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Ideology trumps expertise when conservatives meddle with health care

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Coronavirus. Image: Centers for Disease Control/Wikimedia Commons

If the world is on the cusp of another deadly coronavirus outbreak, this might seem like a peculiar time to be signing up for a high-risk experiment in health-care management based on ideology instead of facts.

But as far as Canada's increasingly extremist conservative movement is concerned, of course the time is right! It always is.

This goes double here in Alberta, where the United Conservative Party government seems determined to plunge the province's public health-care system into chaos in order to create the right conditions to sell privatization as a solution for a system in crisis.

The reality, as is reasonably well understood outside the ideological market-fundamentalist circles that dominate Canada's so-called conservative parties, is that when it comes to universal health care, private "solutions" inevitably make things worse.

This is why crises need to be generated to persuade citizens to accept changes to a health-care system that works reasonably well despite its imperfections.

So expecting more private clinics to solve health care's problems is a good example of the definition of insanity widely attributed to Albert Einstein, to wit, don't do the same thing over and over and this time expect different results.

More people than the population of Canada are now under lockdown in China after a new coronavirus outbreak in the city of Wuhan, and cases of 2019-nCoV are starting to show up in Western Europe and the United States.

It is likely only a matter of time until this new cousin of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) virus that afflicted more than 400 people in Canada in 2003 and 2004 comes our way too. SARS killed about 800 people worldwide before it was brought under control.

So if you were inclined to tilt at windmills, you could argue this might be a good moment for the Alberta government to pull back, at least for a season, from its plans to gin up a major crisis in health care by declaring war on public sector health-care workers like physicians, nurses and other health-care professionals.

After all, these are the people we will depend on to risk their lives, and perhaps even sacrifice them, if the Wuhan coronavirus comes our way, as seems likely, and turns out to be virulently deadly, as remains yet to be seen.

Yet for such selfless public service and the years they spent training for their professions, the UCP government expects nurses, for example, to endure a four-year pay freeze and stand by while their collective agreement is gutted.

And if the recent past behaviour of conservative Canadian governments is anything to go by, nor is there much chance our governing politicians will pay much attention to the expertise learned at such cost and effort by our medical professionals.

Among the clear lessons of the SARS crisis in China, Canada and other countries, wrote Yale Institute for Global Health director Saad B. Omer in the New York Times on Thursday, is that in a situation like the emerging coronavirus contagion, countries need to "be ready for anything, and leave it to the experts." (Emphasis added.)

"Decisions such as border screenings, travel restrictions and potential quarantine have major public health consequences," Dr. Omer wrote, so they "should be driven by science and emerging biological and epidemiological evidence."

In other words, not by politicians -- especially by a group of conservative politicians for whom conspiracy theories about science and demonization of scientists have become politically convenient alternative facts.

One of those experts, virologist Yi Guan, director of the State Key Laboratory of Emerging Infectious Diseases at the University of Hong Kong, said of the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak: "This time, I'm scared."

Of course, if worse comes to worst, we can be reasonably confident in Alberta that our current government would do the opposite.

It's not as if their hostility to science when it's heard saying inconvenient things about the planet's climate will be easy to turn off when it comes to how to respond to an epidemic -- especially when there's money to be made by throwing health care into chaos.

Consider how Premier Jason Kenney and the UCP have responded to what the experts have to say about the effectiveness of supervised injection clinics at lowering the death toll of our opioid addiction crisis, which continues to kill about two Albertans every day on average.

They would rather take advice from a handpicked panel of their supporters that includes ex police officers, a retired economist with a side in criminology, and a real estate salesman, and call the clinics, which are saving lives, "NDP drug sites."

Their panel members are fine, public-spirited citizens every one, no doubt, but not necessarily universally qualified to give sound advice about an epidemic of drug addiction.

For that matter, this is not unlike the same government's approach to expert economic advice.

When the experts in their own government's finance department told them not to expect the $4.7-billion tax cut for big business to create 55,000 or more jobs as Premier Kenney was promising, they ignored them too. They went instead with the recommendations of a few economists who share their ideology and the likes of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

Well, we know how that one's working out. At least 50,000 jobs have been lost since the Kenney government slashed corporate taxes and there's no sign this is going to get any better.

When it comes to the potential for a global coronavirus epidemic, absolutely none of this is very reassuring!

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: Centers for Disease Control/Wikimedia Commons

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