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Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson speaks to media prior to the reading of the Speech from the Throne at the Manitoba Legislature in Winnipeg on Nov. 23, 2021.JOHN WOODS/The Canadian Press

Manitoba’s new Premier Heather Stefanson recently had some advice for citizens when it comes to living through the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think what’s important is that Manitobans look after themselves,” the Premier said. “I mean, this virus is running throughout our community and it’s up to Manitobans to look after themselves.”

“The government can’t protect everybody out there. People have to learn to protect themselves.”

Her remarks set off outrage on a seismic scale.

Manitoba NDP Leader Wab Kinew said the comments represented an abdication of the government’s responsibilities. Cardiac intensive care unit physician Dr. Eric Jacobsohn, meanwhile, pointed to the province’s “failing” health care system, which he called “an absolute disgrace.”

Others said there had to be a reckoning of the government’s poor handling of the pandemic.

But was Premier Stefanson wrong?

Before we assess that, let me make it clear that there is much the Manitoba government deserves criticism for in its handling of COVID-19. Its response has often been chaotic and slow. Everything from the distribution of rapid tests to necessary circuit breakers was mishandled. Much of the mess we see in Manitoba right now – ICUs full-to-overflowing, a backlog of more than 150,000 surgeries and health-related procedures, among other things – is laid right at the feet of government.

However, as we move into this new year, there is something to be said for Ms. Stefanson’s view of things – as much as some don’t want to hear it.

The fact is, governments can’t protect all their citizens. If that was the expectation, then we would have seen, and would have had to accept, lockdown after lockdown. Even then, not everyone would have been spared from the various mutant forms of COVID-19.

As horrible as the pandemic has been, as ugly as the death rate is, I don’t think anyone wants their government to shut the economy down completely in an effort to stop the spread of Omicron, or whatever comes next. People have to eat and exist. We can’t hide until this is all over. It’s not possible.

Which places the responsibility on all of us to stay as safe as we can.

That may not sound like such a novel idea. For many, it may sound like common sense. There are ways to stay out of COVID-19’s way, or at least stand a better chance of doing so. Getting vaccinated. Wearing a good mask. Avoiding large gatherings.

As basic as those three undertakings are, there are many people who couldn’t be bothered with them. If those people get sick or need to be shipped to an ICU to survive because they weren’t vaccinated and refused to wear a mask, is that the government’s fault? No.

Surviving a pandemic really comes down to assuming personal responsibility to do the right thing. There are limits to what that looks like, depending on your level of privilege, but it’s an effort that can be made by everyone in some capacity. And this is a message we may have to accept for a long time.

I have a great deal of sympathy for those who have had to make monumental decisions on behalf of millions of citizens since the beginning of this pandemic. Opinion has been splintered on almost every aspect of how best to respond to the virus, from the efficacy of rapid tests to an ever-changing list of key symptoms. We’ve been fractured over whether kids should be in school, divided on borders remaining closed, and riven by the effectiveness of vaccine mandates.

Sure, there have been majorities in favour of some of the response measures, but not always large ones, and none of this is straightforward. Our large public-health agencies are trying to respond to something moving at the speed of light. Consequently, they are making decisions today based on evidence that would have been considered insufficient once upon a time. That’s partially why the fight against COVID-19 has been imperfect.

That said, our governments and public-health agencies should, by now, be better prepared for some aspects of this pandemic. There is little excuse, for instance, for the disarray that preceded school reopenings across the country in the fall, and now the winter. Why are we still scrambling for high-quality masks three years into a pandemic? Why are rapid tests still so difficult for the public to obtain? Why is online learning not an option for all students who don’t feel safe in a classroom?

Instead of having answers to these questions, we muddle our way through everything.

We don’t know when the pandemic will end. It may go on for another year – or longer. We can hope our protocols will improve. We can hope vaccines and vaccine uptakes improve. But at the end of the day, governments can’t protect all of their citizens.

We have to protect ourselves.

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