Third wave folly Pallister government consistently makes worst public health decisions at worst possible times

It would be wrong to blame Premier Brian Pallister and his Progressive Conservative government for the arrival of a third wave of COVID-19.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 12/04/2021 (536 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It would be wrong to blame Premier Brian Pallister and his Progressive Conservative government for the arrival of a third wave of COVID-19.

When you take a close look at all of the epidemiological evidence available, some that goes back more than a century to the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, a third wave of infections from this deadly virus was as predictable as death, taxes and April snowstorms in Manitoba.

However, from an epidemiological perspective, there was no reason this wave had to be worse than the previous two. If it does turn out to be worse — and there are worrisome signs that we’re heading into the most miserable outbreak yet — then you can fairly assign blame to the Pallister government.

Changes to public health orders over the last six weeks paint a portrait of a government that consistently makes the worst possible decisions on easing restrictions — particularly those that allow increasing numbers of people to gather without masks — at the worst possible times.

… With the number of confirmed variant cases steadily climbing, Pallister eased restrictions once again and suggested, rather remarkably, that the majority of the province could actually be moved into code orange on the pandemic warning system.

We start on March 2, when the province introduced new measures that included increasing limits for outdoor public gatherings to 10 people and increased attendance at places of worship to 25 per cent of normal capacity. These changes were introduced even as public health officials here and in neighbouring provinces watched as COVID-19 variants multiplied.

Ten days later, with the number of confirmed variant cases steadily climbing, Pallister eased restrictions once again and suggested, rather remarkably, that the majority of the province could actually be moved into code orange on the pandemic warning system.

Pallister decided that people at faith-based services could go maskless as long as they were seated and socially distanced, and that up to six people from different households could share the same table in an outdoor bar or restaurant patio. Social gatherings were expanded to allow households to host an unlimited number of people from another designated household.

On March 23, again with variants increasing on a daily basis, Pallister increased the number of people who could gather outdoors in public spaces to 25, increased limits for indoor funerals and weddings, and increased capacity at larger retail stores to a maximum of 500 people.

Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba chief public health officer, speaks during the province's latest COVID-19 update at the Manitoba legislature in Winnipeg on December 16, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

Now, let’s assess those decisions with recent comments by Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba’s chief medical officer of health.

Last week, as cases involving COVID-19 variants multiplied at an alarming rate, Roussin actually recommended Manitobans begin wearing masks even when gathering with people outside.

It was an astonishing suggestion, if only for the fact that it ran completely contrary to the actual letter of the current public health orders, which allow people to gather maskless for outdoor social gatherings, in restaurants and bars including patios, and indoor faith-based services.

And then on Monday of this week, as Roussin confirmed a steady escalation in the number of cases involving COVID-19 variants, he said contact tracing had identified large house parties, play dates, sleepovers and faith-based services as the source of new infection clusters.

Roussin attempted to shift the blame for these new clusters to individuals ignoring the finer details of public health orders. But when you look at the scenarios Roussin highlighted, it’s pretty easy to see that most if not all fit within the province’s current pandemic rules.

Roussin attempted to shift the blame for these new clusters to individuals ignoring the finer details of public health orders. But when you look at the scenarios Roussin highlighted, it’s pretty easy to see that most if not all fit within the province’s current pandemic rules.

Yes, there are still problems with travellers who refuse to isolate for 14 days after returning to Manitoba. Roussin complained that there are still symptomatic individuals going out and circulating in public. Those are deliberate violations of public health orders and as such, are unjustifiable in any context.

But in all the other scenarios that Roussin mentioned, Manitobans are getting sick not because they broke the rules, but because they followed them.

We didn’t get to hear from Pallister on Monday but it will be interesting to see what kind of defence he tries to mount later this week. And make no mistake, at some point this week he will appear before reporters to deny any culpability for the gravity of the third wave, both for himself and for his government.

And yet, it’s pretty easy to see the mistakes he has made in the last six weeks are identical to those he authored last summer when he tried to fully reopen the economy in the face of worrisome epidemiological data.

The only saving grace for Pallister is that many other premiers in this country have made the same tragic mistakes, with the same tragic results. But if pointing out that he’s no worse than other premiers is his only defence, Pallister is going to find that his political legacy in what is expected to be his last year as first minister is pretty tarnished.

Roussin more or less confirmed on Monday that some sort of enhanced restrictions were on the way later this week. One can only hope Pallister responds with the urgency the situation deserves; no meaningless online surveys, no political posturing.

Nobody, including Pallister, could avoid the reality of a third wave of COVID-19. But had the premier somehow been able to park his political proclivities, and finally pay attention to the advice from his public health officials, Manitoba might have been able to escape the worst of what the third wave has to offer.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

History

Updated on Monday, April 12, 2021 8:02 PM CDT: Fixes typo.

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