It’s been more than one month since Premier Jason Kenney announced the end to public health measures meant to curb the spread of COVID and a week after he announced the province would stop tracking the virus, end contact tracing and remove the legal requirement for people with COVID symptoms to self-isolate.
This rush to remove public health restrictions has left a lot of Albertans confused and uncomfortable with his sudden decisions as cases of the Delta Variant increase and hundreds of thousands of Albertans under the age of 12 remain ineligible for vaccines as the start of the school year rapidly approaches.
Kenney appears eager to claim victory over COVID and give him and his United Conservative Party a political win in the face of bottomed-out approval in the polls and a steady pattern of lacklustre party fundraising.
For months, Kenney boasted that Alberta would have the Best Summer Ever in 2021. Staff in the Premier’s Office even had special baseball hats made declaring it such.
The original announcement to remove public health measures, including mandatory face-masking in public indoor spaces, was made ahead of Canada Day (or the long-abolished “Dominion Day” as Kenney has often called our national holiday). But it was the Calgary Stampede that Kenney wielded and waved like a carnival balloon sword against any Albertan who dared criticize his government’s rush to claim the pandemic is over.
Canada has made big gains in vaccinating people against COVID-19, despite earlier predictions by some that we might not have access to vaccines for years. In fact, cases where federal vaccine supply could not match provincial distribution were rare, and completely non-existent in Alberta. Yet, Alberta remains below the national average for full vaccination rates – and some regions of the province are sitting at troublingly low levels of vaccinations.
A vaccine lottery, dubbed lottovaxx, was launched to push Alberta above the artificial hurdle that Kenney placed to remove restrictions and allow the Stampede to open its gates. A hunting lottery and trips to hot destinations were added, but it appears to have barely moved the needle.
Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, has endorsed Kenney’s plan as the government’s chief spokesperson on the topic, but even she had to issue an op-ed today trying to counter the loud chorus of critics.
After more than a month out of the public spotlight, Hinshaw was once again thrust into a role that Kenney and Health Minister Tyler Shandro had filled since the Stampede. All of a sudden, Kenney began insisting that Hinshaw was the person in charge.
Despite her endorsement, Hinshaw is in the lonely position of being the only, or one of the only, medical professionals in Alberta to publicly support Kenney’s rush to remove COVID testing, tracing and isolation requirements.
Whether or not it is intentional, Hinshaw is now doing political damage control for the Kenney government.
It is inevitable that we would have removed public health restrictions at some point. As vaccination rates increase, it is expected that COVID-19 cases will be mostly limited to the unvaccinated, which again still includes hundreds of thousands of Alberta kids who can’t choose to get vaccinated.
Parents and teachers are left with no plan and little reassurances about what will happen when their unvaccinated kids return to school and childcare in September.
Kenney’s and Hinshaw’s assurances to parents that they will need to figure it out on their own have not been confidence inspiring.
Albertans with legitimate concerns and questions about the pace of Kenney’s plan have been dismissed by Hinshaw as having “anxiety” or by the Premier’s staff as wanting a “permanent lockdown.” These dismissive and aggressive responses communicated by the government are insulting and patronizing a broad group of parents with legitimate concerns and fears, well earned a year and a half into a public health crisis.
That the government still isn’t able to effectively communicate with the public about these measures is an indication that they are either largely indifferent or completely inept.
If we have learned anything over the past 18 months, it is that the COVID-19 pandemic is probably best approached with a healthy mix of vigilance and optimism. But the UCP government’s approach is all optimism that the pandemic is over and no vigilance to ensure it actually is. We constantly heard from Kenney that we were headed to the Best Summer Ever, but his eagerness to put COVID behind him has left a lot of Albertans behind.
It has been a traumatic and tough 18 months for a lot of people.
Millions of Albertans found themselves working from home, not working at all, thrust into homeschooling and childcare, and in addition to that, many of us have mourned family, friends and colleagues who have died of COVID-19 or other ailments that we have not been able to properly grieve.
Kenney’s Best Summer Ever promise appears to apply largely to the Premier and his small group of insiders the Best Summer Ever hats were made for, who have been able to dine al fresco on a government patio, take in the private parties and open bars at the 2021 Stampede, fire automatic weapons with the Taber Police and many other perks they are indulging in while the Legislature is out. For many Albertans, that slogan and swag hats are a crass and insensitive response to what should be a summer of reflection, recuperation and preparation for the coming school year.