2020 hindsight: How Brian Pallister views the year of the pandemic

Manitobans can look back with pride at 2020, says Manitoba's premier, who surmised only dictatorships could have sailed through the pandemic and opined his government was powerless to battle COVID-19 without public opinion on its side.

"I think that very, very many Manitobans will look back with great pride," premier says

Premier Brian Pallister says "some dictatorships" were able to control COVID-19, but Manitobans don't live in a dictatorship. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

It's fair to say few of the world's governments were prepared to face the challenges posed by COVID-19.

As he looked back at 2020, Manitoba's premier suggested authoritarian nations handled the pandemic well.

"I think that it would be understandable for people to say, 'Well, couldn't we have stopped this before it started? And I think if there was an easy answer, you wouldn't see COVID rising all over the world. Somebody would have done that and there are some dictatorships that did," Pallister said Tuesday, during a year-end interview with CBC Manitoba's Marjorie Dowhos. "We don't live in a dictatorship."

Its unlikely Pallister was attempting to praise the response to COVID-19 in China, the world's most powerful authoritarian regime. China's not exactly a fan favourite nation in the offices of conservative Canadian premiers.

From what the rest of the world can discern, China initially suppressed medical reports about the novel coronavirus before imposing brutal lockdowns in an effort to stop the spread of the new pathogen.

It also does not seem Pallister was trying to redefine the likes of New Zealand, Australia and Taiwan as dictatorships. All three Asia-Pacific nations are committed democracies that happened to use very strict measures, including lockdowns, to control COVID-19 more successfully than other free nations. 

Instead, Pallister was responding to yet another question as to why Manitoba did not enact pandemic restrictions earlier this fall, before daily case counts in the hundreds became routine, along with double-digit death tolls.

"For me to have said, well, let's shut down all the businesses and restrict travel in August, when we had nine cases a week, I don't think Manitobans would have said, 'Boy, what foresight. That premier's a brilliant guy,'" Pallister said in his year-end interview. 

"I think they would have said, 'No, I want to be with my family and go for a walk in the park. And I don't want to be told that I can't. I want to get together with my friends in the backyard.'"

In rhetorical terms, that response is a classic straw-man argument: It's something you posit in order to simply destroy.

No one in Manitoba is arguing the province ought to have locked down its economy in August, when a series of COVID-19 clusters in western Manitoba were identified and controlled with a great deal of success.

Rather, the crucial time in question was the end of September and the start of October, when Manitoba's daily COVID-19 case counts blew away the worst-case scenarios envisioned by public health.

That was the moment when an Australia-like public-health regime would have brought the hammer down.

This slide from the province shows the projected number of new COVID-19 cases in Manitoba in different scenarios. (Manitoba Government)

Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba's chief provincial public health officer, has already said that with the benefit of hindsight, targeted restrictions imposed by Manitoba in the middle October failed to prevent COVID-19 from growing exponentially.

The results, two months later, are stark.

On Oct. 15, Manitoba counted 38 deaths at the hands of COVID-19 and 3,038 cumulative cases.

On Dec. 15, the death toll reached 509 and the total case count climbed to 21,535.

In the space of two months, Manitoba became the owner of the second-worst COVID-19 death rate in Canada, after only Quebec.

When asked to explain his suggestion that only a dictatorship could have prevented such a result, the premier insisted Manitoba could not have enacted restrictions any earlier than it did.

"I don't know that the public would have supported it," Pallister said during a press briefing later on Tuesday. "I think they might have questioned it and we might have had trouble with public behaviour in the sense that people who don't believe the rules are necessary are going to break those rules."

The premier may be right: Act too soon and you may lose the support of the public. 

On the other hand, opinion polls suggest Pallister has lost the support of the public by acting precisely the way his government has acted.

There are now Manitobans upset with the lengthy duration of the restrictions as well as the slow pace of apparent progress at bringing case counts down. 

Pallister called the criticism understandable. He said Manitoba has struggled to balance collective public health with the preservation of individual rights.

"These are really precious freedoms to people and they won't be sacrificed lightly," he said. "It is really important to engage the public at every step of the way when you introduce restrictions and if you bring them in before the public understands they're necessary, then they won't be supported and you will end up with worse results than you'd have if you hadn't brought them in at all."

(Bryce Hoye/CBC)

It's impossible to say how much better or worse off Manitoba would be if public health officials took stronger action two months ago.

Whatever the case, when Pallister looks back at 2020, he does not see only suffering and pain.

"I think that this year will most certainly go down as one of the more memorable ones in our lives," he said at the end of his Tuesday press briefing. "And I think that very, very many Manitobans will look back with great pride."


Bartley Kives

Reporter, CBC Manitoba

Reporter 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. His work has also appeared in publications such as the Guardian and Explore magazine.

With files from Bryce Hoye


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