Saskatchewan's ambiguous pandemic communication feels political

What explains the reluctance to do better? Consider the politics.

What explains the reluctance to do better? Consider the politics

Scott Moe, premier of Saskatchewan, speaks at a COVID-19 news update at the Legislative Building in Regina. (Michael Bell/The Canadian Press)

This opinion piece is by Steven Lewis, a health policy consultant formerly based in Saskatchewan who now lives in Australia.

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The pandemic appears to be brewing up new trouble in Regina and the surrounding area, now home to 90 per cent of the province's confirmed cases of the newer, more virulent variants of the virus. In response, the provincial government has recommended additional precautions and mandated none of them. 

In the end it's just advice. "Consider not increasing" household bubbles, "particularly those that are over the age of 50. 

"Limit travel and shopping to essential only," (undefined). 

You can still go to the bar. 

For months independent experts in public health and epidemiology have urged the province to firm up its policies and be more precise, clear and unambiguous in its communication. 

Jurisdictions with the greatest success in containing the pandemic — New Zealand, Australia, Taiwan, Vietnam, South Korea among them — developed strategies based on two vital elements. 

One is a determination to get ahead of the problem rather than reacting after the fact. In Australia, there are circuit-breaker lockdowns (typically 5 days) whenever there are even single-digit numbers of new cases. State borders close. Only essential commerce stays open. All group gatherings are banned. It's harsh, but it works. 

The second is clarity. There is no mystery about what people and businesses can and cannot do. I'm a Saskatchewan ex-pat in my last few months of living in Melbourne. I do not get suggestions from the government of Victoria about what I ought to do to keep myself and others safe. I get rules. I may not like them, but I cannot argue that I have permission to "take them under advisement" or plead innocence when flouting them because I didn't know what they meant. 

Consider the politics

There has been a pattern in Saskatchewan's communication about COVID-19 throughout the pandemic. The language is deliberately elastic. It is long on encouragement and exhortation and short on directive. It is more like a public health campaign to reduce smoking rates or encourage physical activity than a mass mobilization in the face of an emergency. 

The subtext is almost therapeutic: you might want to think about this or that, I'm not going to tell you what to do, you have to want to change. You can imagine the fingers crossed behind the back or the permissive wink.

Is this mere bumbling and ignorance of the evidence on how to succeed and how to fail at pandemic control? It's possible but unlikely. The approach is too consistent. No one is winging the messaging after a year of practice. 

Nor is it plausible that the public servants, the public health leadership and the cabinet are unaware of which jurisdictions did what, and the impact of those policies and practices. Yet Saskatchewan consistently drops the ball. 

Maybe politics has nothing to do with it. The alternative explanation — refusal to learn and adapt, disdain for expertise, bewildering obfuscation — is less flattering to the government.- Steven Lewis

What explains the reluctance to do better? Consider the politics.

Most people take the pandemic seriously and do what's asked of them by their governments. However, in both Canada and the US, supporters of conservative parties have from the beginning felt less threatened by the pandemic and made fewer behavioural changes than adherents of parties to their left. Over time support for mandatory mask-wearing and other restrictions has declined more precipitously among self-described conservatives

This is both a dilemma and an opportunity for Premier Moe.

The dilemma is that if he imposes major restrictions with no exceptions, he alienates a good part of his base and exposes his right flank to the Buffalo Party.

The opportunity lies in the attitudes and behaviours of people less inclined to support his government. They are more likely to interpret a suggestion as a requirement and to adopt practices that are likely to keep themselves and the community safer.

Therein lies the rationale for deliberately vague and non-prescriptive messaging. It allows the more conservative Saskatchewan Party base to ignore the spirit of the "suggestions" while observing the letter of the toothless "law." If everyone took the messaging as take-it-or-leave it, the pandemic would careen out of control in weeks.

But the Premier is banking on that not happening, that the majority will listen to Dr. Shahab, Dr. Muhajarine, Dr. Neudorf and others, and rightly infer that beneath the gentle and permissive messages lurk hard truths and genuine threats. They will don masks, stay home, physically distance and preserve the integrity of their bubbles.

In other words, the people more inclined to take the pandemic seriously, examine the evidence and listen to public health experts will do the heavy lifting. The gamble is that there are enough of them to give the skeptics and die-hard libertarians a free pass from the consequences of their own choices. 

When the majority takes adequate precautions, the recalcitrant minority also benefits, its safety subsidized by the sacrifices of others. A few hundred cases spread in bars or churches are, on this logic, the price worth paying for keeping the base happy while counting the days until the vaccine cavalry charges to the rescue.

I could well be wrong. Maybe politics has nothing to do with it. The alternative explanation — refusal to learn and adapt, disdain for expertise, bewildering obfuscation — is less flattering to the government. So in the spirit of charity, I cling to the hope that the premier's persistent dodge is artful, the handiwork of a clever strategist rather than one woefully out of his depth.

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Steven Lewis

Health policy analyst

Steven Lewis is a health policy consultant formerly based in Saskatchewan. He now lives in Vancouver.


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