If you really want to pressure the Alberta government into changing public health rules, blockade a border crossing. That appears to be one of the lessons learned this week as Premier Jason Kenney rushed to announce the immediate end of two major COVID-19 public health protections – the Restriction Exemption Program and mandatory face masking in schools, two of the key asks of protesters blockading the Canada-United States border crossing at Coutts.
The Restriction Exemption Program, aka the vaccine passport, provided proof for restaurant, bar and coffee shop workers that their customers were vaccinated against COVID-19. It has also provided a big incentive to get vaccinated. The rushed ending of that program at midnight tonight both removes that incentive and could throw many businesses and their workers for a loop tomorrow morning.
The sudden removal of face mask requirements without consulting parents, teachers or schools boards feels like the most cruel announcement today. We have gone from the government distributing free masks and rapid tests to students in schools to no masks allowed in schools in less than a month.
Low vaccination rates among kids 5 to 11 and the absence of a vaccine of any vaccine protection for kids under the age of 5 will mean a lot of parents with a sleepless night trying to decide how best to keep their young kids safe.
Education Minister Adriana LaGrange released a statement during Kenney’s press conference declaring that locally elected school boards would not be allowed to implement their own face mask rules for students, despite the government being fine with local trustees having that authority until today.
Seeing his approval rating plummet over the past two years and facing a leadership review on April 9, it has been clear for months that Kenney was planning on removing the restrictions, but it appears as though the pressure from the Coutts blockaders and pressure from a growing number of rural United Conservative Party MLAs pushed the Premier to rush into removing the restrictions.
When Kenney announced that Alberta was Open for Summer and Open for Good back in June 2021, I tried to be cautiously optimistic that it would be okay. It wasn’t.
Today, I don’t really feel optimistic, I just hope for the sake of my family, friends, and neighbours that it works.
While there is no doubt that many Albertans are growing increasingly tired of the pandemic, it felt incredibly counterintuitive for the Premier to be announcing the removal of restrictions on a day when 1,623 Albertans are in hospital with COVID-19, including 129 in Intensive Care Units. The pandemic is not over.
But, this is being driven by politics not public health.
Kenney talked in his press conference about the need for Albertans to “learn to live with COVID” but learning to live with COVID doesn’t mean just going back to how life was in 2019 – it means we must have actually learned something, otherwise we’re just ignoring the lessons of the past two years.
Here are a few of the lessons we could learn from.
Do a big audit. If we are going to indeed need to learn to live with COVID-19, we first need to know what we learned, starting with the release of the six performance audits from the Auditor General into the government’s response to COVID-19 would be a good start. The release of the reports were blocked by UCP MLAs on the Public Accounts Committee in January 2022.
A real Public Inquiry. There should be a real Public Inquiry and investigation into the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the massive outbreaks at workplaces like the Cargill meat packing plan in High River, CNRL’s Horizon oilsands mine, and long term care centres across Alberta. At the very least an real public inquiry will help us prepare for the next pandemic (or the next wave of COVID-19).
Keep promoting vaccinations. Despite praising them a miracle, it really feels like the Alberta government gave up trying to boost vaccinations months ago. Even gone at today’s press conference was the big and bright “GET YOUR BOOSTER SHOT” podium sign that we have become accustomed to seeing at these events.
Alberta’s vaccination rates, especially for booster shots, are lower than other provinces, and much lower when it comes to kids between the ages of 5 and 11. We still need to do better.
People should stay home when they are sick. Instead of returning to a culture that rewards – or more commonly doesn’t give workers the choice of – showing up when you’re feeling ill, encourage people to stay home when they are sick. More paid work days will help people get well and workplaces to stay healthy.
Better ventilation. Improving building ventilation systems, from schools to apartment buildings to shopping centres – the bare minimum standard is not good enough. Our indoor public spaces need the kind of ventilation that does not aid and abet viruses like COVID-19.
Get a union. Working Albertans need stronger workplace health and safety protections. If it’s not something that their employers will volunteer to improve, it’s something that could be demanded through representation from strong labour unions.
Build a stronger public health care system. Health care capacity is something we have heard a lot about during the COVID-19 pandemic, and capacity applies to both hospital beds and health care staff needed to take care of the patients in the beds.
Because of decisions made by governments of past, Alberta’s public health care system has significantly less hospital beds per capita than our province did forty years ago. This was a choice and we can fix it. The government could also work with universities and colleges to educate more nurses, doctors and health care workers and then invest in the public health care system to hire and keep them working in Alberta – and provide them with the proper personal protective equipment!
COVID-19 has brought the health care system to the brink of collapse, but the dedicated and exhausted nurses, doctors and health workers continue to hold it together for Albertans. The public health care system has been there for Albertans. It’s time to build a stronger public health care system.
Rethink private long-term care. We need to rethink our private long-term care system. Not only do the growing number of privately owned long-term care facilities represent one of the biggest examples of theft of generational wealth, but the billion dollar international corporations that own them should be held to account for how COVID-19 was spread into the homes of some of our most vulnerable seniors. The UCP passed a law in 2021 that blocks lawsuits against long term care owners for the deaths of residents in their care during the pandemic. We owe it to our elders to find out what happened and do better.
Take on Facebook. Taking legal action to aggressively challenge the spread of disinformation on social media. YouTube, Twitter and Meta, the owner of Facebook and Instagram, need to be held to account for the role their algorithms continue to play in spreading dangerous disinformation about COVID and vaccines that almost certainly cost people their lives and livelihoods. There is probably little that a provincial government can do, but the federal government can and should act.
Learn to show empathy. And maybe one of the most important lessons we need to learn coming out of the pandemic is the need for more empathy. How do we get out of this while showing better understanding of each other? How do we improve our ability to understand or feel what other people are experiencing? How do we learn to put ourselves in other people’s shoes? This is so important.
The pandemic is not over and we will still have more lessons to learn. But if we are going to move forward, for better or worse, we can’t forget the mistakes we’ve made and lessons we’ve learned since this thing started two years ago.