Distancing and a distant premier: The cold arithmetic behind Brian Pallister's early-pandemic fiscal restraint

Out of frugality or cautiousness, Pallister's PC government has shied away from engaging in direct assistance programs during these early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic. They may be needed later, as physical distancing is likely to last months.

Manitoba's premier has announced little aid early on. That may be because the worst is yet to come.

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister, right, listens in as Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba's chief public health officer, speaks during the province's COVID-19 update at the Manitoba legislature in Winnipeg on Monday. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

The remarkable scale of the COVID-19 crisis has led most Canadian provinces to roll out equally remarkable aid programs.

In Quebec, workers forced into isolation due to potential exposure to SARS-Cov-2 may receive $573 a week in compensation.

Alberta offered one-time payments of $1,146 to self-isolating residents or their caregivers, although the benefits haven't been easy to get.

B.C. offers $1,000 to people out of work and up to $500 over three months in rebates for tenants struggling to pay rent.

However Manitoba, a much smaller province, is thinking much smaller in terms of aid.

Over the past two weeks, Premier Brian Pallister announced a rent freeze but no rent assistance. He announced childcare subsidies for health-care workers, although the benefits haven't been easy for everyone to get.

He announced partnerships with tech companies capable of delivering online therapeutic counselling and rolling out a volunteer-finder app.

What the premier hasn't done is open the provincial purse strings in a symbolic fashion, let alone a dramatic one.

Out of frugality or cautiousness, Pallister's PC government has shied away from engaging in direct assistance programs during these early weeks of the pandemic. Nonetheless, the premier bristles at the suggestion Manitoba isn't doing enough.

"Well, we have taken numerous actions, well over 150 so far in the last three weeks in respect to the various measures," Pallister said Monday after he was asked why Manitoba wasn't doing more.

He did not list 150 things Manitobans are doing to assist people during Manitoba's 150th year in existence. But he did make reference to the childcare piece.

"Some of them are cash offsets. Some of them are modifications of existing programs to move resources where they're needed. Some of them are assistance, direct and indirect, for daycare for emergency personnel and the like," the premier said.

This isn't simply a matter of Manitoba being small. Saskatchewan, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia have all announced modest aid programs of their own as well.

Letting the feds lead the way

Pallister suggested his primary role in assisting Manitobans financially was to push Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to increase wage subsidies for reeling employers from 10 per cent of wages to 75 per cent.

This is consistent with Pallister's previous messaging over the past two weeks: Manitoba's premier maintains it's up to Ottawa to provide direct assistance to Canadians who are suffering right now.

"We're working in partnership, obviously, with the federal government," Pallister said Monday.  "The federal government has already introduced some programs and we expect more to come to protect the national economy.

"We're in charge of protecting our health-care system, for now and for the future. And so our measures are significant and there are more on the way."

Climbing the curve

The promise of future aid is an important part of the premier's messaging.

It suggests frugality may not, in fact, be the sole motivation for Pallister's seemingly Scrooge-like behaviour at this stage of the pandemic, though the premier's critics may not be willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Cautiousness may be the real motivation, because Manitoba is just starting to climb the COVID-19 curve every jurisdiction on the planet is hoping to flatten.

Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba's chief public health officer, says there's still no evidence of community spread of COVID-19 in Manitoba. However, he expects that to change within a few weeks. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

The North American leg of the disease's macabre world tour is just beginning. The United States may well turn out like Italy, if cases of the illness continue to rise as quickly as they have south of the border in recent weeks.

Known cases of COVID-19 appear to be increasing a little less slowly in Canada overall and Manitoba is a bit behind the curve for now, at least compared to Quebec, Ontario, B.C. and Alberta.

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Pallister is correct in stating health care is Manitoba's primary concern.

The goal here, as it is everywhere that has yet to experience the horrors of northern Italy, is to ensure the number of severe COVID-19 cases remains within the capacity of the health-care system to treat at any given time.

Distancing here for the distance

The only way to do this is to flatten the curve. That means slowing the spread of the disease to the point where only a fraction of the population contracts it any given time.

In order for that to happen, however, physical distancing measures have to be in place for a long time — and certainly longer than the two weeks allotted for the shutdown announced on Monday.

As emerging pathogen expert Jason Kindrachuk of the University of Manitoba stated on March 22 and Manitoba chief public health officer Brent Roussin suggested on March 25, physical distancing measures are bound to remain in place for months, not weeks.

Jason Kindrachuk, Canada Research Chair in infectious diseases at the University of Manitoba, says we should be prepared to maintain physical distancing measures for some time. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Roussin implied we'll be at this until the end of April at the very least. Kindrachuk said the end of May or early June is more likely.

Some models suggest the only way to flatten the curve is to keep distancing measures in place for six months, which would mean we will all crawl out of our homes, shaggy but still relatively healthy, in August or September.

Even then, physical distancing measures are unlikely to be lifted all at once. Ordinary freedoms are more likely to return  in stages.

It is folly to believe we will suddenly go from gathering in groups of less than 10 to suddenly watching events with thousands of other people. That's why it's not safe to bet the Winnipeg Folk Festival will take place this July or the 2020 Canadian Football League season will begin before September, if at all.

Some distancing measures may even be in place until a COVID-19 vaccine is developed, some time in 2021 or beyond.

Winnipeg, at a near standstill during the early weeks of the pandemic. (Trevor Lyons/CBC)

While Roussin has hinted at a lengthy period of physical distancing, Pallister has not. The premier has not even made it clear elementary and high school students are unlikely to return to classes this spring.

Pallister also has not made it clear the business shutdown slated to begin on Wednesday may be extended beyond April 14. 

But this premier, who comes from an insurance background, is more than familiar with the use of mathematical models to assess all forms of risk.

Whatever fiscal pain Manitobans are feeling now may be minor in comparison to the paroxysms coming in the next few months.

The question is whether Pallister plans to unfurl some form of made-in-Manitoba safety net during the worst of the pandemic, buoyed to some degree by his restraint early on, though limited by an expected $5-billion provincial deficit.

It's fair for the premier's critics to be skeptical. For now, however, Manitobans have no choice but to take Pallister at his word when he says more help is on the way.

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Bartley Kives

Senior reporter, CBC Manitoba

Bartley Kives joined CBC Manitoba in 2016. Prior to that, he spent three years at the Winnipeg Sun and 18 at the Winnipeg Free Press, writing about politics, music, food and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of both Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg and Stuck In The Middle 2: Defining Views of Manitoba.