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Little change in Alberta's inconsistent, indecisive, confusing and unsuccessful approach to COVID-19

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Alberta Premier Jason Kenney at yesterday's COVID-19 news conference. Image credit: Winston Pon/Office of the Premier, Alberta Newsroom/Flickr

If there was an obvious takeaway yesterday afternoon from Premier Jason Kenney's announcement Alberta is reimposing "targeted regional measures to bend the curve," it was that his government's inconsistent, indecisive and confusing approach to COVID-19 will continue.

With the third wave of the pandemic smashing Alberta infection records yesterday and leaving the province embarrassingly exposed as the biggest public health failure in Canada, Premier Kenney didn't have much choice but appear to be doing something.

A frightening 2,048 new cases were reported by Chief Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw, speaking to the virtual news conference from home. It is the highest total since the start of the pandemic more than a year ago. Active cases soared to 21,385, compared with the previous record of 20,967 during the second wave last December.

But there was nothing in the premier's message to suggest any change in the United Conservative Party government's constant flip-flopping from inadequate COVID-mitigation measures, inadequately enforced, to hurried re-openings after which infection rates spike again.

On the contrary, with Kenney's unwillingness to admit he was wrong, even about statements made only 24 hours earlier, and his repetition of old themes heard throughout the pandemic, it seems likely we'll be rushing to re-open again in two weeks, with the same unhappy results.

And if Albertans won't co-operate? Kenney threatens curfews. Remember "just knock it off" or something bad will happen? This is the same old, same old, and unlikely to lead to more aggressive enforcement.

Ended, by the sound of it, waiters will still be relied upon to enforce the rules in restaurants, and the UCP's COVID caucus will operate unimpeded as before.

Targeted regional measures?

As for those "targeted regional measures," this is a misleading characterization.

"Targeted regional exceptions" would be a more accurate term.

According to the government's news release, "targeted restrictions will apply to municipalities or regions where there are at least 350 cases per 100,000 people and 250 currently active cases." They will apply to Fort McMurray, the City of Grande Prairie, the City of Edmonton, Strathcona County (which includes the world's largest hamlet, the city-sized community of Sherwood Park to Edmonton's east), the City of Red Deer, the City of Airdrie, the City of Calgary, and the City of Lethbridge.

The combined population of these communities is a little under three million. The population of the entire province is 4.4 million.

So while the measures are presented as an effort to target communities with more serious COVID rates, the intention seems more likely to target rural and suburban communities with strong UCP support to spare them from unpopular restrictions on business and other activities.

St. Albert, Spruce Grove and Stony Plain -- all city-sized bedroom communities included in the Edmonton metropolitan area -- are not affected by the new restrictions. The same seems to be the case with Cochrane west of Calgary. Many seriously ill people in these communities are taken to hospital in the adjacent cities.

Schools in those places will presumably remain open. Will kids from Edmonton who attend school in St. Albert be allowed to attend? It's not yet clear. Activities banned a few blocks away will be legal.

To say the least this is illogical and confusing. The plan cannot be described as well-thought out. Most likely it was sketched out on an envelope hours before.

Premier Kenney: as constant as the northern star

Kenney's response to tough questions from Dean Bennett of the Canadian Press was illustrative of the premier's modus operandi.

"In the last week, on Monday, you said you resisted restrictions, existing ones are fine, we just have to follow them," the reporter said. "If we put in new ones, they probably wouldn't follow them anyway," he continued, paraphrasing the premier's earlier remarks. "Wednesday you went even further … Now, 24 hours later, we've gone completely 180. Now we need these restrictions. Heck, we'll even do curfews if we need them! … I'm sorry, Premier, I don't understand where you stand."

"What I've always said is that I'm open to bringing in additional targeted measures if we deem them necessary," the premier glibly responded. "I've also been consistent from Day 1 that we view restrictions that can have a real damaging effect on our broader social health as a last and limited resort. I've been clear from Day 1 that Alberta's approach is not indiscriminately to damage people's lives and livelihoods, but rather to seek a balance between the protection of lives to avoid large-scale preventable deaths, to protect our health-care system while minimizing the negative impact of restrictions on our broader society…"

When Bennett reminded the premier about COVID-denying UCP MLAs who are undercutting the official message, the premier accused him of inaccuracy. He insisted the government changed policy because the threat level changes as does the virus itself. (But in 24 hours?)

"I don't accept the kind of premise of your question, which is that policy is only credible if it's frozen, or if it's set in stone," Kenney rolled on in full gaslighting mode. "Our policy will not be governed by a foolish kind of consistency," he told Bennett.

It is worth remembering that Ralph Waldo Emerson, the 19th-century American essayist and philosopher whose words Kenney obviously recalled, had this to say: "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines."

Readers interested in listening to the entire exchange between Bennett and Kenney can find it at about 21.30 on the YouTube video of the news conference.

Finally, what the experts say

"For those who argue for COVID zero and lockdown all the time," Kenney told another reporter, "that is not necessarily the most effective policy."

Let us close this long post with what the Lancet, the famous peer-reviewed transatlantic medical journal founded in Britain in 1823, has to say about that.

"SARS-CoV-2 elimination, not mitigation, creates best outcomes for health, the economy, and civil liberties," says the headline on an article published by the Lancet Wednesday.

After comparing COVID elimination and mitigation measures in the countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the world's major economies, the authors concluded that "there is mounting evidence" the elimination strategy neither threatens civil liberties nor harms economies.

"Evidence suggests that countries that opt for rapid action to eliminate SARS-CoV-2 -- with the strong support of their inhabitants -- also better protect their economies and minimize restrictions on civil liberties compared with those that strive for mitigation."

"Early economic and political gains made by countries aiming to eliminate SARS-CoV-2 will probably pay off in the long run."

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: Winston Pon/Office of the Premier, Alberta Newsroom/Flickr

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