It was one hell of a Mother’s Day present.


It was one hell of a Mother’s Day present.

On Sunday, the same day the province was plunged into yet another partial COVID-19 lockdown, Education Minister Cliff Cullen and Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Brent Roussin announced schools in Winnipeg and Brandon would be closed until the end of May.

As demoralizing as the announcement was, it was hardly a surprise.

Two months of dithering by Premier Brian Pallister had led Manitoba back to the brink of yet another wave of COVID-19. After Friday tightening rules for business openings and social interactions that would take effect Sunday, it seemed like the end to in-person learning could not be far behind.

It was a horribly ironic decision to deliver to Manitobans on Mother’s Day; although the closure of schools has a huge impact on almost everyone, women are hit much harder than men.

Still predominantly responsible for child care, legions of women will once again be forced to leave work — either for now or for good — to care for children. The insult added to the injury of this decision for many women will be the infuriating knowledge that the closure of schools was not inevitable.

Schools are not being closed because in-person learning triggered the third wave; schools are being forced to close largely because the Pallister government stood idly by as the third wave grew in size and intensity.

Research the world over has shown that as long as community transmission of COVID-19 is kept in check, in-person learning can continue without putting staff or students in harm’s way. Although children can acquire COVID-19 and pass it on to others, their rate of infection and transmission is much lower than adults'.

However, if community transmission outside schools is allowed to run amok, then it will become necessary at some point to shut down schools.

In other words, this not only could have been avoided, it should have been avoided.

Pallister and his public health advisors had all the medical and scientific knowledge to help them stop or at least dramatically slow the third wave. Instead of the short and sharp lockdown that has been proven to stop COVID-19 outbreaks in their tracks in other places, we in Manitoba continue to embrace what Pallister and Roussin call "the least-restrictive means possible."

Last week, Roussin testified as part of a court challenge of Manitoba’s COVID-19 restrictions. Although the libertarian group that launched the challenge argued Manitoba’s restrictions were too harsh, Roussin’s testimony actually revealed a significant disconnect between what Manitoba is doing, and what we know to be the leading edge of pandemic management.

Roussin told the court under direct examination that his chief goals are to "minimize morbidity and mortality" while minimizing social impacts. "I’m bound by using the least-restrictive means."

Bound by who or what? It remains a mystery here in Manitoba whether Roussin’s devotion to the least-restrictive means is actually paying fealty to Pallister’s not-so-thinly veiled libertarian sensibilities, or a reflection of an outdated public health philosophy.

Either way, it is preposterous for the province’s top doctor to claim he is "bound" to any one particular strategy when he is, in reality, combating an unprecedented public health crisis for which there is no playbook.

What does the "least-restrictive" strategy look like in Manitoba?

In large part, it has dictated that government should only introduce restrictions slowly and incrementally, in lockstep with increases in daily case counts and community transmission. However, when you look at the countries in the world that have had the most success in avoiding or minimizing subsequent COVID-19 waves, you can see that "least-restrictive" is the most backwards way of fighting COVID-19.

The most successful countries — Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea to name a few — start with the most severe restrictions and then remove them as case counts drop. Those countries have spent less time in any kind of lockdown and are now enjoying a greater range of freedoms than countries "bound" to the least-restrictive approach.

Manitoba started showing worrisome epidemiological signs roughly six weeks ago. Despite that, the Pallister government continued allowing Manitobans to engage in a number of practices that medical professionals believe are extremely risky: indoor social gatherings with people from different households; maskless church services; large, maskless gatherings in outdoor public spaces; indoor dining with people from different households.

The least-restrictive means is also what emboldened the government to continue whittling away at these freedoms, rather than shutting everything down. Last Friday, even as it did tighten restrictions, the province was still allowing crowds of indeterminate size in shopping malls and permitting groups of five people to socialize maskless in outdoor public spaces.

Whether it’s Pallister, or Pallister and Roussin enabling, we here in Manitoba are trapped in a hell where it seems no one is able to convince the powers that be to admit they made a mistake and make a sincere commitment to adopting a better, evidence-based approach.

Someone needs to remind both men that in the face of a crisis, there is a tipping point where stubborn resolve becomes incompetence, and unfounded optimism becomes stupidity.

And in Manitoba, it appears we have tipped both points.

Dan Lett

Dan Lett

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.

   Read full biography
   Sign up for Dan Lett’s email newsletter, Not for Attribution