December 11 – Alberta in the Time of Covid

By Rebecca Lippiatt, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

Cassandra should be the patron saint of Alberta’s health professionals. While she wasn’t a goddess or a saint, her mythology befits how public health experts are treated in Alberta. Apollo spit into her mouth to curse her with the ability to see the future and to have no one believe her. She predicted the fall of Troy and was disdained. Desperate, she delivered the news that the Greeks were hiding inside the wooden horse that rolled up to the gates of Troy. The Trojans ignored her. This is the fate of every epidemiologist, scientist, nurse, and doctor in Alberta during the time of Covid. 

Pandemics unfold the same way every single time. First, there is confusion as cases grow. Doctors and scientists scramble to uncover the cause and effects. Governments react quickly or don’t react at all. The public, looking for answers, responds to their leadership. With good leadership, they fall in line, and the casualties are minimized. With poor leadership, there is a descent into chaos. Pandemics are predictable, and predictability gives governments the ability to plan. In Alberta, our government has taken the possibility of planning, ripped it into small shreds, and flushed it down the toilet. 

When the pandemic first started, the Alberta public fell in love with our Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Deena Hinshaw. Artists created portraits, transferred to t-shirts, and worn proudly on chests. Sales of the (mostly) locally purchased wardrobe she wore sky-rocketed, helping local designers. Slogans extolling her calm demeanor, clear explanations of the science, and willingness to respond to reporters with “I am not sure. Let me get back to you on that,” reassured the public the newly announced pandemic was in good hands. As schools opened in September, and it was clear science was being cherry-picked from around the world to support the government’s plan, and Dr. Hinshaw did not speak out, the confidence in her started to wane. As the number of cases in schools rose, and there was a loss of control in the contract tracing (positive cases were asked to call their own contacts. Who knows if public spaces like stores were notified at all), and she did not appear to be recommending a lockdown, all confidence was lost.

The Alberta United Conservative Party (UCP) government is akin to a group of junior high boys playing a video game, imagining that if they lose their villagers, they can hit reset, and it will start all over. My son told me the other day that he has a technique in Minecraft, where he rounds up the villagers and keeps them pinned in place with a zombie, and somehow that act allows him to create more iron, which he uses to build more buildings. It feels like we are the same in Alberta. Minions to keep the money rolling in. I think of Grassy Mountain, which the UCP government wants to sell off to an Australian mining company, whereby they can blow off the top of the mountain to mine coal to make steel. UCP MLAs have obviously been directed to share with their constituents how innocuous their plan is. They post photos of reclaimed coal mines on their social media as if to reassure us that their plan to visibly and irrevocably alter a 60-kilometer swath of one of our greatest natural resources – the Rocky Mountains – is all completely normal. 

You don’t really understand how leadership operates until it fails absolutely. Our Premier, Jason Kenney, is like a father who wants to be friends with his wayward teenagers who are in the process of trashing their home in a semi-sanctioned house party. He uses phrases like “come on people, get it together,” and “I am really disappointed in you.” “Please wear a mask,” he begs while the number of COVID cases reaches an exponential growth rate.

Alberta is filled with people who have a rugged “can do” individualistic attitude. We’re convinced we all have bootstraps with which to pull ourselves up by. We don’t realize not only do we not have bootstraps, but we don’t have boots. 

Every day the death count climbs. The ICUs are full. Then double-bunked, then full again. Wings abandoned in the neo-liberal drive to create “efficiencies” in hospitals are reopened and filled with beds. There is no word on how these extra beds will be staffed until finally they tell nurses the number of patients they care for has now doubled. From four in the day to eight. From six in the night to twelve. Nurses appear on social media, their faces lined from wearing a mask all day, looking so terribly weary and defeated, begging their fellow Albertans to please, please, just stay home. Doctors cry in frustration on the evening news because despite training 120 hours a week as residents, their workloads and their losses during this mismanaged pandemic are crushing.

The premier requests two field hospitals from the federal government and two from the Red Cross. He pointedly does not ask for staff to work in these hospitals. Over the past year and a half, into and including the pandemic, the government has fought with the medical personnel who make the health system run. First, nurses are accused of making too much money and somehow making salaries of $100,000 by working part-time. Then, the Health Minister, Tyler Shandro, rips up the physician contract and arbitrarily decreases the amount doctors are paid. For a week early in the pandemic, doctors are not compensated for phone appointments with their patients.

Meanwhile, a national app (owned by one of Canada’s three major telecom providers, Telus) is launched, which allows patients to talk to doctors – only those doctors are outside of Alberta. Unionized hospital workers making $22 to wash sheets are told that their jobs are going to be outsourced to a private company. At one point, the Health Minister leaves his own house and marches down his street to reprimand a doctor who had complained about government actions on Twitter. There, Tyler Shandro, the Minister of Health, a man with one of the most important jobs in the province, screams at the doctor who had been playing basketball with his children in his driveway. 

The term “anti-masker” has joined our lexicon. They march in groups of 300 at government buildings on the weekends, demanding their freedom. No one is quite clear what freedoms they have relinquished because despite the fact stores are supposed to cap their occupancy rate at 25 percent, the mall parking lots are full, and there are no line ups of people waiting outside. A woman on social media becomes hysterical at the sight of Walmart’s clothing racks taped off in Manitoba (which has entered a second lockdown). “Walmart is the only place I can buy my daughter clothes,” she cries. As if her daughter would grow 2 sizes in the space of a month or two and be dressed in shreds of clothing. 

Ten days before “more stringent” measures were enacted, stores were reduced to 25 percent capacity. There is a joke in Alberta “math is hard.” (A conservative politician said this to a female politician an election or two ago. It turned out his numbers were wrong, and hers were right.) Stores find math hard, insisting that 25 percent of capacity is the same as 25 percent off – so are at 75 percent capacity. 

The masses infect each other with their fevered dreams of a dystopian future whereby we are all turned into zombies or riddled with cancer or followed by Bill Gates with nano-trackers from an unknown vaccine (and they post their fears on Facebook). Like the vast majority of vaccines, I am sure it will be fine, but we hear the whispers of the conspiracy theorists in our ears, and we wonder if we will all be eating Soylent Green in 10 years’ time. Instead of reassuring the public of the safety of the vaccine, the premier begins his speech with, “we are not going to strap people down to force them to be injected with a vaccine.” With that sentence, the number of people in Alberta who will refuse the vaccine went from 10 percent to 30 percent, and the possibility of getting COVID under control in this province has disappeared. 

Stories leak about bosses who insist their employees attend work, even though they are sick or waiting for COVID tests. A minimum-wage employee writes to the mayor of Banff, begging him to do something to protect them. Servers find out they are responsible for ensuring the new rules, which entail that only members of the same household can eat or drink at one table in a restaurant. No one is quite clear how they are meant to do this. Alberta Government Liquor Control Board confirms that if they fail in their new (uncompensated) public health duty, their bosses’ establishment could lose their liquor license. Later that week, a waitress has a glass thrown at her face, and the gash requires 14 stitches to close. 

Young children (grade 6 and under) still attend school. Children grade 7 and older are now learning from home. Many schools managed the pandemic with grace. In early September, when there was a case in my son’s school, the assistant principal called us late on a Sunday night. How long had he been on the phone if he was just reaching the “Ls” at 11 pm? He sounded so incredibly weary, and I wondered just how many times he had been yelled at that day. My son was at his dad’s and stayed in the basement for an extra two weeks, quite happy to play video games and be served food whenever he rang a bell. When my second child was exposed, he was at my house and placed his plate on the floor outside his room every day and walked masked to and from the bathroom. After a week, his COVID results came back clear, and we shifted houses on a normal schedule. Luckily both are happy with their own company. After their isolation, I hugged them long, hard, and often. 

Within a week or two, I heard stories of parents being notified their child needed to be picked up from the isolation room at school. They were already on day 10 of what should be a 14 day isolation period. But they must be picked up immediately. It’s never became clear if it was a failure on the part of the school or on the part of Alberta Health Services. A non-profit organization called Support our Students had up to the day statistics of how many schools had one case, two, or an outbreak (in-school transmission). By November, one-third of the schools in the province had had at least one case. By December, that number had increased to one half. Information provided in weekly briefings by the Chief Medical Officer and the Minister of Education were clearly two to three weeks behind the actual data. At one point, Support our Students revealed 37 students had been admitted to the hospital in the first two months of school. 

Contact tracing has been downloaded to the schools. So many teachers are at home isolating, AHS (Alberta Health Services) has considered lowering the threshold. Now teachers only have to be presumed to be within 2 meters of an infected child for more than 15 minutes to be called a “close contact.” Despite their workload and difficulties juggling teachers, the school boards have pushed back and will continue with the original guidelines. 

Elected members of the legislature share conspiracy theories. A doctor, a former pathologist who currently works as a medical consultant for a lawyer’s office, gave a speech at a business lunch. This doctor, who has not practiced medicine for 20 years, says the pandemic is overblown, and we will all be fine. The video circulates through the province like wildfire and members of the government quote him. The premier attends a meeting in Grand Prairie. It’s hard to tell from the pictures if the people he’s having dinner with are six feet away or not, but they are certainly not masked. 

Both the Premier and the Chief Medical Officer, in their December 8 announcement of restrictions, state that their goal is not to reach zero cases but is to make the load of cases manageable for the hospitals. I think I misheard the first time. But then I hear it again. I keep asking – if Australia, Vietnam, Taiwan, and China can do it, why can’t we? 

Every day the number of cases mount. Instead of worrying about possible death or disability, people are panicking about their civil liberties. First, there are 100, then 500, then 1500, then we start pushing 2000. People. A. Day. My mind can’t really comprehend. I do the math over and over. At a 3.4 percent death rate, that is 45 dead per day. We are currently two weeks from Christmas. The number of people who will be dying on Christmas day from Covid is 45. And the next day, and the next. I do more math. That is 1300 people a month. In two and a half months (which is a reasonable time for restrictions to take effect on transmission), it’s a whole 9-11. I keep hoping I am wrong. Math is hard.

I think about how the western hemisphere went to war over 9-11, and I see the politicians talking about saving the economy, and my mind just can’t comprehend the hubris.

Finally on December 8, the Premier concedes. He still cannot bring himself to utter the words “lockdown”. When asked if he takes responsibility for not closing down earlier, and saving those 1300 lives lost due to the cases in November and December, he reacts with disdain, accusing the reporter of speaking for the opposition party. When the Minister of Jobs, Economy and Innovation comes to the podium, he literally mimes washing his hands with disinfectant. The video plays over and over. He waves his hand past the bottle of alcohol without touching it. Then he rubs his hands together. The symbology of the man who is responsible for the economic well being of the 4 million people pretending to wash his hands is clear.

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