Premier says Alberta government balancing need for economic aid with debt risk
Some risk from coronavirus is necessary to prevent other long-term harms, Jason Kenney says
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney says March 6, 2020, was a pivotal date.
Aware but not yet anxious about the possible risk a novel coronavirus presented to Alberta, Kenney saw a prediction by the American Hospital Association that 96 million people in the U.S. could become infected and 500,000 could die of COVID-19.
He asked Alberta's Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw if she thought these numbers were plausible.
Hinshaw texted back within the hour, Kenney said in an interview with CBC Radio's Alberta morning shows.
"I think those numbers might actually be low," he recalls her message saying.
It was the same day that Russia and Saudi Arabia failed to reach a deal on limiting oil production in the face of decreased demand, a move that soon sent global prices plunging.
About one-tenth of Alberta's provincial budget was supposed to come from non-renewable resource revenues. Tens of thousands of Albertans are employed in the oil industry.
"And that's when the boom really lowered for me, realizing the enormity of the challenge," Kenney said.
"In those next two to three weeks, very few people got sleep here in the centre of the Alberta government as we started to try to surge capacity in the health-care system, determine how quickly to move with public health orders while, at the same time, dealing with a total collapse in the energy economy."
As businesses and public facilities were shuttered to prevent the spread of coronavirus, the economic hits compounded.
The provincial government has thus far allotted $15 billion toward relief measures, which include emergency isolation payments to citizens, property tax payment deferrals, cash for social service organizations and accelerated spending on roads and schools to create jobs sooner.
"I got quite emotional thinking about the impact it was going to have on people's lives," he said of the combined economic punch.
Now, the government is attempting to balance how much immediate relief it can offer without taking on a debt load that could hamper the province's finances in the long run, he said.
"We're trying to get a sense of, what is that limit?" Kenney said. "How deeply into debt can we go without crossing the line into getting completely sunk in a debt trap that we can't recover from."
Reopening plan needed for economic, social health
The premier acknowledged that the gradual easing of closure orders and other public health restrictions comes with risks.
However, he believes the long-term threats to the economy, people's health and society outweigh the danger of more people falling ill with COVID-19.
"I think there are some people who would like us to take a zero-risk approach and just, you know, shut virtually everything down indefinitely," he said. "That is, in my view, irresponsible and frankly impossible."
The virus is in the province, he said, and it will pose some threat until there is a vaccine, an effective treatment or herd immunity to the pathogen.
On Wednesday, Hinshaw also said unemployment and a lack of social connection and recreation carry health risks. Officials must weigh those problems against the perils of the virus, she said.
She said Alberta may see a slight rise in the number of diagnoses after the first stage of restrictions are eased, a move tentatively set for May 14.
She'll watch to ensure increases in hospitalizations for COVID-19 stay under five per cent.
Kenney committed to retrospectively examining how the government handled the coronavirus crisis. Continuing care homes and meat-packing plants will be a particular focus, he said.
The Cargill meat-processing plant in High River has the dubious honour of fostering North America's largest coronavirus outbreak. To date, the majority of Albertans who died of COVID-19 lived in a seniors' residence or long-term care home.
Kenney's mother lives in a Calgary seniors' residence. He said she and her neighbours have been restricted to their rooms for seven weeks.
"I'm worried about the emotional and mental health of our seniors who may be living in situations like that with no social contact except for the telephone," he said.
With files from the Calgary Eyeopener and Edmonton AM