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Jason Kenney rolls the dice on COVID-19

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Alberta Premier Jason Kenney at yesterday's pandemic-reopening news conference. Image credit: Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta via Alberta Newsroom/Flickr

Only pure political calculation can be driving Alberta Premier Jason Kenney's COVID-19 re-opening strategy now.

Science? Prudence? Caution? Second vaccine doses? Forget about 'em.

We're going to have the best little ol' summer you can imagine even if it kills us. And it just might.

Premier Kenney and his two sidekicks at yesterday morning's news conference on the United Conservative Party government's wide-open-by-July pandemic reopening plan -- Health Minister Tyler Shandro and Jobs, Economy and Innovation Minister Doug Schweitzer -- were grinning so much and talking so fast they looked like a trio of carnival barkers.

They sounded about as trustworthy.

Chief Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw wisely took the day off. Surely this can't have been what she advised them to do.

Because Kenney, who has already gambled and lost big several times in the UCP's two years in power, is about to do it again. And this is no billion-dollar bet on who wins the next U.S. presidential election. That was only money. This time he's betting on our lives.

"This is a great day that we have all waited for, for a long time," Kenney enthusiastically opened the news conference, exhibiting the kind of smug grin commonly known by a crude colloquialism. We're finally, he enthused, "going to get our lives back to normal just in time for summer!"

Indeed, the Kenney government's hurried "Open For Summer Plan" will see all restrictions lifted by the end of July, far ahead of other provinces, and jump to the next step every two weeks, instead of waiting at least three as elsewhere. The opening phase also will be triggered by lower vaccination rates than in other provinces -- 50 per cent, instead of the more cautious 60 to 70 per cent.

Never mind, says Kenney, "the diligence and sacrifice of Albertans hasn't just stopped the spike, but crushed it." Needless to say, this is a conclusion bound to be viewed skeptically in medical circles.

"With the leading indicators coming down, with vaccine protection coming up, and with the tailwind of summer weather and favourable seasonal conditions, we can confidently expect to see the pressure on our hospitals continue to come down," the premier burbled on, talking fast.

(Shandro was talking so fast, indeed, that at times you could hardly understand what he was saying. "Premier, if I can supplement that," came out of the health minister's mouth sounding like, "Premier, [email protected]¢#in' supplement that ...")

"Today, we are truly near the end of this thing," Kenney continued.

"We're leaving the darkest days of this pandemic behind and stepping into the warm light of summer. … Backyard barbecues, dream weddings, family reunions, concerts, festivals, birthday parties, dinner gatherings and, yes, the Calgary Stampede will be back on!"

"I think it means the best Alberta summer ever!"

There's plenty more of this, but I think that's enough for readers to get the idea.

Alberta may be "crushing it," as Kenney also said, on first vaccinations. But what about those second doses, required for full immunity? It seemed as if the three amigos would rather talk about anything else. At any rate, three efforts by reporters on the line for the news conference failed to elicit a meaningful answer.

Opposition Leader Rachel Notley's response was understandably less enthusiastic. "I know many people are looking forward to a time without restrictions, without masks, and without the stresses of the pandemic weighing on all of us," she said in a news release. "I am one of those people.

"But I am concerned about the pace of this re-opening plan, given that we had the highest rate of infection of anywhere in Canada or the U.S. earlier this very month. I have questions about how the premier decided on this pace, and whether it was informed by science, or simply by working backwards from the first day of the Calgary Stampede."

Kenney doesn't exactly have a great track record, she observed. He's "downplayed the risk of COVID, he has ignored warnings, he failed to act for weeks on end when the danger was obvious, and he failed to enforce the rules until the violations became international news."

"I hope that this plan does not continue Jason Kenney's pattern of failure to responsibly manage Alberta's pandemic response," she concluded.

Of course, no one can know for certain what the premier and his brain trust are thinking. They're certainly not going to tell Albertans. So there's plenty of speculation, more or less informed, on social media and in what used to be known as the press.

Even the Calgary Herald's Don Braid, who has been observing Alberta politics about as long as anyone in this province, implied the premier's "whiplash ride to ditching all COVID-19 measures sooner than any other province is willing to risk" is intended to reboot the UCP's flat-lined popularity.

It's said here it's actually worse than that. It's not just that the UCP's chances of winning a second term will be "pretty well embalmed" if Alberta suffers a fourth wave because of this heedless rush into a wide-open Texas-style re-opening. It's that Kenney knows they're just about dead on arrival now.

In other words, he's concluded -- quite possibly correctly -- that the only thing that can save him is if he can declare total victory by mid-summer and spend the rest of his mandate rewriting the history of Alberta's difficult pandemic months. This could be followed by an early election call, the province's fixed-election-period law be damned.

Look at it this way: if this irresponsibly quick re-opening has only a 25 per cent chance of working, those may still be better odds than if his government does this right with the safety of Albertans in mind.

So what we heard yesterday isn't really a plan, it's a sales pitch.

It depends on good luck, not good management, to work.

But then, Kenney seems like the kind of guy who mumbles "fortune favours the brave" every time he rolls the dice.

Sometimes fortune does favour the bold. More often it doesn't. It's just that foolhardiness looks better in the rear-view mirror because the fools who fail are usually soon forgotten.

Brace yourselves, Alberta.

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: Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta via Alberta Newsroom/Flickr

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