Manitoba doctors are calling on the Progressive Conservative government to crack down on pandemic rule-breakers in the southern region, saying the lack of enforcement has endangered all Manitobans.
They pointed to recent comments by Justice Minister Cameron Friesen, who refused to criticize illegal churches.
"They’re flouting public health orders, endangering others’ lives, and the justice minister is basically saying ‘Oh well that’s difficult,’" Dr. Doug Eyolfson told the Free Press.
"I find that frankly terrifying."
Doctors were taken aback when Friesen seemed to minimize the damage caused by illegal church gatherings in the Morden-Winkler area, which he represents.
"It’s very sensitive," Friesen said about enforcing COVID-19 restrictions, adding "it would be very challenging to monitor" meetings in secret locations.
"We’re also trying to send the message that we know how important it is for people to gather to meet their spiritual needs," he said on Dec. 7.
Eyolfson, a former Liberal MP, said Manitobans deserve better from Friesen.
"It’s bizarre, and it’s frightening that there seems to be no appetite to deal with this," Eyolfson said Thursday, between seeing patients at Grace Hospital’s packed intensive care ward.
Critical-care physician Dr. Eric Jacobsohn also has concerns about Friesen’s remarks.
"Many people have felt his statements were regrettable, and in fact were not strong enough for those that were clearly violating orders in the south," he said, noting the Southern Health region is over-represented in recent hospitalizations, with a majority of patients unvaccinated.
Jacobsohn said the government needs to either improve its enforcement of public health orders, or beef up the rules.
"If the orders were being enforced, it is likely we would not be seeing this," Jacobsohn said.
"You can’t mathematically have it both ways."
Friesen’s office pushed back Thursday, insisting Manitoba has issued more tickets per capita than the other three western provinces.
"Religious expression is important, and so is following the rules during COVID-19," reads a statement attributed to Friesen. "It is simply wrong to suggest in any way that our government does not take enforcement seriously."
Manitoba releases scant regional data on enforcement. It lists specific businesses but not the regional proportion of tickets issued to individuals and groups such as churches, even though private gatherings fuel COVID-19 transmission.
Yet it appears Manitoba does have this data on hand.
"The Southern Health region, where compliance with orders has been challenging, continues to be the region where the majority of warnings and tickets are issued," Friesen wrote, without giving details.
Friesen has had a fraught relationship with physicians.
He was health minister in November 2020, as a large second wave hit hospitals and 200 doctors signed an open letter urging tight COVID-19 restrictions.
Friesen questioned their motives. "They knew it would have maximum effect in causing chaos in the system when Manitobans need most to understand that the people in charge have got this," he said, later adding he didn’t realize those comments were being broadcast.
Two months later, Friesen was removed as health minister by then-premier Brian Pallister.
As a former politician, Eyolfson said elected officials need to seek a balance between maintaining the support of their base and making decisions that will prove unpopular.
He originally had faith in Premier Heather Stefanson, but says her resistance to a vaccination mandate for personal care homes and letting Friesen minimize the harm caused by illegal gatherings suggests she might be beholden to the party’s southern base.
"These people are representing a small minority of Manitobans — but they have a very disproportionate amount of sway with our provincial politicians," Eyolfson said.
Parliamentary bureau chief
In Ottawa, Dylan enjoys snooping through freedom-of-information requests and asking politicians: "What about Manitoba?"