Politics Blog: For conservative premiers, ideology trumps public safety

Toronto – December 7, 2020 – The lack of concrete action from conservative premiers in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Ontario in fighting the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic shows that political concerns override public health concerns when conservatives are in power.
While all provinces have took actions to address the coronavirus during the first wave of the pandemic, many were to quick to lift restrictions in order to reopen the economy. Every province had been warned by public health experts that the second wave of the pandemic would be significantly worse than the first. But conservative premiers appear to have ignored the warnings and are unwilling to make the difficult decisions or listen to health experts because of their own political ideology.

Case in point: Alberta now has the highest number of COVID-19 cases in Canada despite having the fourth largest population. Premier Kenney, however, continues to refuse to put needed restrictions in place. In mid-November, despite rapidly increasing case counts, hospitalizations, and deaths, Kenney did not even appear in public for ten days. Leaked recordings revealed exasperated public health officials were confronted by a premier and health minister who ignored their advice, clearly worried about the economic effects of strategies that would get the pandemic under control.

Kenney has admitted he won’t implement a mask mandate across the province for fear of alienating his anti-government base of support. He has even taken to scapegoating ethnic communities in Calgary for the increase in cases but says nothing about hundreds of anti-mask demonstrators rallying at city halls across Alberta. His government has also tried to hide internal modelling that shows increasing strains on Alberta’s hospitals. And the Kenney administration has had to call on the Red Cross and the federal government for emergency help to set up field hospitals, as the province’s hospital system is now bursting at the seams.   

While Ontario Premier Doug Ford received some praise for his handling of the first wave of COVID-19, his government has been totally unprepared to deal with the second wave, despite the warnings. A new report from the province’s Auditor General reveals that Ontario’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic was slower and more reactive than other provinces and was hampered by “delays and confusion in decision-making” as public health experts took a secondary role to government officials and politicians.   

The damning report finds that the Ford Conservatives sidelined experts, made decisions contrary to public health recommendations, failed to adequately resource public health testing, and still have not secured necessary personal protective equipment (PPE).

In Ontario, 61 percent of deaths related to COVID-19 are tied to long-term care facilities. Studies and analysis have found that for-profit homes had more deadly outbreaks. During the late spring and summer, advocates and politicians called for the entire industry to be overhauled, but at the same time industry lobbyists launched a lobby blitz. Instead of preparing long-term care homes for the second wave of the pandemic, Ford was busy preparing legislation to protect long-term care operators from legal action for their negligence.

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister’s handling of the pandemic, meanwhile, has also been widely criticized. Manitoba now has the highest per capita rates of COVID-19 infections in the country, earning the premier heavy criticism from health experts over his handling of the pandemic. After a relatively mild first wave, Pallister rushed to make the province the first in Canada to reopen its economy. The province shut down its pandemic response structure over the summer, making it ill prepared to deal with the second wave. When COVID-19 cases began to skyrocket, Pallister sent frontline workers thousands of expired masks and ignored advice from doctors calling for more health care resources. The province is now having to implement tougher public restrictions because it failed to heed the warnings and was singularly focused on the economy.

Over in Saskatchewan, the province has reacted to the COVID-19 crisis much like its neighbors in Alberta and Manitoba. Saskatchewan now has the third highest COVID-19 case rate in the country, behind only Manitoba and Alberta. But Premier Scott Moe refuses to implement mandatory mask restrictions for fear of angering his rural base. Premier Moe also spent the recent election campaign telling people that the province was out of the woods when it comes to the pandemic, even though expert modelling showed otherwise. The second wave is now hitting the province hard, and the government is unwilling to make the investments needed to get the crisis under control.  

In addition to this, Saskatchewan’s ‘hero pay’ program – a response to the federal government’s initiative to support essential workers – has left millions of dollars on the table. The province was eligible for more than $106 million in funding, of which nearly half has not been spent because the government explicitly excluded workers from several different types of workplaces from being eligible. The province is also sitting on over $260 million in contingency funds but refuses to put the money to good use.  

As well, Saskatchewan has received $440 million in federal funding for additional measures to fight the pandemic. Despite receiving this money for childcare and support for vulnerable populations, the province has yet to roll out financial support for these sectors and has given no indication on how much is available to be spent.

These four premiers have chosen to immobilize themselves during the second wave of COVID-19. They keep trying to paint the pandemic response as a choice between protecting public health and supporting the economy, but they have failed on both fronts. The best way to protect the economy is to make tough but necessary public health decisions now, as the sooner we can get the coronavirus under control, the sooner the economy will be able to rebound.