Opinion

Two out of three ain't bad.

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Two out of three ain't bad.

In nearly unprecedented fashion, Premier Brian Pallister managed to get through an entire day of the pandemic without suffering a self-inflicted political or public relations trauma.

The day was marked with some good news: a sexy vaccination incentive lottery offering $100,000 prizes and scholarships; and a modest reprieve from pandemic restrictions to allow small outdoor social gatherings. Both are worthy decisions that reveal some previously unseen capacity for creativity and responsible compassion.

The blemish on the day for Pallister was the release of an Angus Reid poll showing that he is, still, among the least popular premiers in the country. Most politicians will tell you that even on a good day, you can't win them all.

Still, when you take Wednesday's announcements and combine them with the launch Tuesday of Canada's first provincial vaccine passport, it makes for a pretty good week. Heck, for a leader who thinks the best path through a political minefield is to step on all the landmines, it has been an incredibly good week.

Heck, for a leader who thinks the best path through a political minefield is to step on all the landmines, it has been an incredibly good week.

Could this week serve as a sign of hope for the Pallister government's woeful pandemic response?

It's too soon to say with any certainty. This is the government that single-handedly invited a second and third wave of COVID-19 through pure mismanagement.

However, there are promising signs, particularly in what Pallister did not do this week.

Faced with signs of a moderation in the third wave of COVID-19, it would have been completely in character for Pallister to go too far and remove social and economic restrictions. In this instance, however, the decision to allow five people to socially interact outdoors is reasonable, for the most part.

It would have been better from an epidemiological perspective to return to the two-person bubble protocol (interactions only with two designated people), which was used last year. Given the threat posed by highly contagious variants, limiting gatherings to two people from outside your household, and ensuring it all happens outdoors, would have been more prudent.

And given that incentives and vaccine passports are all the rage this week, it would have been theoretically swell if these gatherings were to be limited only to people who have received at least one dose of an approved COVID-19 vaccine.

But in truth, that would have been very hard to enforce. So, we'll call the lottery — an incentive strategy that has been used with great success in some countries — and the small gatherings qualified wins.

It should be noted that even with this week's events, there are still glaring problems with Pallister's pandemic response.

Last week, 60 emergency-room physicians wrote an open letter to Pallister and acting Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen, alerting them to the plight of front-line nurses, many of whom have been pushed past the point of burnout. Goertzen could do little more than acknowledge receipt of the letter, a response that suggests that neither he nor the premier understand that the nursing situation is a crisis within the pandemic crisis.

Nurses have been without a contract for more than four years and after rejecting the province's latest offer, have started talking about a strike. The premier and his ministers are going to have to do more than acknowledge the receipt of correspondence calling for urgent action. They are going to have to muster something that qualifies as actual urgent action.

The Pallister government won't have to wait very long to show everyone whether this week is the start of a new approach to the pandemic, or a freak event. Perhaps as soon as Thursday, Pallister is expected to unveil the so-called road map for re-opening.

The Pallister government must, in essence, rebuild its pandemic warning system with clear, unambiguous epidemiological guidelines that show us when we can expect to regain lost social and economic liberties.

As proof that political leadership is a no-win undertaking, Pallister has been robustly criticized both for not acting quickly enough to lock down the province to stop the third wave, and for not releasing a re-opening plan as other provinces have done. The latter criticism is unfounded; it may still not be the time to talk about re-opening, not in a week that has seen Manitobans die from COVID-19 in out-of-province ICUs.

But if Pallister does insist on laying out a road map for re-opening to keep up with premiers in other provinces, he should show all of us, once and for all, that it is based on medical and scientific data, not political expedience.

The Pallister government must, in essence, rebuild its pandemic warning system with clear, unambiguous epidemiological guidelines that show us when we can expect to regain lost social and economic liberties. We simply can't go through another round of discretionary, politically motivated concessions for religious groups or certain kinds of businesses.

As well, we need Pallister to start outlining the things that fully vaccinated Manitobans will be allowed to do in future months. He has already created the passport; it's time for the premier to start describing its potential benefits.

For the sake of Manitobans, and his government, it's time for Pallister to demonstrate he has learned all of the important and painful lessons from this pandemic.

The reality is that one week of enlightened pandemic management is just an aberration if it can't be repeated.

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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