Jillian Horton is a physician and writer in Winnipeg. She is the author of the bestselling memoir We Are All Perfectly Fine.
I live in Winnipeg, the birthplace of game-show host Monty Hall, obstetrician-gynecologist author Jennifer Gunter, actress Nia Vardalos and Neil Young’s musical career. Whether you know it or not, your life has been touched by this city. A Winnipegger brought you the game of Scruples; another discovered the life-saving Rh factor. One even invented a putrid concoction known as honey-dill sauce, which has never actually enhanced the taste of a single chicken finger anywhere.
But this week, we earned another distinction: we have the highest rates of COVID-19 cases in Canada or the United States.
On May 22, our Premier, Brian Pallister, held a special Saturday morning news conference to demand that “Joe” – yes, the Joe who is the President of the United States – raid his private vaccine stash and share the wealth, even though the reason we’re in this honey-dill pickle rests squarely on our Premier’s shoulders.
You may remember Mr. Pallister from such carefully crafted films as “I’m The Guy Who’s Stealing Christmas.” His waterworks at the time weren’t the only thing going viral last December when, after a period of provincial mismanagement, he choked back tears in front of the camera, positioning himself as the suffering hero facing an impossible choice.
You would think after that debacle that our Premier would have learned from his mistakes. But for the past several weeks, with our case counts rising and Canadian vaccine supplies bottlenecked, he has alternated between throwing tantrums and touring potato plants, insisting that the iceberg we are sailing toward is actually only a large collection of frozen water and suggesting that doctors only want lockdowns because they have never worked retail. Finally, this weekend, with the manufacturing industry wide open and Manitobans still able to amble through malls, he signed a stay-at-home order leaving stores open at 10-per-cent capacity but prohibiting anyone from walking in the park with their grandma, and wagged his finger at intubated citizens being flown out to nearby provinces for allegedly putting us in this situation to begin with.
Our data collection and transparency is so abysmal that we can’t even say with certainty where much of our transmission is occurring, but Mr. Pallister’s spin is discordant with reports from the front lines – anecdotally, that a large majority of those contracting the virus are teachers, essential service and factory workers or their families, and Indigenous peoples (who have been grossly overrepresented in our ICUs). Many of them have faced significant barriers to vaccination, including not being able to secure the shot in time to avoid our recent surge in infections, and knowing how to navigate the system. And many of them were hesitant about the vaccine because of a long history of governmental racism and discrimination.
So when Mr. Pallister fumed on Saturday – “Let’s go, Joe!” – it was almost comical, except that he was discussing matters of life-or-death for my fellow citizens in intensive-care units. Then, even more painfully, he issued a “call to arms”: “We have trucks with freezers ready to go to points within the United States within a few hours. We could have them back by tonight,” he said. Later, he insisted that he had “corresponded with the White House” but had not received a response – which definitely does not meet the definition of corresponding, since that does require a reply.
No credible voice in the public realm believes that we can vaccinate our way out of a wave once transmission is out of control. Sure, more vaccines would be a boon, but from the time those needles prick the skin, there’s at least a two-week period until significant protection occurs. In the meantime, while schools are shuttered and our health-care system collapses, thousands of people in this city are gathering every day on plant floors and in garment factories – not because they are making vaccines or ventilators or even hospital gowns, but because our Premier doesn’t seem to understand why such businesses must be closed.
Is it reasonable for our Premier to make a plea for some of the United States’s unused vaccines? Perhaps, even though these requests would typically be made country-to-country, and it’s hard to argue that we have a special entitlement to the surplus when India’s COVID-19 crisis is bringing that country to its knees. It seems Mr. Pallister is unaware that bullying only works in one’s sphere of influence. And how ironic that the man complaining that “Joe” won’t take his calls said, at the same Saturday news conference, that Winnipeg’s mayor should talk to him through his ministers because he has “a lot of things to do during a pandemic.” Meanwhile, the Premier continues to hoard projections from not just the public but key stakeholders.
His deep interpersonal dysfunction has left our province hurting to an unimaginable degree. If you thought Manitobans were friendly and had a health care system that would leave the United States in the dust – well, once upon a time, so did I.
So, on behalf of this windy city where the Red River flows, I’d like to “correspond” here with the President of the United States: Sir, I’m sorry about our Premier. To quote Neil Young, we are “lookin’ for a leader,” and if you can spare one, we’ll send down a truck to pick them up. Because right now, we’re just feeling helpless.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.