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Your gut's probably right -- it's too soon to declare COVID-19 vanquished

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Alberta Premier Jason Kenney at Thursday's COVID-19 briefing. Image: Screenshot of Government of Alberta video

At least Alberta Premier Jason Kenney didn't have a "Mission Accomplished" banner hanging behind him.

But then, being landlocked and all that, Alberta doesn't own an aircraft carrier, even if it now owns a hunk of a U.S. pipeline. Plus, Kenney wouldn't look all that good in a flight suit.

Still, like president George W. Bush 17 years ago today announcing total victory in the U.S. invasion of Iraq 42 days earlier -- with benefit of hindsight we all know that didn't turn out very well -- Kenney's jaunty declaration he would start immediately to "relaunch" Alberta's economy smacks of overconfidence.

Hubris might be the wrong term, of course. Is it still hubris if someone else has to pay for your prideful overconfidence that now is the time to roll back the social controls that have been key to success so far in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic?

Let's just hope the rest of this war against COVID-19 goes better than the rest of Bush's so-called global war on terror did! Remember, at the time of president Bush's "Mission Accomplished" speech, U.S. casualties in Iraq stood at 139 killed and 542 wounded.

According to Premier Kenney, returning to business as usual will be a three-stage process, starting in two weeks on May 14.

In reality, though, it starts immediately with the reopening of golf courses, supposedly with no access to the 19th hole and appropriate social controls elsewhere on the links, and provincial parks less their soon-to-be-privatized campgrounds, subject to a similar hard-to-guarantee caveat. Resumption of elective surgeries in hospitals and permission to hold religious services including funerals will come in the next few days.

No doubt the yahoos from End the Lockdown Alberta who protested against the restrictions necessary to slow the spread of COVID-19 at the Alberta legislature in Edmonton the day before yesterday will pat themselves on the back and give themselves credit for the timing of Kenney's announcement.

Come to think of it, they just might be right. They are, after all, the United Conservative Party's base, and in a party like the UCP, when the base ain't happy ain't nobody happy!

More likely, though, it was driven by political considerations of a slightly different sort -- the inflexible electoral calendar that dictates the most unpopular part of Kenney's radical economic restructuring agenda must be completed in the next year, or year and a half at most, to give time for the illusion of improvement necessary for re-election.

As people keep pointing out, the middle of a global pandemic is a crazy time to be fighting a war with your province's physicians. So how are Kenney and Health Minister Tyler Shandro going to win their Mother of All Political Battles with Alberta's docs if voters keep thinking the pandemic isn't over?

And as others have observed, Kenney's little instructional seminar yesterday -- which occupied the bulk of the daily COVID-19 briefing -- sure sounded like a campaign speech.

So will it work? Can it work?

Well, as a physician of my acquaintance says -- it might, as the premier put it, "as long as the numbers hold."

But Kenney's optimism notwithstanding, the numbers aren't actually all that good right now.

Alberta is now the only province in which the curve of daily COVID-19 cases is still rising. That may be the result of aggressive testing. But it more likely it's connected to the major coronavirus outbreaks in the slaughterhouse towns of High River and Brooks, where this government's unwillingness to stand up to the powerful meatpacking multinationals and homegrown cattlemen is at the root of the problem.

Alberta's rate at which COVID-19 cases are increasing is now six per cent, more than double that of the rest of Canada.

With the main part of Kenney's official first phase set to begin in only two weeks, with restaurants, daycares, hair salons and other retail businesses allowed to reopen -- supposedly with appropriate controls in place, although they are bound to be hard to enforce -- this could mean the second wave of infection will be worse than the first if the public grows complacent.

Even worse, the first wave may not have crested yet, with a second wave still to come in the fall.

Up to now, the gravity of public concern and Albertans' respect for scientific expertise has allowed us to flatten the curve, as the doctors say.

But every day, if you've been paying attention to the government's daily COVID-19 briefing, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw has been pushed further to the side and now to the back by Kenney and other UCP politicians.

This doesn't bode well for Alberta doing what's necessary to keep the pandemic at bay, especially if it threatens to derail the UCP's political program.

This government's intention is to get us back to "business as usual" as soon as possible.

The pandemic has taught us some powerful lessons about the usual way we do business. Is business as usual where we really want to go?

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: Screenshot of Government of Alberta video

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