Local manufacturers in Winkler stayed open late so employees could be immunized against COVID-19 without their co-workers knowing.
Groups of citizens recently gathered to discuss how they could bridge the COVID-19 divide growing in the southern Manitoba city and beyond.
Despite the steady stream of negative news coming out of Winkler and the surrounding area, there are positive steps being taken to increase the immunization rate and heal the growing divisions, said Tory MLA Cameron Friesen, who represents the constituency.
"Even though things are hard right now, there are good things going on, and that we should also be looking at the good things, and looking at those modelling the behaviour we want to see," Friesen said Wednesday.
However, that doesn’t mean the pandemic divide isn’t significant.
"Something has to change. The anger and resentment that we are seeing in our community are unacceptable," Winkler Police Service Chief Ryan Hunt posted on social media last weekend, after public displays of bad behaviour by pro-and anti-maskers and both sides of the vaccine passport issue were reported.
Winkler-based Dr. Eric Lane has spoken publicly he is concerned doctors in the area with some of Manitoba's lowest vaccination rates are looking to move to a place where "their advice was taken more seriously." Mayor Martin Harder has urged doctors to stay, because the community wouldn't survive without medical professionals.
Friesen, who also serves as Manitoba justice minister, said he's meeting with community members and "digging deep" into his teaching toolkit to restore the lines of communication.
"People are complex and we need to have complex ways of reaching people right now... Vaccines and COVID-19 is on everyone's hearts and minds," said Friesen, who met with a large group of restaurant owners and operators last week.
"What I hear from people... is we're losing the ability to speak with one another. The lines are being drawn. The divisions are in families, in workplaces and community settings and those divisions are deepening. We need to work to move toward each other, and not away."
There are people in Winkler doing that work, he said.
"Last week, a group of concerned citizens got together in a parking lot to safely converse and physically distance and they just talked about what they saw happening in their community and about what they could do as individuals and as a group to cross the divide."
"People are complex and we need to have complex ways of reaching people right now... Vaccines and COVID–19 is on everyone's hearts and minds." – MLA Cameron Friesen
Local manufacturers in Winkler co-ordinated pop-up vaccine clinics, where supervisors went around to have conversations with each employee, Friesen said. The clinics stayed open after work hours to immunize people who didn't want co-workers to see them getting the vaccine.
The province started with a "macro approach" trying to get the maximum number of people vaccinated at super sites as quickly as possible; now it's time for a more targeted, finessed approach, the Winkler-Morden MLA said.
"As we get more into that group of the vaccine hesitant, we have to be sophisticated in our thinking. We have to understand that not all of these people are vaccine deniers," said Friesen. "There are people that are reachable."
He expects the $14 million the province just announced for enlisting the help of doctors and pharmacists to target the unvaccinated for one-on-one discussions and outreach will be a successful. The strategy relies on professional relationships with patients and customers.
"I think all people are influenced by the people around them. We need to create channels for adults" to talk to someone who is objective, Friesen said.
"There's too much condemnation, generalization and judgment going on."
"We must overcome suspicion. We must build bridges and refuse to generalize and we must do this outreach." – MLA Cameron Friesen
For instance, COVID-19 vaccination rates aren't same throughout his constituency: Morden has a higher rate than Winkler, while Winkler has a higher rate than the Rural Municipality of Stanley. Southern Manitoba has traditionally had lower immunization rates than the rest of the province, Friesen said.
"This has been an issue for a long time" and the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted it, he said.
"We must overcome suspicion. We must build bridges and refuse to generalize and we must do this outreach."
And it is working, Friesen said: "We see, every day, first doses are happening, they're taking place in our community."
Meantime, the MLA who has represented the area since 2011 said he's still telling people about the high correlation between the non-vaccinated and hospitalizations and ICU admissions, and how "We're not out the woods yet" and "COVID is real."
"But, at the end of the day, how we do things matters very much."
After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.