that should be embraced as a first resort,” he said.

“We see restrictions as being a last and limited resort. I think we’ve been right to do so.”

There have been signs of optimism in recent weeks. New infections, which had been setting near-daily records in early December, have levelled off and dipped slightly. Hospitalizations, however, are expected to continue climbing well into January even if the new restrictions have an effect, since it can be weeks between when someone is exposed to the coronavirus and ends up in hospital.

The opposition New Democrats accused Mr. Kenney of taking too long to react to the recent surge in infections. NDP Leader Rachel Notley said the Premier made a mistake by viewing protecting the economy and responding to the pandemic as competing priorities

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“The economy cannot be strong and resilient through this if people are getting sicker and sicker and fearful about their safety and the safety of their loved ones,” Ms. Notley said in an interview.

“... The answer was to say, in the long term, a spiralling infection rate is going to hurt businesses, so what we need to do is stop the infection rate and support the business while we’re working on that.”

Studies from places such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s business school have shown a relationship between lockdown policies and economic performance.

The evidence is clear, said Aidan Hollis, an economics professor at the University of Calgary: Places that act quickly with strict measures to control infections enjoy stronger economies in the long run.

“The question is, do you do this at a point with lots of deaths, or do you do it at a point with fewer deaths? But there doesn’t seem to be any kind of escape,” he said.

Prof. Hollis said it’s difficult for businesses to succeed with out-of-control spread in the community even if they are permitted to stay open.

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“I think the main lesson is that hoping that we’re going to be able to live with it while it grows out of control is not realistic,” he said.

“People are not going to say, ‘I’m happy to go out to restaurants while this thing rages.’ The kinds of public-facing services that are high risk, in particular restaurants and bars, are the ones that are not going to thrive when there is a lot of community transmission anyway.”

Samir Sinha, director of geriatrics at Sinai Health in Toronto, said there’s no question that inaction in Alberta has cost lives.

When the province was preparing to reopen this year, the Premier said his government would build a “wall of defence” around vulnerable Albertans in long-term care homes. Despite that promise, COVID-19 is now widespread in those facilities, with active outbreaks in 66 long-term care homes and 101 supportive-living sites.

Dr. Sinha said it’s impossible to protect long-term care residents when the overall infection rates are so high.

“These are not hermetically sealed environments,” said Dr. Sinha. “We’ve now had uncontrolled community spread and with that, it gives the higher chance that workers living in the community will get infected and could bring it in.”

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The province has had outbreaks in 61 per cent of those facilities since the start of the pandemic, compared with the national average of 36 per cent, according to a tracker run by the National Institute on Ageing, where Dr. Sinha is co-chair and directory of health policy and research. That percentage is also ahead of Ontario (51 per cent) and Quebec (40 per cent), though the number of long-term care residents who have died in Alberta is a small fraction of those two provinces.

More than 90,000 people in Alberta have had confirmed infections since the pandemic began and 851 have died. As of Saturday, there were 760 people in hospital, including 149 in intensive care.

We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.

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