Province’s code-red concessions a dangerous move

They just can't help themselves.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 08/12/2020 (779 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

They just can’t help themselves.

Even as Manitoba continues through the worst COVID-19 outbreak in the country, our political and public health leaders cannot resist the temptation to ease pandemic restrictions without justification and send mixed messages to the public.

The most recent case in point arose on Tuesday, when Premier Brian Pallister and Dr. Brent Roussin, the chief provincial health officer, confirmed that most of the current code red pandemic restrictions will be in place throughout and beyond the upcoming holiday season.

And yet, even as they were delivering that bad news, Pallister and Roussin announced they were easing some restrictions to help Manitobans enjoy the upcoming holidays.

The concessions included permission to sell school supplies and seasonal decorations, access to some outdoor recreational activities and the re-opening of thrift shops, an essential source of non-essential items for lower-income Manitobans.

Those reasonable gestures pose little in the way of enhanced threat of COVID-19 transmission. But it was also announced that despite statements the previous week deeming them to be a threat to public health, drive-in religious services would be allowed on a temporary basis as long as each vehicle is limited to people from one household and no one gets out for any reason.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Parishioners from the Church of God Restoration look on as their pastor speaks from a truck while RCMP officers and Manitoba Justice officials blocked the church's entrance and parking lot. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Drive-in services may not be much of a threat, in and of itself, although some of the churches most interested in parking lot gatherings also fundamentally oppose social distancing and non-medical mask use. However, to a great many other Manitobans, this one gesture will be wrongly interpreted as a signal that we’re on the verge of a major loosening of restrictions.

It didn’t take long for Manitobans on social media to misinterpret this as the thin edge of the re-opening wedge. “Thank you @BrianPallister,” one Tweet proclaimed minutes after the news broke about drive-in religious services. “Families need to exercise their faith and also WANT to celebrate Christmas. Hopefully, this is the trend to opening up ALL of #Manitoba.”

Pallister added significant fuel to that fire by misrepresenting statistical information to support an erroneous claim that after weeks of suffocating restrictions, Manitoba is starting to get a handle on its COVID-19 outbreak.

Pallister pointed to Health Canada data that showed all provinces to the west of us, and both Ontario and Quebec to the east, are posting high week-over-week percentage increases in new cases, while Manitoba was holding steady.

Pallister insisted he wasn’t using the data to take a “victory lap.” However, he still insisted that “Manitobans need to know what we’re doing is working.”

Put the easing of restrictions on drive-in religious services together with Pallister’s abhorrent misuse of epidemiological data, and you have a government that is once again sending dangerously mixed messages at what could be the worst possible time.

In fact, a closer look at the very same data used by the premier shows that while we might look better when compared to other provinces, there is little evidence the restrictions are working.

Although the week-over-week growth in new cases has increased elsewhere and levelled off somewhat in Manitoba, we still report an unusually high number of new infections. With only 3.4 per cent of Canada’s population, Manitoba still accounts for 6.8 per cent of all new infections reported nationally on a weekly basis. And our test positivity rate, which remains stuck at about 14 per cent, is more than three times the national rate of 3.4 per cent.

This is less a case of things improving in Manitoba, and more a case things getting much worse in other provinces.

Put the easing of restrictions on drive-in religious services together with Pallister’s abhorrent misuse of epidemiological data, and you have a government that is once again sending dangerously mixed messages at what could be the worst possible time.

Based on some pretty solid and recent evidence, public health officials in Canada are terrified the holiday season will exacerbate the spread of COVID-19.

On the heels of the four-day Thanksgiving weekend, the United States has seen a dangerous increase in the number of new infections and deaths. The situation grew worse even as public health officials at all levels pleaded with the public to avoid travelling and gathering in large numbers. Clearly, they didn’t listen; tens of millions of people travelled on Thanksgiving week and gathered with friends and family in what can only be described as one of the most bizarre acts of suicidal defiance.

The impending threat posed by the Christmas holidays reveals another inexplicable blind spot in Manitoba’s pandemic restrictions: the absence of any quarantine period for travellers returning from points west. For months now, Roussin and Pallister have offered no justification for the exemption afforded travellers from western provinces. Why would anyone west of us not come home to visit family and friends if there is no isolation period?

At this precarious moment in the evolution of the pandemic, we have a chief public health officer relenting on faith-based gatherings with no apparent epidemiological justification and a premier who is once again manipulating numbers in a desperate bid to win some sort of moral victory over the coronavirus.

Roussin suggested the easing of restrictions was designed to offer Manitobans some measure of relief in the hope they show increased interest in social distancing, mask use and — most importantly — not socializing outside their households.

However, by offering concessions that we have not earned, we run the risk of making our extremely bad situation even worse after the holidays.

Dan Lett

Dan Lett

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.


Updated on Tuesday, December 8, 2020 7:41 PM CST: Fixes typo.

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