OPINION | On COVID-19, Jason Kenney refuses to take responsibility

The man who demands you take personal responsibility for your health in a pandemic refuses even the smallest measure of it for himself or his government.

More new cases are predictable, but rest assured it's not the premier's fault

If things keep going down the path we’re on, we’re going to see the costs of COVID-19 fall disproportionately on the backs of some Albertans, while Premier Jason Kenney and his government resist taking on costs on our behalf, says Andrew Leach. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

This column is an opinion from Andrew Leach, an energy and environmental economist at the University of Alberta.

It's a tough time to be Jason Kenney.

As premier of Alberta, he's dealing with a provincial economy hobbled by oil price declines and cratered foreign investment, provincial books further in the red than the province has ever seen, and a pandemic well into its second wave. He promised jobs, economy and pipelines 18 months ago. At least the Trans Mountain pipeline still looks likely to be completed.

But, if you ask him, none of the bad news is his responsibility.

The oil sector's troubles? Blame OPEC, Russia, Trudeau and maybe soon Biden. The red ink? The same, plus the NDP's legacy of a bloated public service. The pandemic? Everyone but his government.

The man who demands you take personal responsibility refuses even the smallest measure of it for himself or his government.

COVID-19 cases hit record levels nearly every day now — a startling 919 new cases were identified on Nov. 7. But it's not the case counts that hit hardest, it's what the numbers signal.

Alberta's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, reports almost daily now that our medical system is bending under the strain of new COVID cases, with more restrictions on elective procedures announced nearly every day.

Health-care workers speaking out

Doctors and nurses on the front lines are speaking out. We know that hospitalizations follow new cases with a lag, and with more than four times the active cases we had a month ago, we have to hope that the system can cope with the coming surge. And, worse still, we know that increased numbers of deaths will follow in the wake of the ever-increasing new cases.

It was Premier Kenney who decided we should wait until our hospital system was strained to consider more actions to prevent transmission and, when anyone questioned this approach, the premier's army of issues managers were quick to ask why they didn't trust the province's chief medical officer of health.

Honest advice, loyal implementation and please don't mind the rapidly approaching bus, Dr. Hinshaw. I'm sure Premier Kenney will stand behind you when things start to get ugly.

On Nov. 6, Premier Kenney joined Dr. Hinshaw at her COVID briefing for the first time in months.

He started, incomprehensibly, with a victory lap, claiming that his government had created one of the best testing and tracing systems in Canada. You'd be forgiven for thinking that everything was working just fine and according to plan. We learned that it wasn't.

It had been announced only a day earlier that AHS was giving up on effective contact tracing for most cases, downloading that responsibility to Albertans as well. 

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, reports almost daily now that our medical system is bending under the strain of new COVID cases. (CBC Calgary News at 6)

This didn't have to be the case. We've seen rising case counts here and elsewhere for months. We knew that, with the measures our government was prepared to implement, cases were doubling rapidly and would continue to do so. More new cases, and thus the need for more contact tracers was predictable, but rest assured it's not the premier's fault.

No one should be surprised that calls for personal responsibility alone could not solve a provincewide collective action problem.

Last week, we also learned that many people with COVID-19 travelled, worked or attended social events while symptomatic.

To some degree, that responsibility lies with the people, but as far as working is concerned, that's not an easy choice for some people to make. Dr. Hinshaw, concerned as ever, asked that employers "support their staff to [take time off] wherever possible."

The federal government has provided emergency benefits for this, which were oddly not mentioned. Mention of any help provided by Premier Kenney's government was also absent from the briefing, because they've not provided much at all, other than a provision to allow employees to take unpaid leave without risk of being laid off. 

Schools could be next

The next shoe to drop is likely going to be schools.

As schools reopened in the fall, there were concerns with Alberta's already-rising case counts.

While there is no magic number for safe schools, metrics proposed by Harvard's Global Health Institute hold that safe school openings can happen, with appropriate safeguards, if a jurisdiction is seeing fewer than 25 daily new cases per 100,000 inhabitants. Over the past four days, we've averaged 17.5 new cases per 100,000 across the province, with numbers expected to rise in the coming weeks.

More cases mean more contacts, more students and staff in isolation, more strain on teachers, and eventually the system will not be able to cope. If schools can't operate consistently, that's going to place a heavier and heavier price on parents with kids, especially single parents and those with jobs that can't be done remotely.

As case counts have risen, we've heard that "it's time to up our game," and that some among us need to "knock it off," but even Premier Kenney and his ministers can't make that happen.

WATCH | Jason Kenney tells Albertans to stop having gatherings at home 

Kenney urges Albertans to stop social gatherings at home

2 years ago
Duration 2:42
Premier Jason Kenney is calling on Albertans to not host parties or large family dinners and is expanding the 15-person limit on social gatherings to all communities on the province’s COVID-19 watch list.

About 48 hours after asking Albertans to give up their social gatherings and to be personally responsible, there was the premier at an indoor event in Grande Prairie.

Other ministers' social media accounts routinely show similar gatherings. Knock it off, indeed. Many of us have given up a lot of things that matter to us for months now, and the premier couldn't muster enough personal responsibility to pass up the chance to give a speech as the second wave of the pandemic spirals out of control.

There is no trade-off between health and the economy — the economy is the people, and the virus is what's keeping things from getting back to full speed.

Just as a government can create economic activity with debt-financed spending, we can stimulate economic activity in the short term by avoiding public health guidance, but it won't last. Just like so much borrowed money, the public health bill is coming due in Alberta. The question is, who is going to pay it?

If things keep going down the path we're on, we're going to see costs fall disproportionately on the backs of some Albertans, while the premier and his government resist taking on costs on our behalf.

Fear and goodwill not enough

Premier Kenney is banking on a combination of fear and goodwill being enough to keep new case counts from continuing to grow exponentially.

So far, that's not working, and I can't find any evidence of such things working elsewhere once case levels are as high as they are here. Rather, we've seen plenty of examples, notably in the U.K., where a delayed reaction saw growing case numbers quickly close off less draconian options than a hard lockdown.

We do see evidence of success from other policies, from relatively early lockdowns in Australia reducing community transmission to zero, to aggressive tracking, tracing and isolation measures in jurisdictions like New Zealand keeping the virus largely at bay thus far. There is no one best solution, and certainly no magic solution that comes without costs of its own.

As we allow the number of active cases to grow, we'll quickly come to face more and more extreme choices.

The role of government is to co-ordinate collective action toward a common goal and to ensure that everyone pays their fair share of the freight. And right now, that's not happening. We can afford millions to fund a war room and a witch hunt, and billions for new oil and gas projects, but we can't muster more than a good scolding to fight the pandemic?

It's time to knock it off, and take some personal responsibility, Premier Kenney.

This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read our FAQ.


Andrew Leach is an energy and environmental economist and is an associate professor at the Alberta School of Business at the University of Alberta. He also recently completed studies for an LLM in the faculty of law at the U of A.


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