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Coronavirus discovered in Alberta just as politics trumps facts in supervised drug clinic report

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Image: Government of Alberta

COVID-19 has arrived in Alberta.

But first, we need to talk about how the United Conservative Party government has found a nearly perfect formula for dealing with science when it reaches inconvenient conclusions running counter either to the ruling party's ideology or its political calculations.

It strikes a committee of sympathetic folk, calls it an expert panel and instructs them not to consider anything that might divert them from the conclusions Premier Jason Kenney desires.

This was demonstrated yesterday with the release of the report of the UCP's supervised consumption services review committee, chaired by former Edmonton police chief Rod Knecht, which was charged with looking into the social and economic impacts of the supervised consumption clinics set up by the previous government in response to the opioid crisis.

Lots of people don't like the clinics in their neighbourhoods, understandably enough, but they are known to be effective at saving lives. The UCP wants them gone.

The problem for the government was how to get a committee to reach conclusions that support closing the clinics when the facts show it's a reasonable certainty human beings, people's sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, will die as a result.

The solution -- easy-peasy for the Kenney government -- was to use the dodge it always uses when it strikes an expert panel, or, in this case, an "expert-led," panel, perhaps because there weren't enough experts willing to play along with this charade.

The government simply ordered the panel not to examine questions like whether the clinics reduce harm, have a medical benefit, whether more are needed, if funding is sufficient or whether providing housing for people living in poverty might help.

The panel was mandated only to study the effects of the sites on crime, social order, property values and business. Given that, the clinics came up short, and the Kenney government now has what it needs to shut some or all of them down.

In a news release, Jason Luan, junior minister of mental health and addictions, called the report a "wake up call for Albertans." He told a Calgary news conference, "I'm deeply troubled with some of the findings of the report."

Doug Schewitzer, Alberta's justice minister, said "crime grows in areas where illegal drug use is on the rise" -- pay no attention to the fact the Edmonton Police Service says it's noticed no increase in crime or disorder at any of the city's four clinics. "We'll continue to ensure law enforcement and the justice system have the tools and resources to protect community safety," he vowed.

So you can see which way the wind is blowing.

Even this seems not to have been enough for committee vice-chair Geri Bemister-Williams, a "human behavioural scientist, post-secondary instructor" and "interventionist," according to her potted biography on the Alberta government's website, who got into a testy exchange with reporters asking questions she didn't want to answer.

She appeared to accuse frontline medical professionals who staff the clinics of lying about their success rates. "In many cases, 'adverse events' -- even if non-life threatening or minor -- are reported as overdoses, and the term 'reversal' is used when the response was a simple administration of oxygen."

Unlike UCP politicians and the experts that staff their panels, however, medical staff are mostly members of regulated professions who would risk their ability to practise if they engaged in such antics, so they are highly unlikely to do so.

The nasty tone was set earlier, when UCP political staff took to calling the clinics "NDP drug sites" on social media, and Kenney himself waded in, anticipating the report, declaring the clinics to be "just illegal drug sites."

So never mind the facts, people. It is all but certain the UCP will close some or all of the clinics. People will die as a result and there's not much that can be done about it.

Perhaps the government will offer treatment options that may not save lives, but which can be provided by private contractors.

Meanwhile, not long after the committee's newser, Alberta's chief medical officer of health confirmed at another news conference the province has now recorded its first presumed case of the COVID-19 coronavirus illness.

Dr. Deena Hinshaw said that a woman in her 50s is recovering at home somewhere in Alberta Health Service's Calgary zone. "The affected individual had recently returned from travel on board a Grand Princess cruise ship in California," a government news release stated.

There will likely be more cases, of course, because other passengers from the same ship have also returned to Alberta. AHS, presumably, would very much like them to spend the next couple of weeks indoors at home.

"We take this extremely seriously, and are doing all we can to minimize risk and to keep Albertans safe," Hinshaw said in the news release. "While some may be concerned, I remind Albertans that the risk is still low in our province. We are already taking the necessary precautions to prevent the infection from spreading."

"Alberta's health-care system is ready and already taking swift action," Health Minister Tyler Shandro added in the same document. "Measures to protect both the public and front-line health-care workers have been in place for weeks."

You can find this more or less reassuring, as you wish, in light of the government's willingness to choose aspiration over analysis in the matter of how best to deal with the opioid crisis, which killed 746 Albertans in 2018.

Plus, there's this: One hour and nine minutes before Hinshaw's news conference commenced, CTV reported, a group representing 1,600 Edmonton physicians accused the government of "lack of readiness" for a COVID-19 outbreak and "putting Albertans at risk."

Dr. Don Wilson of the Edmonton Zone Medical Staff Association said in a press release that "we're being forced into the front line without being engaged in the process."

"They're not helping us get the equipment we need to provide the care we need to provide to our patients," he said. "We need masks too. We need face shields, we need eye protection, and hand protection. And it has suddenly become extremely difficult to get this for ourselves and for our staff."

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 his blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: Government of Alberta

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