OPINION | Kenney will end state of public health emergency June 15. Let's hope COVID-19 is amenable

After 10 weeks of science taking the lead in the province's battle against COVID-19, politics is back in the driver's seat. It was bound to happen, sooner or later.

During debate in the legislature, premier referred to the virus as 'influenza' six times

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney is being attacked from both the left and right over the province's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

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Premier Jason Kenney is tired of the COVID-19 pandemic.

And who isn't?

But Kenney is so tired of it that he's started to call it something else: an influenza.

During debate in the legislature on Wednesday, Kenney referred to the virus as "an influenza of this nature." This was no slip of the tongue. He used the term "influenza" six times.

It's a curious, perhaps troubling, choice of words. While COVID-19 and influenza are both respiratory illnesses, COVID-19 is not the flu. It is a novel coronavirus that is more contagious and more deadly than the flu. But less understood. There is no treatment or vaccine for it.

Kenney criticized for COVID-19 comments

3 years ago
Duration 3:46
Premier Jason Kenney is being criticized for comments he made Thursday about COVID-19, including referring to the disease as an "influenza."

People who deliberately conflate the two tend to be those trying to diminish the danger of COVID-19 while loudly demanding life to return to normal. Those include gun-toting protesters in Michigan, delusional beach-goers along the Gulf Coast, and U.S. President Donald Trump.

It is surprising to hear it from Kenney, particularly when he has been so careful to follow the advice of health experts, especially the province's chief medical health officer, Dr. Deena Hinshaw.

But Kenney is starting to pivot.

After 10 weeks of science taking the lead, politics is back in the driver's seat.

It was bound to happen, sooner or later.

Chief medical officer caught off guard

Kenney signalled the shift Wednesday by announcing the province's state of public emergency would be allowed to lapse on June 15. Interestingly, he didn't bother to inform Dr. Hinshaw, who was caught flat-footed at her regular COVID-19 update a few hours later when reporters asked her about Kenney's statement.

"I haven't had the opportunity to have that conversation," said Hinshaw. "So I think that might be a question best addressed to the premier in terms of that particular information."

When asked by NDP Leader Rachel Notley during question period why he hadn't talked with Hinshaw, Kenney ducked the question.

Later, Kenney's office said the matter of a public health emergency is a government decision. That is certainly true. But that doesn't explain why Kenney, who declared the emergency on March 17 after talking with Hinshaw, wouldn't ask her advice before letting it lapse. Or, at the very least, give her a courtesy call before announcing his decision to the world so she wouldn't look like she had been snubbed.

Perhaps it's because Kenney is still smarting from following her advice two weeks ago when he agreed to delay the reopening of businesses in Calgary and Brooks because they were COVID-19 hotspots. Owners of restaurants and bars that had stocked food and hired staff in anticipation of welcoming customers were furious at being kept closed. No doubt, having to watch Edmonton reopen as planned just rubbed salt in their wound.

Hinshaw was simply doing her job and following the science. It was Kenney who had to deal with the political fallout. And for him, it must feel at times like an avalanche.

Kenney approval rating 48 per cent

An Angus Reid poll released on Wednesday indicates Kenney has the second-lowest approval rating of Canada's premiers. His 48-per-cent rating is one point above last-place Brian Pallister of Manitoba and far below the No. 1 premier, New Brunswick's Blaine Higgs, at 80 per cent. 

Ontario's Premier Doug Ford, who has suffered low ratings since his election in 2018, has seen his popularity soar to 69 per cent.

This must be galling for Kenney, who positioned himself as a sleeves-rolled-up, war-time leader at the height of the pandemic and whose government has handled the crisis remarkably well, managing to flatten the curve of new cases.

But Alberta was also home to the largest COVID-19 hotspot in Canada with the outbreak at the Cargill meat-packing plant near High River.

And Kenney has had a running dispute with the province's physicians who, through the Alberta Medical Association, have launched a $250-million lawsuit against the province. Never a good look for a government during a pandemic.

Kenney is being squeezed from both sides politically — from the NDP on the left who say he hasn't done enough to protect Albertans from the pandemic and from conservatives on the right who say he's done too much to shut down the economy.

And then there's the messy history of Alberta politics, where ornery voters are liable to turn against bad-luck premiers who govern during recessions (hello Don Getty, Ed Stelmach and Rachel Notley). 

Kenney campaigned on a promise of jobs, a better economy and more pipelines but has been unable to deliver. The pandemic and disastrously low oil prices are not his fault but Albertans have never rewarded deficit, debt or depressions.

According to the Conference Board of Canada, Alberta's economy will shrink by an "historic" seven per cent this year, the largest drop in the country.

Kenney told reporters Thursday he wasn't trying to diminish the seriousness of COVID-19 by calling it the flu. He said he was trying to put its risks in context. As both he and Hinshaw have pointed out, the vast majority of fatalities are among the elderly and frail. 

Kenney is focused on protecting them while struggling to get the rest of the province back to normal as soon as possible.

Of course, COVID-19 — a novel coronavirus that is not the flu — might yet have something to say about that.


Graham Thomson

Freelance contributor

Graham Thomson is an award-winning journalist who has covered Alberta politics for more than 30 years, much of it as an outspoken columnist for the Edmonton Journal. Nowadays you can find his thoughts and analysis on provincial politics Fridays at cbc.ca/edmonton, on CBC Edmonton Television News, during Radio Active on CBC Radio One (93.9FM/740AM) and on Twitter at @gthomsonink.