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Alberta surrenders to COVID with anti-science approach to public health

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Alberta Premier Jason Kenney at yesterday's COVID news conference. Image credit: Alberta Newsroom/Flickr

Did the Great Barrington Declaration just transition into the Great Edmonton Declaration?

Remember that thing? It's the now discredited notion -- with the thinnest veneer of transitory scientific respectability -- that everything would be OK if we just shielded the old folks from COVID-19 and ignored almost everyone else while the coronavirus pandemic ripped around the globe till we all had "herd immunity."

The science deniers and conspiracy theorists who are determined to let COVID-19 run free in Alberta don't speak its name much anymore -- it was pretty well done for once it became clear that such esteemed scientists as Dr. Johnny Fartpants and Professor Notaf Uckingclue were among the 15,000 "scientists" who signed the thing by clicking a button on its website.

It probably didn't help either that the declaration turned out to have been sponsored by a Koch Brothers-funded libertarian "think-tank," up to then better known for denying that climate change is a thing.

Nevertheless, despite being in bad odour nowadays, there was a whiff of Great Barrington in the air of Edmonton yesterday when Premier Jason Kenney got up on his hind legs at a news conference to discuss Alberta's appalling performance controlling COVID-19, the worst in Canada at the moment, and announced his government is about to relax visitor restrictions on long-term care homes in two weeks.

Calling this a "safe and prudent step forward," he explained that more than 83 per cent of Albertans over 75 and nearly all residents of long-term care facilities are vaccinated now, so why worry?

This move certainly smacks of Great Barringtonism. It will also please some operators of private, for-profit long-term-care services worried about how to staff their facilities.

So despite rising numbers of young, still-unvaccinated people in hospital, and seemingly out-of-control variants of concern, there will be no further effort to control the spread. It's all on the vaccines now, as far as Kenney is concerned.

After all, he shrugged in response to a reporter's question, "we did predict that we would probably hit 20,000 active cases this week about three weeks back when we announced those additional measures. And so a lot of what we're seeing now was, in a sense, baked in prior to these measures."

There's nothing fanciful about arguing this Great Barrington nonsense has always appealed to Alberta's premier and his government. Kenney has boasted from the pandemic's get-go that there was no way Alberta was going to try for COVID zero, as Canada's Atlantic provinces have successfully done.

So while the words may not have passed his lips yesterday, his latest plans were clearly influenced by a doctrine Dr. Anthony Fauci, the respected head of the U.S. Coronavirus Task Force, calls "total nonsense."

Just as the premier has from the start of the pandemic, the declaration emphasizes the dangers of mental health and other medical conditions neglected because of the focus on COVID-19, claiming they are a more urgent threat.

And just as the UCP's still-welcome anti-mask, anti-vaxx legislative caucus has, it calls for a swift reopening of schools, universities, offices, commercial establishments, restaurants and mass events such as musical concerts and sports matches. And rodeos. Kenney has promised we'll be having rodeos by this summer, which he said recently will be the best ever.

And how's this actually working out? Not very well, it would seem.

There were 1,495 new cases of COVID-19 reported yesterday. Active cases in Alberta reached 20,610. There are 616 patients in hospital yesterday, 145 of them in ICUs. Seven more Albertans died.

According to figures published by the Government of Canada, the rate of cases in Alberta in the past seven days outpaces the rest of Canada dramatically -- 251 per 100,000 population, compared to 186 in Ontario, the second hardest-hit province, 10 in Nova Scotia and Yukon, three in P.E.I. and Newfoundland.

Not so long ago, when he was still president of the United States, Donald Trump and his minions loved the Great Barrington Declaration. It let them say that what they wanted to do was the right thing to do.

That's a funny thing about science deniers -- they often crave a little scientific respectability.

That's the premise on which Alberta's energy war room was built, isn't it? What better way to sow a little doubt about an inconvenient scientific consensus than to have a skeptical scientist of your own to cast a little shade on things. It's how big tobacco kept us smoking for generations.

Lots of people in Alberta's United Conservative Party felt and feel the same way. Despite Kenney's sharp words on occasion for the most blatant COVID conspiracy theorizers, his repeated actions suggest a man who drinks from the same well.

As a result, we Albertans are now living in a petri dish, an ongoing experiment in how well the Great Barrington Declaration really works.

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.

Image credit: Alberta Newsroom/Flickr

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