Opinion

For a government that has tried so hard, for so long, to hide the intimate details of its pandemic response, it could not have been welcome news for Premier Brian Pallister that Manitoba auditor general Tyson Shtykalo is conducting an audit "to assess the Manitoba government's COVID-19 pandemic response as it relates to K-12 education."

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For a government that has tried so hard, for so long, to hide the intimate details of its pandemic response, it could not have been welcome news for Premier Brian Pallister that Manitoba auditor general Tyson Shtykalo is conducting an audit "to assess the Manitoba government's COVID-19 pandemic response as it relates to K-12 education."

This audit, which was not publicly announced but was noted on the auditor general's website, will look into the decision to reopen schools for in-person education this fall. This has to be alarming news for a government that has a penchant for gross exaggeration, misinformation and a systemic refusal to make public the most basic pandemic data.

However, while this audit will be welcomed by all those who long for increased transparency and accountability from the Pallister government, it falls well short of the more comprehensive review that is desperately needed to figure out how Manitoba went from first place in controlling COVID-19 to the worst outbreak in the country.

The consequences of this global failure to prepare is evident in the more than 61 million cases of COVID–19 and the nearly 1.5 million deaths.

In a statement Friday, Shtykalo said: "I have already announced one audit and will be announcing future audits." 

Pallister's office was asked if the premier plans any type of independent, public review of the pandemic response. A spokeswoman would only say the government is "always reviewing and evaluating our COVID-19 response and recovery programs to protect Manitobans."

When pressed about whether any review is being contemplated outside of work done by the auditor general, and whether the results would be made public, the premier's office said it wouldn't rule anything out, but "our focus must remain on protecting Manitobans and bending our COVID curve down."

This response is hardly surprising.

There cannot be many governments in this or any other country that would welcome an intensive, independent review of the pandemic response. A major theme to the pandemic throughout the world has been the complete lack of preparation to deal with a threat like COVID-19. No government had ventilators, PPE, trained contact tracers or the necessary public health strategies in place to manage a pandemic.

Premier Brian Pallister. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press files)</p>

Premier Brian Pallister. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press files)

The consequences of this global failure to prepare is evident in the more than 61 million cases of COVID-19 and the nearly 1.5 million deaths.

In a context like that, what government would willingly invite someone to broadcast the minute details of its failed pandemic response?

The federal Liberal government briefly considered triggering an election rather than allowing opposition parties in a minority Parliament to conduct an investigation into its pandemic response. Just this week, Ontario's auditor general released a comprehensive audit on all aspects of the pandemic response in that province.

The audit found the Ford government's pandemic response had been hampered by poor emergency preparedness, inadequate lab and contact-tracing capacity and a health-care system that was in disarray after years of underfunding in key areas.

Ford claimed the report was inaccurate and unfair to people working on the front lines of the pandemic response. But notwithstanding some obvious limitations in the audit, the Ontario report provides some interesting insight into what has happened in other provinces, including Manitoba. One can easily imagine that a similar audit here would find many of the same problems.

In Manitoba, the Pallister government has an abysmal record for disclosing public reports and studies.

Having said that, most public health officials and those involved in emergency management have a general appreciation for what is referred to as a "lessons learned" review. This is where the performance of a government or department in a crisis are thoroughly measured, analyzed and used to establish better preparedness and protocols for future, similar crises.

That is largely what Ontario did in 2003, following the SARS outbreak in Toronto which killed 44 people. After the SARS outbreak was under control, the premier, Dalton McGuinty, commissioned an independent review of the outbreak and the government's response.

That 1,200-page report still stands as one of the most comprehensive examinations of a public health crisis anywhere in the world. However, the heavy political burden it created for the McGuinty government does not serve as encouragement to other provinces now.

In Manitoba, the Pallister government has an abysmal record for disclosing public reports and studies. In the past four years, Pallister has spent a small fortune investigating the performance of the former NDP government. Even though there was little political risk for the Pallister Tories in these reviews, many of them have been held back or only partially released.

A fully independent review, performed by public health experts, is essential if we are to avoid the carnage of this pandemic.

Judge Archie Campbell, chosen to head up the SARS commission review, offered a cryptic warning to governments across Canada that unless we take the time to learn from the mistakes made during that crisis and "make the government fix the problems that remain, we will pay a terrible price in the next pandemic."

We clearly didn't listen to Campbell in 2007 when his report was released. Unless we commit to unflinching reviews of our COVID-19 response, and make the changes necessary to address the next great public health crisis, we will continue to pay a terrible price.

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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