When Manitoba finally bends the curve on this second, tragic outbreak of COVID-19, will we have finally learned our lesson?
It's too early to say that we are, in fact, bending the curve. Total daily case counts appear to the naked eye to be somewhat lower, but that's largely an optical illusion; our test positivity and fatalities per capita are still extremely high. Manitoba continues to register at the high end of pandemic metrics on a global basis.
But there is reason to believe that we'll start to see some significant improvement, soon. There are lots of "ifs" attached to that prediction — like, "if" we all behave during the holiday period — but the combination of the frightful gravity of the situation and the arrival of vaccines should help get us pointed in the right direction.
That will not, however, ease the pressure on Premier Brian Pallister and his Progressive Conservative government to demonstrate that they have learned from past mistakes.
What mistakes were made? In a nutshell, the Pallister government misread our good fortune at having one of the mildest outbreaks of COVID-19 of any place on earth. Relatively few cases, relatively few deaths. By early summer, while the coronavirus raged through other areas of the world, it felt as if Manitobans were somehow able to walk through a raging downpour without getting wet.
Our good fortune prompted the government to do several things as the first wave eased. It disbanded the dedicated COVID-19 command structure, closed some testing sites and focused instead on an orderly but aggressive removal of social and economic restrictions.
It was what the government did not do during that summer lull that proved to be our undoing.
It did not train more nurses to work in critical care and did not augment the ranks of health-care workers to bolster personal-care homes. It did not train more contact tracers or people to work in testing sites. It was profoundly late in imposing a mandatory mask order and reluctant to limit the size of gatherings, both in personal residences and in bars and restaurants.
On top of all that, the Pallister government made a hash of pandemic messaging by introducing restrictions one day, then walking them back the next.
If the Tory government had done things differently, would we have avoided a second wave? Unlikely, given that almost all of Canada and much of the rest of the world entered a second wave around the same time.
However, if it had used its summer respite to prepare, instead of resting on its laurels, there is little doubt that thousands fewer Manitobans would have contracted the virus and hundreds fewer would have died.
When — and it's fair to say that it's only a matter of when, not if — this surge eases, the premier and his government will be able to demonstrate that they have learned the hard lessons from their past mistakes in different ways.
First and foremost, the government will need to use the downward slope of the pandemic curve to continue building capacity to battle a third wave. Even with a vaccine trickling into the country, there is no guarantee that additional surges of COVID-19 are not possible. Vigilance and preparation must be the mantra of the province's public-health system.
That means maintaining testing sites and continuing to train contact tracers and nurses with critical-care skills.
It will also mean continued efforts to acquire PPE and other critical medical supplies. Given that no one knows for sure how long COVID-19 immunity will last — whether acquired from the virus or the vaccine — smart governments will be expanding their stockpiles of medical supplies, from N95 masks to the constituent ingredients needed to do COVID-19 testing.
On the public-health policy side of the equation, it is essential the premier somehow resist the temptation to remove social and economic restrictions before the coast is truly clear.
All Manitobans want the economy to reopen so that we can go anywhere, buy anything, at any time. But even as vaccines are being distributed across the province, fairly strict capacity limits will likely have to stay in place and — perhaps most important of all — we must continue to wear non-medical masks when indoors. Given what we have learned about the coronavirus and its ability to spread through airborne means, there should be no equivocation on this point; masks should be standard practice for some time to come.
Finally, to ensure that we're learning from our mistakes, we're going to have to admit that we made some in the first place. Specialists in emergency preparedness and project management know that the only way to ensure you have a better response to the next crisis is to fully admit past mistakes and learn from them. Without that admission, it is very likely that previous errors will be repeated in the future.
As a leader who has resisted all opportunities to admit mistakes, that will be a tough pill for Pallister to swallow. But he should know that the mistakes made in the past — even those that came from rash and ill-advised decisions during the summer lull — are completely forgivable. If you do two things.
Admit you made them and promise to never make them again.
Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.