Opinion

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This article was published 29/4/2020 (306 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

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Manitoba’s partial reopening of the economy strikes the right balance between limiting the spread of COVID-19 and allowing some people back to work, but the government is still refusing to say how it will decide when to loosen restrictions further (or reinstate controls).

Premier Brian Pallister released the province’s reopening plan Wednesday, which allows some businesses to open their doors Monday. It’s a cautious, phased-in approach that will allow parts of the economy to start up again, while limiting the spread of the virus. It appears to be a reasonable course of action.

There are risks that loosening controls will result in a more rapid spread of the disease, but those risks are virtually impossible to avoid. The economy can’t stay locked down forever. There’s a certain amount of risk society has to accept, including death, as restrictions are eased.

Dr. Brent Roussin, the province’s chief public health officer, has said the number of cases will likely rise when restrictions are loosened, but what he still hasn’t revealed (and what’s missing from the 34-page document released Wednesday) is how fast cases would have to rise to reinstate controls, or how many people would have to be hospitalized before the province changes its plans.

Dr. Brent Roussin, the province’s chief public health officer, said the number of cases will likely rise when restrictions are loosened, but didn't reveal how fast cases would have to rise to reinstate controls. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Dr. Brent Roussin, the province’s chief public health officer, said the number of cases will likely rise when restrictions are loosened, but didn't reveal how fast cases would have to rise to reinstate controls. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press files)

There are no specifics on any of those metrics.

"If results during or at the end of Phase 1 or any future phases are not favourable, the province will not proceed with further easing of secondary public health measures and may reintroduce others," the report says. "If virus activity remains low, we will give serious consideration in mid-May to easing the restrictions on group size."

However, the report doesn’t define what "not favourable" or "low" means. Roussin said they will consider many factors before easing restrictions further, or reinstating controls. But he won’t define what those are.

He said if the positive test proportion (the percentage of those tested who are infected) were to climb to between three and five per cent it would "raise some flags." Right now the PTP is at 1.12 per cent. But he wouldn't say if it would result in shutting down the economy again.

He has offered no specific scenario that would cause the province to change its course of action. If, for example, the PTP rose to two per cent, and intensive care capacity in hospitals declined to 10 per cent (it was at 34 per cent April 22), would the province delay opening more parts of the economy? Would Roussin bring in more restrictive public health measures? What benchmarks have to be reached to trigger further easing or more closures?

There’s no point reopening businesses if the province is going to shut them down again because the number of cases rose marginally. (David Lipnowski / Winnipeg Free Press files)

There’s no point reopening businesses if the province is going to shut them down again because the number of cases rose marginally. (David Lipnowski / Winnipeg Free Press files)

The public, including business owners, has no idea how those decisions will be made.

No one knows what will happen after restrictions are loosened Monday. It will depend on many factors, including how well the new rules are followed and whether the public lets its guard down. It’s impossible to know how many new cases or deaths Manitoba will have in the future. Trying to predict those is pointless.

But what the public does have a right to know is what the province is willing to accept when it comes to new cases, hospitalization rates and positive test proportions. There’s no point reopening businesses (and incurring expensive related costs) if the province is going to shut them down again because the number of cases rose marginally. Businesses and others have a right to know what the ground rules are.

The province must have some idea how those decisions will be made, including what criteria will be used. Surely they’re not making it up as they go.

There is no perfect way to reopen the economy. The province will have to make adjustments along the way. Roussin may have to bring back some controls. Many factors will have to be considered before deciding whether to ease restrictions further.

But if the province wants continued buy-in from the public, it has to be more open and transparent about its plan. Government has to be far more specific about how it plans to strike a balance between public health and the economy. Right now, the public is in the dark.

Tom Brodbeck

Tom Brodbeck
Columnist

Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.

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