Ontario needs to take the lessons of the Alberta catastrophe seriously

OPINION: Premier Jason Kenney has managed to blunder into a new COVID-19 wave more serious than any his province has faced before. We have to learn from that if we’re going to get out of this
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Sep 17, 2021
Ontario premier Doug Ford (right) with Alberta premier Jason Kenney in Toronto on May 3, 2019. (Chris Young/CP)

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Things are bad in Alberta right now, and even Premier Jason Kenney has been forced by events to acknowledge that the status quo wasn’t working. On Wednesday evening, he held a press conference to announce that Alberta would be implementing a mandatory vaccine-passport system and new public-health measures to help control the spread of COVID-19. As of Thursday morning, Alberta went from being one of the least-restricted provinces in Canada to being substantially more restricted than Ontario is right now. Because, and we seem to keep needing to re-learn this lesson, that’s what happens when you let COVID-19 spread uncontrolled.

This is already having implications for national politics — how could it not, given that Alberta will likely need imminent assistance from both the federal government and other provinces to maintain basic hospital services? — and the Liberals have already pounced, linking Conservative leader Erin O’Toole to Kenney’s failed pandemic approach. It’s not like O’Toole made them work hard to do it, though: he’s explicitly praised Kenney’s approach andis now struggling to distance himself both from his fellow conservative and his own past statements. One of the more amusing parts of politics-watching is watching politicians let their mouths place bets and then seeing whether they pay out.

A man filming in The Agenda studio

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But if there’s any value to federalism at all in Canada (sometimes it’s hard to tell!), it’s that provinces can learn from one other’s successes and failures, meaning we can maybe end up with better governance overall. And while the immediate impulse should be to do whatever possible to minimize the preventable loss of life from the mistakes of Kenney and his cabinet, we don’t have the luxury to do only one thing at a time. We need to see clearly what went wrong so that we don’t risk the same failures elsewhere.

Perhaps the most basic fact of COVID-19 that Alberta proves (as have other jurisdictions, such as Florida and Texas) is that, while the vaccines available to us are extremely effective at keeping people out of the hospital, Delta is even better at finding the unvaccinated and putting them in the hospital — and absent at least some public-health controls, it will do so with terrifying speed.

There are two corollaries to this. The first is obvious but needs to be said: get vaccinated as soon as possible, please. If everyone who is medically able to get vaccinated right now had already done so, the likelihood of an outbreak overwhelming our hospital system would be close to zero, even if we hadn’t achieved true herd immunity. As a parent of a child under 12, I have real worries about what COVID-19 will do among the vaccine-ineligible, but it’s a fact that the risks of serious illness or death are simply not comparable between the under-12s and the over-50s. And, at any rate, if everyone 12 and older were vaccinated, our younger kids would be in a vastly safer position anyway.

It's incredibly frustrating that people want to derail this debate with arguments about whether the vaccines eliminate transmission or asymptomatic infection. While those are scientifically important assessments, they’re irrelevant from a public-policy standpoint: the vaccines do a spectacular job of keeping you out of an ICU bed. Get vaccinated.

The second corollary is that if a government’s only trigger for public-health measures is going to be the total loss of intensive-care capacity, well, Delta is happy to oblige if you give it enough time. It’s true that Canadian provinces, including Ontario, have under-invested in hospital capacity relative to some high-income countries, and that’s something we need to fix. But that’s a red herring in the current context. There’s no number of ICU beds we could plausibly build and staff that the current variant couldn’t fill with the unvaccinated, if we let it.

That about sums it up: we will be vulnerable to nasty outbreaks until we get a much larger fraction of the public vaccinated (especially those over 50). Until we do that, we’re going to need at least some continuing level of public-health measures. Even if the human consequences weren’t enough, provincial governments can’t bear the political consequences of having their hospital systems pushed to the brink of collapse. Impatient to have more liberties after 18 months of all this? Me, too. Get vaccinated, or help someone else get vaccinated.

But because there’s only one exit from all this — pushing vaccinations as high as we possibly can, as quickly as we can — it’s frustrating that it’s taken so long for governments across the country to adopt something as moderately inconvenient as vaccine passports. Even with the announcement of a vaccine passport in Ontario (and the small bump in new vaccinations that followed), it will still take us well into the fall to get 90 per cent of people with both doses. And the government doesn’t seem to feel any urgency in speeding up that milestone. Which is crazy. There are no other alternatives. There’s no secret password that will end all this. So the only thing we can do is race to the one and only finish line we have, as quickly as we can.

I just wish for Alberta’s sake that we’d all learned this lesson sooner.

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