Saskatoon

Sask. government's inaction on COVID-19 due to fear of anti-vaccine, anti-mask minority: policy experts

Two policy experts say the Saskatchewan government's inaction on the worsening COVID-19 pandemic is at odds with the medical community, the majority of residents and other provincial governments, and they say there's only one possible explanation.

Groups representing doctors, nurses, teachers want more action to fight rising case numbers

Participants are seen at an anti-mask rally in Regina in July. Health policy experts say this extremely vocal minority is the cause of the Saskatchewan government's inaction on COVID-19. (Bryan Eneas/CBC)

Two policy experts say the Saskatchewan government's inaction on the worsening COVID-19 pandemic is at odds with the medical community, the majority of residents and other provincial governments, and they say there's only one possible explanation.

They believe Premier Scott Moe, Health Minister Paul Merriman and their colleagues appear to be pandering to anti-vaccine and anti-mask elements within the province.

"I can't think of a crisis in which the government has so adamantly refused to act," University of Regina professor of politics Tom McIntosh said.

"I think it's a case of a small but very vocal minority who oppose mask and vaccination mandates having influence. There's a fear this political base could go elsewhere."

Health policy analyst Steven Lewis agreed, saying the government is "clearly protecting its right flank."

"There are some people who have all sorts of conspiracy theories in their minds, or believe the vaccines are playing with their DNA — all sorts of misinformation. That core almost certainly tilts to the right politically," he said.

"I don't think, frankly, the government understands how rights work. When you exercise a right, it entails obligations."

University of Regina professor Tom McIntosh said the Saskatchewan government should simply admit it was wrong to delay action on COVID-19, apologize, and bring in evidence-based measures. (CBC)

In recent days, the Saskatchewan Medical Association, the Saskatchewan Union of Nurses, the Saskatchewan Teachers' Federation and others have publicly demanded action.

In an unprecedented move earlier this month, the government's own medical health officers penned an open letter calling for the same changes.

"All these groups and people, they'd all like the government to do more, but the government seems determined to stay on its path," said McIntosh, who has also been co-director of the Saskatchewan Population Health and Evaluation Research Unit for the past 20 years.

Public opinion seems to support vaccine passports and other measures. Recent polls and surveys indicate a majority of Saskatchewan residents favour vaccine passports and other measures.

B.C., Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec and P.E.I. have all announced or implemented the passports, and have seen increased bookings for vaccinations. Alberta and other provinces have announced vaccine incentives and restrictions for those who are unvaccinated.

More than once this week, Saskatchewan recorded more new COVID-19 cases than vaccinations. The province has one of the lowest vaccination rates and highest COVID-19 infection rates in the country.

Neither Moe nor Merriman was available for an interview Thursday. An official said they may be available Friday.

Moe has said he supports the vaccination and masking requirements that have been put in place by the Saskatchewan Roughriders, concert venues, schools and businesses.

Lewis and McIntosh say that's hypocritical, because it leaves those groups to suffer the wrath of those who oppose such measures. They say a provincial policy is urgently needed.

The provincial government appears to want to "sit on the sidelines rather than show some leadership," Lewis said.

Lewis and McIntosh said at this point, with the government ignoring the public, medical experts and the actions of other provinces, it's unclear what might spur change.

McIntosh worries the government will stall until the health system is completely overwhelmed and can't handle urgent surgeries, mental health emergencies or other health-care needs.

"It may take some type of new crisis like that," McIntosh said.

But even if the province does act, it will take days or weeks for cases and hospitalizations to come down, given the incubation period of the virus, he said.

McIntosh said the government should simply admit it was wrong and do what's right.

"The government may need to say, 'Look, we made a mistake. This hasn't worked,'" he said.

With files from CBC's Morning Edition

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