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Pitching national solidarity, Jason Kenney offers medical equipment to Ontario, Quebec and B.C.

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Image: Government of Alberta/Flickr

One hates to play the skunk at a garden party, but somebody needs to ask the question a lot of Albertans must be thinking.

To wit, if less than a week ago we barely had enough N95 medical masks for Alberta's hard-pressed nurses, doctors and other front-line health care workers to work for the next 30 days, was the premier wise to give away three-quarters of a million of them to other provinces on the strength of contracts with manufacturers abroad for more? As we have recently seen, some foreign manufacturers will break their contracts if ordered by their national government.

The wave of COVID-19 infections has not yet peaked in Alberta and front-line health-care workers continue to report shortages and rationing of personal protective equipment throughout the province, yet yesterday our premier was acting as if we've got the coronavirus on the run.

So, is this a generous Easter gift based on Alberta's good fortune and the massive purchasing power of Alberta Health Services, our single province-wide health authority, or is it a roll of the dice to score political points against Kenney's Liberal rivals in Ottawa and pipeline-questioning politicians in other provinces using Albertan lives as stakes?

Using boxes of medical supplies in an Alberta Health Services warehouse as a stagey backdrop for Saturday's daily COVID-19 briefing, Premier Kenney and Health Minister Tyler Shandro naturally framed the government's unexpected action as if anyone who questions their timing is a bad person who doesn't believe in sharing with other Canadians.

But the question remains a fair one in light of what senior AHS officials and UCP politicians were saying days ago, reports from front-line workers in the field, and the fact the premier included in his pitch what sounded like a quid pro quo in the form of a national support for Alberta's fossil fuel industry.

Saturday's briefing was almost entirely concerned with Alberta's donations of 250,000 N95 respirators, plus surgical masks, gowns, disposable gloves, and 50 ventilators to Ontario, 250,000 N95s and some other supplies to Quebec, and 250,000 N95s to British Columbia. That may explain why there were no physicians there. Kenney did most of the talking, with Shandro and AHS procurement head Jitendra Prasad singing backup.

All the participants in the news conference made the point that having a single province-wide health authority gives Alberta reach and purchasing power that other provinces do not have. "It's one of the benefits of having a provincial, coordinated health care system," Shandro said.

Kenney boasted that Alberta has "really harnessed the enormous purchasing power of the one centralized administration of health care in Alberta. We are the largest single point of purchasing of health care equipment in Canada, and we rank on a global scale in terms of our purchasing power."

This is unquestionably true, but it will probably come as a shock that Kenney is saying this to Wildrose party supporters who dreamed the premier would someday break up AHS, as their former party's policy proposed.

It also raises an interesting question: If Kenney recognizes the advantages of centralized purchasing power when it comes to medical supplies, why does he want Alberta to be able to opt out of a national pharmacare program?

Regardless, Kenney and Shandro insisted they are confident there are adequate supplies on hand -- indeed, Kenney indicated he started contemplating such donations 10 days ago.

"I assure Albertans that we will have ample supply," Shandro said. "We are in a position both to keep Albertans safe and to help ensure that Canadian health care systems from coast to coast to coast are equipped to take on the challenges ahead."

Said Kenney: "We are absolutely confident that these contributions will in no way undermine our capacity to provide critical protective equipment and ventilators to Alberta's medical professionals, to other associated front line workers, and to care for those in need of it. We would not contribute if it would in any way impaired our ability to provide for our own health care needs."

Nevertheless, the premier pitched the donation as the right thing to do, citing with characteristic piety the biblical Golden Rule and including a seasonal shout-out to all the major monotheistic religions.

"We are all in this together," Kenney said. "And let me refer back to how I began, by talking about the Golden Rule: 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you' …"

"I, for one, as an Albertan, and as a Canadian, could not in conscience, watch us stockpile massive amounts of surplus equipment while we see many of our fellow Canadians in some provinces within days of running out of some of these supplies," he said.

Just the same, Kenney also made a point of noting "the uniquely deep economic adversity that Alberta is facing, not only because of the coronavirus recession, but also because of the meltdown in energy prices and the way that it will inflict even greater economic adversity on our province after five years of economic challenges."

In response to a softball question from a reporter, he added: "I obviously hope that our fellow Canadians will recognize in this contribution the generous role that Albertans have always played across the country.

"This is one practical expression of that at a time of need, but we Albertans contribute $20 billion more to the rest of Canada than we get back in benefits every year," he continued, tendentiously. "That helps to fund their hospital systems, their health-care systems, their schools and social services.

"So I hope that one of the lessons to be learned from this crisis is that we are all in this together. I hope there will be a renewed sense of national solidarity.

"And I think part of that should mean that we're all in this together not only when it comes to a health emergency, but also when it comes to generating wealth through the responsible development of resources so that we can have the money that pays for world class health care to get us through times like this."

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/Flickr

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