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Is the huge gap in COVID-19 cases between Edmonton and Calgary bad luck or bad management?

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Alberta Premier Jason Kenney provides an update from Edmonton on Thursday, April 30, 2020, on COVID-19. Image: Alberta Newsroom/Flickr

So far, Alberta's response to the coronavirus pandemic has been a tale of two cities.

It may not have been quite the best of times, the worst of times, but Edmonton's certainly done well and Calgary's not done so well at all. That state of affairs extends into the larger regions around Alberta's two principal cities.

But how do we explain the huge gap between Edmonton's 502 COVID-19 cases and 12 deaths, compared with Calgary's 3,957 cases and 72 deaths?

The proximate cause, it's pretty clear, is the disaster at the Cargill Inc. meatpacking plant in the historic town of High River, 60 kilometres south of Calgary. There, 936 workers at the plant had tested positive for the virus by yesterday, as the slaughterhouse was reopening. One of them, 67-year-old Bui Thi Hiep, has died.

As a result, however, there has been much wider spread of the disease in High River itself and in Calgary, whence many of the workers commute. Indeed, the Cargill plant is the epicentre of the largest COVID-19 outbreak in Canada, possibly North America.

The second largest Canadian outbreak is at the JBS S.A. meat-packing plant in Brooks, in southeastern Alberta.

"The two plants alone have more cases than the provinces of Saskatchewan, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador combined," The Globe and Mail reported on Sunday in a major story well worth reading but which, alas, remains behind the newspaper's paywall.

This is not merely a case of bad luck, though, as the province's United Conservative Party would prefer us to believe, but one of bad management.

It has long been widely understood that meat-packing plants, especially large corporate-owned slaughterhouses that operate at a fast pace with their eye unrelentingly on the bottom line, are, like cruise ships, Petri dishes for infectious disease.

If anyone seriously doubted this, the coronavirus pandemic has provided a cruel teaching moment.

The phenomenon is obvious throughout North America. Two weeks ago, USA Today reported COVID-19 outbreaks at 48 meat-packing plants in the United States. The Smithfield Foods Inc. pork plant in South Dakota is the epicentre of the largest outbreak in the U.S. Poultry plants in both countries are experiencing outbreaks.

The author of an opinion piece in The Hill, the online Washington political newspaper, was hardly delivering a major scoop when he wrote that "slaughterhouses are clearly a weak link in the food system and pose serious threats to our health, especially during a pandemic."

The conduct of large meat-packing corporations -- not supplying personal protective equipment, close-quarters working conditions, resisting change that would slow the pace of production, relying on vulnerable, low-paid workforces and encouraging employees to work sick -- is clearly a factor in the spread of COVID-19. By most accounts, this has been part of the problem in High River. Managers got masks, "but the workers got nothing," one worker said.

The health professionals at Alberta Health Services could not have been unaware of this. The political leaders of Alberta's UCP government, heavily influenced by the meat-packing and the cattle raising industries, knew it too. Agriculture Minister Devin Dreeshen certainly knew when he assured workers it was safe to return to work.

That the UCP put so much effort into keeping the plants open when it became obvious they should be closed may be a disgrace, but it's hardly a surprise. Nor is it a shock that Alberta's departments of labour and health both contributed to the effort to keep the plants in operation. Alberta Labour even permitted an inspector to assess plant safety via FaceTime with a Cargill manager holding the smartphone at the other end!

But surely it's a stain on the leadership of Alberta Health Services that they contributed to the effort to persuade workers that the plant was safe.

"We want to see this industry operate, we want to see the ranchers prosper, I want to eat beef, workers want to work safely," Tom Hesse, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401, which is trying to get a stop-work order at the plant, told a reporter. "That could have happened if health authorities had done their jobs properly and Cargill did the right thing and shut this plant down on April 6 when that first case was found."

I'm sure the professionals at AHS and the labour department gave better advice behind the scenes, but failed to sway the politicians.

In other words, when our health-care professionals have been able to call the shots -- as in the Edmonton region -- we seem to have mostly done OK, or at least not much worse than our neighbouring Western Canadian provinces.

But where our Conservative politicians have a reason to put their oar in, the results are disastrous.

In other words, when it comes to the UCP, its inattention may be a huge advantage!

Unfortunately, regardless of what the professionals advise, the decision about when to "relaunch" Alberta's economy rests in the hands of Conservative politicians anxious to get back to "business as usual" before voters notice how much help we've been getting from Ottawa and how little from our provincial government.

That's why workers at the Cargill plant went back to work yesterday despite their own fears and their union's objections after a quick two-week shutdown by the company, which seems to have considered the optics and made the decision without any encouragement by the government. That's why despite the spread of COVID-19 the Brooks plant has never closed.

And that's why the UCP, just like the Trump administration in the United States, is in an unseemly hurry for Alberta to open for business, never mind the risk of more super-spreader events and another wave of coronavirus infection.

This does not bode well for either Edmonton or Calgary in the next few weeks.

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: Alberta Newsroom/Flickr

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