Opinion

This is not leadership.

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This is not leadership.

Manitoba's Progressive Conservative government engaged in a profound dereliction of duty Thursday, announcing a back-to-school plan that does not include any meaningful COVID-19 pandemic protection for staff and students.

Full-time, in-person classes for all students ages 12-17 will resume in September, with no requirement to be fully vaccinated or wear masks; younger ages will still attend in cohorts, but again without any vaccination requirement or masks.

Both measures are still "strongly recommended" but will not be enforced — as in other public places across the province come Saturday, a result of new public health orders.

Remarkably, the government of Premier Brian Pallister will not prevent private businesses, public facilities or institutions (such as school divisions) from demanding proof of vaccination status or the donning of masks.

Premier Brian Pallister and his government will not prevent private businesses, public facilities or institutions such as school divisions from demanding proof of vaccination status or the donning of masks. (Alex Lupul / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Premier Brian Pallister and his government will not prevent private businesses, public facilities or institutions such as school divisions from demanding proof of vaccination status or the donning of masks. (Alex Lupul / Winnipeg Free Press files)

It is leaving the final decision up to each individual business, facility or institution. It's the coward's way out.

Pallister says he wants Manitobans to wear masks and get vaccinated, but won't impose a mask mandate or demand school staff and students be fully vaccinated. He is, however, quite happy if others step forward to make those difficult decisions, and then take any heat.

Even more maddening: Pallister is, remarkably, repeating a strategy that led Manitoba into the teeth of two previous epidemiological disasters.

Almost exactly one year ago, the premier launched an aggressive reopening plan and ignored the need for a mandatory indoor mask mandate, all against the advice of scientists outside the government realm. The result was a prolonged and deadly second wave of COVID-19 that claimed the lives of hundreds of Manitobans.

The same approach was used again in the early months of 2021. Case counts began to drop, and Pallister started removing social and economic restrictions, once again against expert advice, setting the table for a third deadly wave.

It is true case counts were increasing when Pallister dialed back restrictions one year ago; now, they have dropped to very low levels. It's also true one year ago, there were no vaccines; currently, Manitoba has vaccinated a significant proportion of its population.

Dr. Brent Roussin, chief provincial public health officer, is singing the same old song. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

Dr. Brent Roussin, chief provincial public health officer, is singing the same old song. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

However, we must now account for COVID-19 variants.

Delta, most prevalent in the world today, is highly contagious and extremely unpredictable. So much so, two doses of approved vaccines provide only a reasonable level of protection. Even then, there is evidence fully vaccinated people can be infected and transmit the coronavirus as easily as the non-vaccinated.

Add it to increasing concern about the arrival of a vaccine-resistant variant, and you have a precarious situation that screams out for a better-safe-than-sorry approach, which is not what the Pallister government is providing.

The abandonment of mandatory mask orders remains a perverse mystery when public health officials continue to describe face coverings as "a critical component" of the pandemic response.

Epidemiological modelling on the delta variant might substantiate the government's strategy; however, if that modelling exists, the province is (once again) refusing to share it with the public.

When pressed to justify the end of mandatory masking, Roussin would only say it was government's intention to employ "the least-restrictive means for the least amount of time."

By not being more aggressive at the outset of a pandemic, governments may be prolonging the suffering, says Dr. Ross Upshur. (Mike Aporius / Winnipeg Free Press files)

By not being more aggressive at the outset of a pandemic, governments may be prolonging the suffering, says Dr. Ross Upshur. (Mike Aporius / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Man, have we heard this song before.

Dr. Ross Upshur, Toronto-based godfather of the doctrine of less-restrictive means, told the Free Press in June provinces such as Manitoba are misapplying the concept in their pandemic strategies.

Although government must respect individual freedoms, when public health is threatened restrictions are legally and morally justifiable. Least-restrictive does mean a minimalist approach, it means applying the right restriction at the right time to get the best outcome.

"And in a situation where there is concern about variants, you would want to be more aggressive at the outset. By not being more aggressive, you may actually be prolonging your suffering by not being strict enough at the beginning," Upshur said.

 

Which brings us back to mask use. Even in Roussin's flawed interpretation of the concept, non-medical masks could be categorized as the most effective, least-restrictive public health measure.

Masks allow the public to do almost everything it did before COVID-19, with a greatly diminished chance of passing the virus on to innocent bystanders. Without masks and with greater freedoms, Manitoba is rolling the dice with everyone's life, regardless of vaccine status.

As premier, Pallister is duty-bound to provide clear, unambiguous leadership in this moment of crisis. Unfortunately, he hasn't done it.

In his failure, we see him for what he really is: a leader who has seemingly lost his will to lead.

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.

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