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opinion

Manitoba premier Brian Pallister speaks to media at the Manitoba Legislature in Winnipeg on Oct. 7, 2019.JOHN WOODS/The Canadian Press

There was a time when it appeared the pandemic was going to be kind to Manitoba.

Rates of COVID-19 were mostly low in the province in the spring and summer. Then the second wave announced its presence and it was a completely different story.

After registering case numbers in the single digits early on, the virus went on a tear. When the province reported a then-record 97 new cases in early October, there was emerging concern; by November, the province was experiencing days where the number of new cases would surge to more than 500. It’s been calculated that one in 100 Manitobans has tested positive for the disease.

While new restrictions announced a few weeks ago by the provincial government appear to have slowed the rapid spread of the disease, a public-health crisis still very much exists. The recent five-day positivity rate – the number of positive tests out of the total number performed over that period of time – was almost 15 per cent.

In Ontario, by comparison, it is around 5 per cent, while in B.C., it has fluctuated between 7 and 8 per cent in recent days.

While the pandemic has been a boon, politically, for some of Canada’s premiers, that has decidedly not been the case for Manitoba’s Brian Pallister. He has the lowest approval rating of any premier in the country – 32 per cent, according to a recent survey conducted by the Angus Reid Institute.

The Premier has received a great deal of criticism for his government’s handling – or non-handling – of the second wave. As the numbers grew and people waited for the government to act, very little happened. While the public expressed support for stricter restrictions that would help slow the virus’s spread, the government seemed reluctant to do anything that might hurt the economy.

Eventually, it had no choice.

On Nov. 12, the government instituted the most severe COVID-19-related restrictions in the country. Social contacts have been limited to households only. Social gatherings have been prohibited. Retail businesses not deemed essential can only operate online or by selling via delivery or curbside pickup. Restaurants are closed except for pickup or delivery. All personal-care businesses, such as hair salons, are shut down, as well as fitness centres. And there are plenty more.

It goes without saying that no politician ever runs for office expecting to face a crisis of the nature we have on our hands now. And while it’s easy to criticize some of their decision making – with much of the criticism justified – we perhaps too easily dismiss the mental burden the pandemic has placed on them.

At a news conference Thursday marking the close of the fall session of the legislature, Mr. Pallister ruminated on the past few months, and the terrible cost COVID-19 has exacted on his province. And in talking about that, one got a glimpse of the emotional toll it has taken on him as well.

“I’m the guy who is telling you to stay apart at Christmas and during the holiday season you celebrate,” he said. “I’m the guy who’s stealing Christmas to keep you safe because you need to do this now. You need to do the right thing.”

At this point, his voice was quavering. And it looked like Mr. Pallister might break down completely. He went on.

“You don’t need to like me,” he said. “But in years to come, you might respect me for having the guts to tell you the right thing. And here’s the right thing: Stay safe, protect each other, love each other, care for each other. You have so many ways to show that. But don’t get together this Christmas.”

It was difficult to watch and not feel empathy for the man. Forget politics for the moment. Forget what you think of his politics, his decisions, and what you may believe they say about him. And try for a second to put yourself in his loafers, with all the strain, stress, and yes, likely some guilt, that he lives with at the moment.

Brian Pallister may be many things, but a cold, heartless individual he is not.

Knowing the opportunity that the Christmas holidays could well extend to the virus, Mr. Pallister delivered the message his province needed to hear. And in those couple of minutes, he experienced his finest moment as Manitoba’s Premier.

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