A Cold Response from Alberta

Throughout this Covid-19 crisis many political leaders who I strongly disagree with have done a good job in my estimation. I have no problem saying that a lot of these leaders have risen to the moment and have earned respect for that work to date. But at the same time, not all have risen to the challenge while others are really starting to backtrack on whatever progress was made.

We’re seeing good examples of this when it comes to the re-opening of our society and economy, as provinces are taking different approaches in fits and starts. Quebec had to slow down some re-opening measures and just today New Brunswick has had to re-instate some measures because of an outbreak in the Campbellton area. But Alberta seems to be standing alone in their aggressive approach, even announcing yesterday that the Conservative Government of Jason Kenney won’t be extending Alberta’s state of emergency when it expires on June 15th.

Even with all the different re-opening measures, no single Canadian province or territory besides Alberta is moving in that direction and for good reason. It’s generally agreed that even as things start to re-open this health emergency is far from being over. This isn’t like a flood or forest fire that once it’s dealt with the emergency disappears. We know we’re in a long fight here against Covid-19 yet for some reason the Kenney Conservatives are choosing to ignore that. That lead to some legitimate questions about this decision, bringing some striking comments in the Alberta Legislature as Kenney tried to explain this move:

Ugghh!!! Come on man, seriously? After three months of this we still have to have this discussion about the ugly trope that Kenney started with there? Kenney trotted out the old canard about how other things will kill more Albertans, as if they were all on level footing. He stated that more people die of accidents than Covid-19, which is very cold comfort to the families of those who have already died because of Covid-19. It’s also ignorant of a very simple fact; accidents aren’t contagious diseases! I can’t believe that I need to point out to a politician as experienced and long in the tooth as Jason Kenney that you can’t treat fighting a global pandemic of a contagious disease the same way you would seat belt safety or teaching your kids to safely cross the street. If accidents like car crashes became contagious, you better believe that governments everywhere would be taking measures to limit our exposures to our SUV’s or to protect the public at intersections everywhere. But of course it’s silly to compare the two, not to mention intellectually dishonest, a tactic that Kenney has traded in for well over two decades.

He then goes onto the next line of attack. He points out that “there will be more infections, there will be more outbreaks, there will be clusters, there will be more hospitalizations and sadly there will be more COVID-related deaths.” He just takes that as a matter of fact concept, like there will be nothing we can do to stop it so why try. But it’s the next part that I found to be especially illuminating. He challenged health officials to figure out how to protect the most vulnerable in the “strongest and most discreet ways possible.” Discreet? Wait, you mean that Kenney is concerned about discretion when it comes to how this disease is being treated? He’s saying out lout that he wants to make sure that the treatment of Covid-19 is “out of sight, out of mind”, as if that will make it easier for everyone else to go on about their business and forget about what’s going on across the planet.

That’s not just whistling past the graveyard, that whistling past while the graveyard is covered by protective drapes so no one can see the graveyard at all and assume that it’s really a fun place like an arena or an amusement park. There’s no graveyard there, I can see the images of the roller-coaster right there! Christ that’s taking burying your head in the sand to a whole new level. But that’s not where Kenney ended, not at all. He uttered a short 9 second sentence that was just chilling, especially coming from the leader of a provincial government in this country:

“The average age of death from Covid in Alberta is 83, and I remind the house that the average life expectancy in the province is 82.” That’s what he said, word for word, without any emotion or sense of just how ghoulish those words were. They insinuated all kinds of things, which were in the context of that statement. Kenney was trying to suggest there was nothing abnormal about people dying from this disease, which I guess means he wants to ignore the meat plant workers or health care workers who have become ill and succumb to this pandemic. They don’t count in this argument from Kenney.

But what the argument is really trying to say is that “Hey they had a good life, they were going to be dying soon enough anyway.” He basically tries to say this is no big deal because they were old. He insinuates that they are expendable because “hey, they were going to die anyway so why should the rest of us suffer?” The point also completely ignores the whole concept around quality of life that despite the fact that the average life expectancy may be 82, many people life long beyond that date and don’t start to see a decline until they are way passed that age. I look at my maternal Grandfather, who lived until he was 6 months shy of 100 and he was in fine shape, physically and mentally, well into his 90’s. Hell, at 82 he was just getting started. But in Jason Kenney’s eyes, those 17 years he lived after would have been worth throwing away to ensure that he can get a haircut.

I’m not surprised to see Jason Kenney of all people make such cold, callous and thoughtless statements because that’s how he’s made his career since the 90’s. The only thing that would have made that an even more “Kenney” comment would have been to add a line about the “depreciation of human capital” or something like that. Those words of his yesterday display the worst kind of hubris and a total lack of basic compassion. Where other politicians have grown in response to Covid-19, Kenney has continued to shrink in this spotlight. But as with many things with Kenney, those words give you some clear insight to how he views the world. He’s willing to let more people die, put others at greater risk of dying & try to push the treatment of those who fall into the shadows all so there can be a return to a normal that the vast majority of people agree isn’t coming back. This just screams of an approach that’s going to fail & will lead to the next Covid hotspots in this country. I hope and pray that doesn’t happen but when I see those words from Jason Kenney, I see the same Kenney that has always been there. That isn’t what folks need now but sadly it’s what has been delivered and that’s a scary proposition.

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Why Politicians Following Physical Distancing Measures Matters

We live in times where transparency matters, especially from government. These are also times when setting the example matters greatly and when not doing so has serious consequences. Some of us who saw yesterdays stunt at Queen’s Park, where the Ontario Conservatives ignored physical distancing rules and crammed their members in the chamber for a vote that wasn’t necessary. It was selfish behaviour that completely undermined public confidence in those important, life saving measures.

But despite that, there are still people out there saying “Big deal…. That doesn’t matter… It’s not like anyone got hurt”. That is the attitude of too many people in this crisis, and it’s one that has dangerous consequences. It’s important that our elected leaders not only set the example to set a good example for the citizens they represent. It’s also important because of the real public health risks associated with it. We only need to go back to April for a dark example of this from the Town of Pelham to get a reminder:

That story from “The Voice of Pelham” was burning up social media last month when it came out, as it showed the real-world consequences of ignoring these vital public health measures. According to the reporting, Pelham Councilor Ron Kore was visibly ill at local town council meetings going back into March and tested positive for COVID-19. The reporting goes onto state that “for a period of nearly four weeks he continued to come into work while exhibiting symptoms of a respiratory illness.” That included going to town council meetings.

During that same period of time one of Kore’s council colleagues, Councilor Mike Ciolfi, came down with COVID-19, testing positive during the week of April 6. Just a couple of weeks before both Kore and Ciolfi were at an in-person council meeting, on March 23rd, where Kore was visibly ill to the point where it is reported that staff in the room were concerned & alarmed that Kore was even there. As the Voice of Pelham piece points out, both Kore and Ciolfi sat on the same side of the room, eight feet apart at that meeting. Within days of that meeting Ciolfi start to show serious symptoms and eventually he died overnight on Sunday, April 12.

This case outraged people across the country because of the dots that connected here and the callous disregard for everyone else’s safety that Kore displayed. Days after the Voice of Pelham story came out, Kore released a statement saying that he would never “take a risk with my health, the health of my wife, employees or colleagues at Town Hall”, yet that seems to be precisely what he did. He later released an apology in which he said that he wanted “to apologize for any unintended consequences my actions caused early on in this pandemic and the resulting stress and hurt it may have caused the community.”

It’s those kinds of consequences, unintentional or otherwise, that make the public health measures we have in place so important. That makes government officials and elected leaders setting the example all the more important. When you look at what happened at Queen’s Park yesterday, the story of Pelham should ring through our minds. In that case there were only three people in the room; at Queen’s Park yesterday there was clearly over 50, in much tighter quarters than what Pelham Town Council faced. But if you want to drive how why what happened yesterday was so bad, a story from the United States came out last night that shows again why following these public health measures matters so much:

Yesterday Democratic Pennsylvania State Representative Brian Sims went live on Facebook with that video above and proceeded to tear a strip off his colleagues from across the aisle. It turns out that some of his Republican colleagues have been testing positive for COVID-19 but did not tell their assembly this. Some of their Republican colleagues knew, but they did not tell others, including their Democratic colleagues across the aisle. And they did all this while they called for in-person committee meetings to argue that business sectors were safe to reopen. They were sick, they knew it was not safe, yet they concealed it and then tried to re-open things prematurely, all without telling anyone they had been exposed.

This went on for 11 weeks folks, without saying a bloody thing while trying to claim that things were overblown. For 11 weeks, those other elected members sat in a chamber with infected or exposed colleagues and had no clue, all because those Republican members decided to withhold that vital information, apparently as not to undercut their dangerous partisan point.

In that Facebook video, Sims lays bare the reasons why this was so dangerous to some of his colleagues and even himself. He pointed out that one of the Republican leaders, who it turns out had been quarantining himself between sessions without telling anyone about his health status, was known to bump into this other colleagues, talking closely with them or letting others open doors for him. Sims went onto point out that some of his Democrat colleagues have young children, who thanks to this selfish act were now exposed. The wife of another Democratic colleague is immune compromised, which would put her in the highest risk category for COVID-19. And yet every day, that elected official went home to his wife not knowing that he had put her life in danger, all because those Republican members refused to disclose their situation and exposed him in the process.

Finally Sims disclosed a piece of information that wasn’t public, something that was honourable of him to have done, but that now this health crisis puts in a new light. It turns out that this past January, Sims had donated a kidney to someone in need, an act of charity that normally comes with the price of certain health risks. Those risks went up significantly with COVID-19, and for him to be exposed to the virus like this could have the most mortal consequences of all. It’s easy to understand why he was so mad.

When I saw that video from Representative Sims this morning, I thought immediately of the selfish stunt we saw at Queen’s Park yesterday and the potential real consequences of that vote. Yes those MPPs were wearing masks in the chamber, but those aren’t a panacea. We don’t know what their exposure has been, we don’t know how they’ve been feeling. We do not know if they have been sick and honestly before this moment, I honestly wouldn’t have thought to ask it. But it is that kind of the point here? In normal times, we wouldn’t ask but in these times being upfront about our exposure to COVID-19 is of paramount importance. It’s a matter of life and death to so many.

For all the Randy Hillier’s of the World who say “I am willing to accept the risks”, they forget that it is not themselves alone that they are risking. They are putting others at risk, to a degree that I doubt they realize or want to consider. And that is the thing about this disease, it’s not just about you or me as individuals. It’s about all of those around us, those who we know and love and those who we don’t know. When we don’t think of others, like those MPPs did in Toronto yesterday, you can end up with cases like the two above. We shouldn’t need reminders of that fact in these hard times yet here we are. Now’s a time when we should be thinking of others and their risks, not our own and when it comes to that, our elected leaders should be setting that example first and foremost. That’s not an unreasonable thing to expect.

A Needless Stunt at Queen’s Park

Over the past week we’ve had lots of talk and discussion about the importance of social distancing measures. The whole incident at Trinity Bellwoods Park in Toronto on Saturday was one major flash point, but there have been other incidents that have brought this discussion to the fore. Throughout it all, we’ve been looking at governments to set the example when it comes to following these measures. In response to what happened on Saturday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford spared no mercy to those who were flaunting social distancing measures and putting people’s health at risk, which he was right to do by the way. But today something completely messed up happened at Queen’s Park that caught everyone off guard, stunned and left folks asking some seriously legitimate questions:

Yes folks, that wouldn’t look so abnormal in a pre-Covid time but that video leaps off the screen there. That video shows Doug Ford’s Conservatives, in the dozens, voting on a piece of legislation called Bill 159, the Rebuilding Consumer Confidence Act. If you’re wondering what that bill will do and why it was so vital to be pushed through today, one of the things it will do is make evictions easier. Yep, this happened to make it easier for landlords to evict tenants, in the middle of a global pandemic and the worst financial crisis we’ve seen since the Great Depression.

If that was bad enough, the very image of what we saw there is even worse. What happened to physical distancing measures? What happened to public health? What happened to ensuring that the Ontario Legislature didn’t become one big super spreader of a petri dish? All that seemingly went out the window to stack the deck on a vote to make it easier to throw people out of their homes.

Many people probably don’t know that all the parties at Queen’s Park came to an agreement at the very beginning of this crisis to help the place operate with lesser numbers. As former NDP Whip and current MPP John Vanthof pointed out on Facebook, when he was whip negotiated lots of those agreements, especially on Thursday afternoons when MPPs would typically get out of town for the weekends back in their ridings.

With that agreement the Ford Conservatives, who hold a majority, didn’t need to worry about them losing that vote. Yet despite that fact, according to reports from the legislature, the Ford government had most of their MPP’s waiting in the wings for the vote, ready to flood the chamber when the time came. They didn’t tell any of the Opposition Parties, despite the fact that packing all of those MPPs from across Ontario into that chamber also put their health at risk.

That image was so stark, especially when you consider what happened in Ottawa today where the House of Commons sat in its first hybrid session. Just from doing a fast headcount in that photo, I can feel safe in saying that there were more MPPs crammed into that chamber in Toronto than there were MPs in the House Chamber. And oh yeah, that chamber in Toronto is much smaller.

And again I ask the question: What the Hell for? Why in the Hell pull a bush league, immature stunt like that for a vote that you were going to win anyway, no matter how ghoulish the result if it may be? After you just spent weeks chiding Ontarians to follow the rules and to act right for the sake of those, why in the Hell would you stack that chamber, masks or no masks?

This is so epically dumb on so many levels. Not only does it give a massive middle finger to all Ontarians who have been struggling to do the right thing, it tells all of those who have been ignoring the rules that they were right to do so. Remember those “yahoos” in front on Queen’s Park who have been saying there is no danger and have been licking statues on the lawn? Yeah, cramming those MPPs into their seats, shoulder to shoulder, sends them that message too, something that I doubt they will miss.

It completely undercuts so much of the good work that this Premier has done in this crisis and flushes it down the john. It reeks of what pre-Covid Doug Ford would have done and as a result, looks even worse in this moment. And again, I ask the question: What for? What is it they think they are getting by stacking the room to pass that bill, one that will pass anyway, and put their very credibility with the public at total risk? And at a time when you need to have trust from the Opposition to move things along quickly, why would you put that relationship at risk. As Vanthof put it, this incident makes him “question their judgement and true willingness to work together.” That seems like a very reasonable think to question after that.

In the end I have to keep asking myself “Why?” because I just don’t see it. I don’t see what they get from pulling this dangerous stunt. I really don’t, it makes no sense at all and looks like a dumb mistake to make if that’s what it was. And in the meantime, every time Doug Ford wants to get in front of the microphones to tell everyone else how they should follow public health rules, he will now get legitimately asked “But why did you stack the chamber for that vote?” This reeks of the “One rule for thee, another for me” kind of thinking that lead to Ford’s three other violations of Covid-19 rules. Instead this time, he dragged his whole caucus into it, in plain view of the live cameras and the press gallery.

After the day that Ontarians went through yesterday, you’d think that maybe Premier Ford would tread a bit more lightly today yet with this move, he’s slammed his foot on the gas. I look forward to hearing the explanations for this crap because I’m sure they will be spectacular. For all the growth that Doug Ford has shown over the past two months, this stunt is a serious shrinking on the man. Today he went back on his own word, he needlessly exposed his colleagues to serious risk during a state of emergency and undercut his own ability to lead Ontarians in these dangerous times. And all for what? We have no clue & honestly, I am left to wonder if even he knows why. I always say that “we should never chalk up to great strategy what can more easily be explained by stupidity.” This falls clearly in that category because there is no sign of strategy here, but many of the latter. Premier Ford, you owe us an explanation and it better be good.

A Watershed Moment in Long-Term Care

There are moments that happen, events that take place, that change the course of things. These moments are so striking, so stark, that strikes such a nerve that it makes it impossible for things to continue as is. In Canada there are some that come to mind right away. Walkerton and Ipperwash are both synonymous with such events that happened in their communities. Attacks like 9/11 also would fall into that category. And the current Covid-19 global pandemic is surely another.

These are all watershed events that shake our common consciousness, focus our minds, and leave us with details that we are simply unable to ignore. Today I believe we’ve had another such moment, with the news of a report regarding some long-term care homes from the Canadian Forces. This is a report that speaks loudly for itself:

The news is tragic, stomach churning and appalling. The details that we’re seeing in the various media reports on the treatment of patients in these long-term care homes are beyond shocking. Those details reported by Canadian Forces include the following:

  • Members deployed to long-term care homes saw cockroaches, flies, rotten food, and residents left in dirty diapers or going unbathed for weeks
  • Members found no rules, a lack of staff training and medical equipment and instances of staff reusing syringes on seniors
  • Staff at a Brampton nursing home allegedly recorded a Taylor Swift Dance Video showing them dancing through the facility, passing between areas deemed COVID-19 positive and negative without wearing any protective equipment
  • In Etobicoke, residents who tested positive for COVID-19 shared rooms with uninfected residents, separated only by a curtain
  • Reusing supplies like a catheter even if sterility is compromised (catheter pulled out and on floor for undetermined amount of time)
  • A dozen incidents of bleeding fungal infections i.e. very poor peri-catheterization care
  • Expired medication, much of ward stock months out of date
  • Covid 19 patients allowed to wander
  • Aggressive behaviour to residents (when changing incontinence product, not stopping or slowing when resident complains of pain)
  • Patients observed crying for help with staff not responding for 30 minutes to over 2 hours

Horrific, that is simply horrific. We Canadians are proud of our healthcare system and don’t miss a chance as holding it up as a national accomplishment that speaks to not only what we can do, but what matters to us. But yet within that system we have a long-term health care system that beyond broken, to the point where it takes a report like this to snap us into reality.

It’s not lost on me that it was the Canadian Forces that found this out and blew the whistle on these terrible conditions. It makes everyone wonder how governments in Ontario haven’t acted before this. Remember it was the Ford government that reduced the inspections of long-term care homes when they came into power, ensuring that only 9 of 626 homes in Ontario actually received resident quality inspections in 2019. That is a part of this problem and but it’s not alone. Unions working in this space like SEIU were ringing the alarm bells back in October about conditions in these homes, but those warnings went ignore then too.

But in all fairness to the Ford government, this issue is longer standing. It didn’t start with him and it’s been a problem for decades. So while Ford does bare the blame for his inaction during his 18 months in government pre-Covid-19 and needs to fix it now, but he doesn’t bare all the blame. All of Ontario’s political parties bare this blame. And further to that other provinces have problems too with this sector. Quebec is also having these issues and as Radio-Canada’s “Infoman” pointed out a while ago, it’s a long-standing problem there too:

Yep, all parties own this and all parties owe solutions. In the House of Commons today in a question to the Prime Minister, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer suggested that another Canadian Forces report on Quebec was in the works, which means we’re likely to hear more awful details to come. But again, I have to come back to the fact that it was CF members that had to point this out. It not only speaks poorly to the monitoring of these homes, but also a failure of our whistleblower laws in this country that no one else had spoken out before this. As one person I follow on Twitter put it, “not every whistleblower gets to carry a gun and have the might of a military behind them.” He’s right by the way. The fact is that Canadian Forces member not only had a duty to report this, but they knew that they would not be fired if they did. They knew they would not face reprisals from their employers or others if they rang the alarm. That is another strike against our current system that should be explored when this is investigated.

Going forward it now falls on governments to full investigate and get to the bottom of problems in this system. After today’s news, Ontario clearly needs a full public inquiry and the independent commission that Premier Ford has put forward won’t cut it. That inquiry needs judicial and legal independence, the same kind of independence those CF members had to blow the whistle, and an independent commission set up won’t do that. That will be for Queen’s Park to deal with and I’m sure we’ll see the same in the National Assembly in Quebec City too.

For its part, the House of Commons needs to act on this front too. While those homes are provincial jurisdictions, federal transfers pay for a lot of it and they clearly fall within the purview of the Canada Health Act. The response will need to be a collaboration between Ottawa and the provinces, but the pressure for Ottawa to act will be too strong to resist. Furthermore, only Ottawa has the financial resources to help fix this problem once and for all.

Today feels like a true watershed moment and even I, who is usually cynical in moments like these, cannot help but feel this is different this time. I cannot picture the status quo going forward after this, not only because of the colossal failure of the system in this case but because the details of it will be seared into the collective minds of so many Canadians. Our seniors deserve much better than this and things cannot continue as they are. I don’t have the full solution to offer right now, but now is the time to have that discussion and figure it out. We’re not going back to normal in long-term care after this and now’s the time to figure out what that new normal will be.

A Dangerous Erosion of Trust?

In hard times, difficult situations and global crises, we need to be able to trust the information we get from our governments. Reliable information is important to help people do what’s needed and to avoid worse danger or health outcomes. We are seeing prime examples of that on a daily basis through out Covid-19, not just online and on social media, but also from the podium of the White House.

Bad information hurts, not just social cohesion but to people’s health. A lack of trust in the information that we get may push people to look into conspiracy theories and other quack stuff out there. This has been a pre-occupation of mine and it was with that in mind that I saw the following story from today’s Globe and Mail, one that contained some reporting that scared the daylights out of me:

The Globe reported on a newly released survey from Leger and the Association for Canadian Studies that asked questions about the response of governments to Covid-19 and their views on the information that they are getting. There was some good news in the results, showing that people are pretty satisfied with the responses by different levels of government. Specifically they noted that 68% said they were satisfied with what their local governments response, 74% with the federal government’s and 78% with their provincial government.

Considering where numbers like that normally rest, you would think that there wasn’t anything to worry about. You don’t see satisfaction numbers like that hardly ever, so to see that in a global pandemic should speak well about how governments are responding across the board. But they also asked questions that went into specifics about the information people are getting & conspiracy theories about the disease that are floating around. Those results showed us the following:

  • 50% felt governments were deliberately withholding information about the pandemic, with 60% of Quebeckers surveyed feeling that way
  • 15% or less believe stories that Bill Gates is responsible for the spread of the coronavirus, that there is a link between the pandemic and 5G networks, or that COVID-19 never existed in the first place
  • More than 33% believe the virus was created in a lab, or by the Chinese government.
  • 19% said they believed the number of deaths related to COVID-19 is exaggerated
  • More than 50% agreed with at least one of the nine theories put forward

The first and the last figures there sent chills down my spine. Not only do apparently half of those surveyed believe that governments are withholding information, but more than 50% believed in at least one conspiracy theory that they were presented with. That’s a scary and dangerous mixture that could do a lot of long-term damage to not only public health efforts, but also governance in general. And those numbers were recorded despite the high level of satisfaction they also recorded with the response of those same governments.

That tells me a couple of things. Firstly, it tells me that people are giving their governments the benefit of the doubt for now. It’s clear that many Canadians believe that their government isn’t being 100% transparent with them, but they are willing at accept that as long as they do a good job and don’t screw up. They get the importance of the moment and are willing to give that latitude.

The other thing that this tells me is that the misinformation crap that is floating around social media is making an impact far beyond what it should. It’s notable that some of those same conspiracy theories that have greater acceptance by those surveyed are some of the same ones that President Donald Trump has previously spewed in press conferences and all over Twitter. That those words have taken such hold is dangerous and scary. But for me the part that is the scariest isn’t that any one conspiracy theory has taken hold. It’s the fact that over 50% of those surveyed agreed with at least one of them. That means that over half of those people believed in a conspiracy theory to help explain this moment, which is freaking scary stuff. That’s also a serious failure on the behalf of governments and social media companies to get that crap under control.

What that combination of satisfaction & agreement with conspiracy theories tells us is that the trust that Canadians have in their government right now is built on a foundation that’s weaker than it should be. It also says that if Canadians stop giving their government the benefit of the doubt, that could be very problematic for a lot of us. That’s why it’s so important that governments err to the side of transparency because doing so will help put those concerns at ease. It will also help to build more trust in them, which is the best way to undo the damage of those conspiracy theories reeking so much damage online. I would hope that our government leaders across the country will take note of that survey and keep it in mind. One survey doesn’t make a trend and really only marks a moment in time. But even saying that, those numbers paint a scary picture, one we would do best not to ignore.