Pandemic response inquiry required

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Welcome to the winter of our COVID-19 discontent. It refuses to slip quietly into the night. Fatigue and frustration have spawned dissension and division, as we can see in our streets and at our borders.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 16/02/2022 (233 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Welcome to the winter of our COVID-19 discontent. It refuses to slip quietly into the night. Fatigue and frustration have spawned dissension and division, as we can see in our streets and at our borders.

The most precious political commodity for any government and leader is trust. Two years of pandemic life have frayed this vital link between governors and the governed. Last August, Premier Heather Stefanson launched her leadership campaign with a call for “healing.” Last Friday, she unliterally declared the pandemic over, saying it was time to “end the divisiveness” and “bring Manitobans back together again.”

Fine sentiments. But you know who wants this pandemic over more than Manitobans and Canadians? Governments. They are tired and threatened by the daily public pressures of fighting COVID-19 and the nascent political terrors lurking under their beds. If turning the page is arguably not good for your physical health, it is demonstrably helpful for their political health.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Premier Heather Stefanson announced a rapid easing of COVID-19 restrictions that seems to indicate her government is declaring the pandemic over.

Trouble is, COVID-19 isn’t co-operating. It’s not going to simply disappear. It is myopic to presume it will have no lingering effects on society and its institutions. That political “long COVID,” as I have written before, is guaranteed. Last Friday’s hurried announcement, with only belated evidence offered and without any assurances of the broader plan on living with COVID-19, is symptomatic of the urgent desire by governments to write the closing chapter on the pandemic.

But any government that postpones a formal dissection of the COVID-19 experience risks finding itself undergoing a political autopsy at election time.

So, what’s to be done? There can be no more effective means to heal and bring Manitobans back together than through an independent public inquiry into the impact of COVID-19 on the province and people. Without such an inquiry, people will be left to draw their own conclusions as to what happened, why, and what it means.

Those conclusions will inevitably be both right and wrong, factual and fatuous, important and trivial, balanced and ludicrous. In other words, no common, evidence-based understanding or acceptance will occur. No common solutions to learn from the experience will be found. Left to next year’s election, it will be all heat and no light from politicians on all sides who have every incentive to dissemble, dissuade, downplay and demonize your personal experiences for their own purposes.

Only a structured, focused and independent public inquiry can do the heavy lifting of fostering a true “lessons learned” result from which Manitoba can emerge more healed and less divided.

The full “lessons learned” process I began as clerk of the executive council for inside government after the pandemic’s first wave was overtaken by subsequent COVID-19 waves. But it was animated by a recognition that this once-in-a-lifetime event had significant meanings and impacts requiring deeper comprehension.

Already, new insights are emerging. Here are two serious public-health policy findings that cry out for a deeper Manitoba analysis through a provincial public inquiry:

Manitoba suffered a disproportionate number of COVID-19 deaths and hospitalizations compared to other provinces. Why? On Monday, a Canadian Medical Association Journal study of the geographic concentration of COVID-19 cases in Winnipeg and other major cities across Canada was released. It discovered: “Cases were disproportionately concentrated in areas with lower income and educational attainment, and in areas with a higher proportion of visible minorities, recent immigrants, high-density housing and essential workers.”

It concluded: “Geographically prioritized allocation of resources and services that are tailored to the local drivers of inequalities in acquisition and transmission risk offer a path forward in the public health response to SARS-CoV-2.”

Last week, a study by the authoritative international medical journal The Lancet determined that trust, not pandemic health-system preparedness, was more associated with lower COVID-19 infection rates and vaccination across countries, including Canada.

It stated: “Measures of trust in the government and interpersonal trust, as well as less government corruption, had larger, statistically significant associations with lower standardised infection rates. High levels of government and interpersonal trust, as well as less government corruption, were also associated with higher COVID-19 vaccine coverage among middle-income and high- income countries… .”

Much has been said about trust in public-health advice throughout the pandemic. Could a “pandemic of the unvaccinated” been prevented? This is a real divide that demands discussion if Manitoba is to truly heal, especially in light of current events.

The fastest way to diminish trust and deepen divisions would be a government inquiry, or an opposition-inspired inquiry should they gain government. Only an independent, authoritative inquiry led by a former judge, as is occurring in the United Kingdom, or an expert, non-partisan “wise persons” commission is suited for this task, as others have written.

But this inquiry must not focus exclusively on the past. It needs to be a “lessons learned, look ahead” inquiry. It must be tasked with proposing positive, realistic recommendations for improvements to health and other government services, so the province can profit from this whole trying experience.

Will it happen?

David McLaughlin was Clerk of the Executive Council in the government of Manitoba in 2020-21. He was campaign manager for the PC Party of Manitoba in the 2016 and 2019 elections.

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