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In the name of the economy, Jason Kenney could push Alberta into another wave of COVID-19

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Jason Kenney in the 2010 Calgary Stampede Parade, back when he was Member of Parliament for Calgary Midnapore. Image credit: 5of7/Flickr

Will the Kenney government lose interest in its vaccination campaign the instant Premier Jason Kenney meets his arbitrary vaccination threshold for allowing the Calgary Stampede to open?

If past behaviour is a guide, this seems quite possible.

Once Alberta has hit a first-dose vaccination rate of 70 per cent -- we were at 67.8 per cent on Friday, so that may be declared to have happened today -- in two weeks we will move to stage three of the government's re-opening plan.

At that point, all restrictions will be lifted, including the ban on indoor gatherings. Business will be wide open.

Thereupon, we can expect to see the two things happen in short order:

  1. Kenney will declare COVID-19 vanquished. (Naturally, he will take credit for the vaccines that have been flooding into the province, thanks to the federal government. Likewise, he will make no mention of the repeated claims by his and other Conservative governments that Ottawa's vaccine procurement effort was a failure, now that it obviously isn't.)
  2. He will declare the Stampede open and the summer of 2021 the best Alberta summer ever.

Unfortunately, a third thing may happen too: The Delta variant of the coronavirus will continue to spread, infecting many who have received only one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and a few who have gotten both.

In other words, the moment when Alberta's United Conservative government is most likely to lose interest in its vaccination campaign is precisely the one when the drive to ensure maximum full vaccination will be most important if we are to put this disaster behind us.

This is a moment when the instincts of the Kenney government and other provincial governments that share its neoliberal ideology become a problem.

Lately, presumably contemplating the prospect of another summer without a great Conservative bean-feast at the Stampede, Kenney has pushed the idea that a 70-per-cent first-dose rate will be the silver bullet that slays COVID-19 and ends his political problems.

We don't actually know how much of the population needs to be immunized against COVID-19 to safely reopen. It is very likely higher than 70 per cent of the population, even if fully vaccinated.

"The proportion of the population that must be vaccinated against COVID-19 to begin inducing herd immunity is not known," said the World Health Organization in 2020, noting it is 95 per cent for measles, and about 80 per cent for polio.

Alberta, where vaccine skepticism has been actively encouraged by many in Kenney's government, is unlikely to achieve anything like herd immunity.

As a result, if the Delta variant continues to spread, some restriction on behaviour will still be required, and this presents both a political problem and an ideological one for Kenney and the UCP.

The political problem is that as much as possible, it is necessary for his government to be able to claim the pandemic is unequivocally over, and, somehow, that the UCP can take some of the credit.

The ideological problem is that neoliberal governments like Kenney's privilege economic liberty over any other kind of freedom, including democratic rights. And economic freedom requires minimal restrictions on behaviour that might get in the way of spending money, no matter how dangerous.

This is at the heart of the argument for holding a Stampede this summer, come what may.

If the Kenney government were doing this right, the sensible precaution would be to delay the reopening by a few more weeks, as the U.K. government did today, until more than 70 per cent of the population could be fully vaccinated.

We all know that isn't going to happen.

The next most sensible thing would be to require a vaccine passport like the "digital green certificate" now in the process of being adopted by the European Union.

The UCP can also be counted on to oppose that idea on ideological grounds.

Ending all restrictions with insufficient levels of immunity -- which is exactly what the UCP is proposing to do in the next few days -- puts all of us who have been abiding by the rules in a difficult and dangerous position.

As columnist Will Hutton wrote in the Guardian yesterday, right now "risks are being collectively, socially managed."

"But when lockdown is over and the virus is still circulating, even though 70 per cent to 80 per cent of us may be fully vaccinated, I no longer have that assurance," he wrote.

"The man without a mask coughing on the train or restaurant table next to me? Even if I am fully vaccinated, I run a risk and for many people that will be a risk too far. Recovery will be inhibited, not advanced."

Canadians require this level of assurance too, as does the Canadian economy. So, whether or not health care is a provincial responsibility, Ottawa is going to have to try to find a way to implement a vaccine certificate.

Otherwise, Kenney and the UCP could do what they have done repeatedly: push us back into another wave of COVID-19, with severe economic consequences, in the name of reopening the economy.

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: 5of7/Flickr

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