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Here's why vaccine passports are coming to Alberta

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Kenney visits an ICU in July. Image: Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta/Flickr

Vaccine passports are coming to Alberta.

Not just yet, but they'll be along soon enough.

Not because they make sense. Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley laid out that case pretty clearly yesterday: during a pandemic like the fourth wave of COVID-19 now battering our province, they can protect people, hospitals and the provincial economy.

"By providing Albertans with easy and secure access to their immunization records while establishing a verification standard for public settings, Albertans who are vaccinated can protect their neighbours and continue to do the things they love to do," Notley explained.

Obviously, though, Jason Kenney's government is pretty much impervious to that kind of reasoning. Even if they weren't, the fact the NDP said it would make it pretty hard for them to adopt.

By now so many members of cabinet and the United Conservative Party caucus have said so many times that Alberta will never adopt vaccine passports -- because freedom! -- that it would be pretty painful for them to walk it back.

Freedom, in this case, means freedom for anti-vaxxers, COVID deniers and great big grown-up men who are afraid of little tiny needles -- and are willing to make their neighbours sick, and kill some of them, to have their way now that they've made defying common sense public health measures into a new front in the culture wars.

Certainly not freedom for the vast majority of Albertans who would actually like to get this pandemic behind us without killing a whole bunch of our friends, relatives and neighbours.

And not, as Notley argued, because other provinces are all going to adopt it, meaning only fully-vaccinated Albertans will have difficulty travelling to other parts of Canada, let alone abroad. In fact, one suspects the UCP would rather like the idea of making the rest of us stay at home with their anti-vaxx, anti-mask, anti-science base.

None of that. The reason is because if the Kenney government can't put the pandemic behind us, it represents an existential threat. Not to Alberta, of course -- although certainly to some Albertans. But to the United Conservative Party -- as a government, and quite possibly as an entity.

Whether they like it or not, vaccine certification and the discipline it imposes on a vaccine-skeptical population is a key tool in suppressing this difficult and highly infectious disease. Ontario said yesterday that vaccination appointments doubled as soon as it announced it would be bringing in vaccine passports later this month for restaurants, theatres and gyms.

If Kenney and his cabinet cohorts stick to their guns and ensure we never are allowed to have access to one of the tools that will make our lives easier while it helps reduce the threat of COVID-19, it is going to end in tears, for them.

Here's why:

Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an infectious diseases specialist in the Medicine Faculty at the University of Alberta, did some back-of-the-envelope calculations on Twitter about the rate at which the virus is now spreading in Alberta and the implications of that.

Now, I'm not an infectious disease expert, but I am going to assume she knows what she's talking about, even if her forecasts turn out to be imperfect in the event the UCP sticks to the plan described by caucus chair Nathan Neudorf the other day. To wit, to allow basically everyone who still isn't vaccinated to be infected and thereby achieve herd immunity.

Here's the money quote from Saxinger: "How long before COVID 'runs out' of victims here? Quick n very dirty math perhaps [two] years [eight] months at our current ball park 1000 cases daily. (During which the health care system would be incapacitated and little non COVID care would be viable.)"

Meanwhile, despite the pandemic, the political clock continues to run in Alberta.

Technically, an election needs to take place between March 1 and May 31, 2023 -- although Premier Kenney could call it sooner if he saw an opportunity to defeat the opposition, which now leads in the polls. The latest an election can be held under the rules of the Canadian Constitution is April 2024.

Since according to Saxinger's quick-and-dirty arithmetic, the pandemic could still be continuing in this province until the spring of 2024, that leaves the UCP no time between now and then it can declare the pandemic over and then call an election.

If the pandemic is still in progress when the election is called, most observers would agree the UCP is done for, and Kenney will probably go down in history as the worst Canadian premier ever.

Saxinger and others like her could be wrong about the timing, they could be wrong about the future infectiousness of COVID-19, or they could be wrong about everything. But can the UCP afford to take the chance?

Even Rick Bell, the premier's favourite political columnist, basically agrees with this analysis.

"A lockdown would finish off the Kenney government," the Postmedia political commentator wrote yesterday. "They know that and they say they aren't going there. They've also (said) no to a provincial government vaccine passport, where the fully vaccinated would be allowed in places where those not fully vaccinated would not be allowed. But who knows?"

It must have pained Bell to write that. And upset Kenney. I admire Bell's fortitude. But he's basically right.

Which is why the UCP will bring in a vaccine passport eventually -- although they won't call it that.

They'll also have to bring back tougher measures -- more masking, more restrictions. So much for "open for good." Kenney will insist it's not a lockdown, and he'll likely be right. When it comes to public health, the man's the master of half measures.

Either that or he won't. If they bet experts like Saxinger are wrong, and it turns out they're not, history will say the UCP burned up on re-entry.

There were 1,399 new COVID-19 cases reported in Alberta yesterday, bringing the active case total to 12,868 -- the highest number in both categories in Canada. The positivity rate was 10.8 per cent.

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: Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta/Flickr

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