WINKLER – A doctor sits at a desk on a DIY film set in Winkler’s city hall building Monday morning.
It’s simple but some effort has gone into it: there's a printed white-brick backdrop hanging behind him and there's lighting placed just so while the video is being recorded on a phone.
He's got a very brief script in his hand. He reads the simple, but powerful, message in one take.
"Here is the most important health-care message I have ever given," Dr. Don Klassen begins.
"COVID is real. It is not a hoax. It is here, I have seen it myself. There can be no denial."
He’s not alone on set. The video is a collaboration between Klassen and Winkler Mayor Martin Harder, who also reads a brief on-camera message to his constituents, encouraging them to trust local health professionals and get vaccinated.
"I think we just have to aim at dispelling myths, we have to answer well the questions people have, the concerns people have around the vaccine." — Dr. Don Klassen
The minute-long video — nobody likes to listen to a long presentation, Harder notes — will be shared through multiple channels, including the C.W. Wiebe medical centre’s website and Winkler’s and Harder's social media in an attempt to raise the vaccine-uptake rate in Winkler, the second-lowest in Manitoba.
Only about 23 per cent of Winkler’s adults have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and is ahead of only the Rural Municipality of Stanley, which is at 11.4 per cent of adults.
The message only becomes more urgent as time goes on, Klassen says.
"I think we just have to aim at dispelling myths, we have to answer well the questions people have, the concerns people have around the vaccine," he says. "And I think lots of attempts have been made at that, but we’re just going to keep working away at this."
The provincial government has long discussed outreach to leaders in communities with low uptake rates and floated the idea of providing initiatives and rewards for getting vaccinated, but Harder says he was inspired to take matters into his own hands because of what he says is a prevailing attitude in Winkler: if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.
"From a political perspective, I only have one thing to say (to the province): stay out of the way," he says.
"This is not going to be solved because of any more government input, it’s not going to be solved by any more cheques; it’s going to be solved by local people saying what’s right and what needs to be done. People respect people like Dr. Klassen who have been here forever, who we as a community have depended on to provide medical services. For me, as a municipal leader, I’ve been here 15 years. We have to be the example."
"From a political perspective, I only have one thing to say (to the province): stay out of the way." — Winkler Mayor Martin Harder
Klassen, who has been a doctor in Winkler for four decades and currently is providing medical support at the C.W. Wiebe Medical Centre, says the video was targeted at a minority in the community who are not planning to get vaccinated or tested after developing symptoms.
"When we see people who have milder symptoms and would rather not go for testing, or absolutely will not go for testing, that’s the time for educational initiatives," he says.
In the last few weeks, both Klassen and Harder have worked on home-grown outreach efforts. Klassen mentions a local WhatsApp group for Winkler health-care professionals to bounce ideas off each other about getting information out into the community.
Harder’s currently working with Jim Smith, a certified public accountant who owns his own practice in Winkler, on a raffle in which people who can prove they’ve received their first doses would be eligible to win cash prizes.
"Once we get out that message, that we want to be a community again, I think it’s going to help," he says.
Smith says the local do-it-yourself attitude presented itself one night around his family’s dinner table several weeks ago, when he and his daughter brainstormed about improving the community’s low vaccine rate.
What they came up with was simple but effective, he hopes. Why not provide cash rewards to the people who roll up their sleeves?
"This is just my personal opinion, but I think a local solution would be a better solution… there’s always skepticism about politicians in provincial or federal governments." — Jim Smith
"It’s fine and dandy to sit back and complain and whine and moan and all that about things not working out the way you think they should, but it’s entirely different to try and get a different outcome, a better outcome, and that’s really what the contest is about," he said.
Depending on the feedback they get, he thinks it’s possible to take the initiative further, including sponsorships and different prizes donated from like-minded business owners in the community.
Smith says he doesn’t believe he’d have trouble gathering support from other business owners.
"This is just my personal opinion, but I think a local solution would be a better solution… there’s always skepticism about politicians in provincial or federal governments," he says.
"I think it’s better to have a grassroots, local way of rewarding people for, in a sense, doing the right thing."
While he has some reservations and wants to emphasize that the raffle would in no way be an attempt at advertising his business — "I’m no PR person, I’m an accountant. How much farther can you get from being a PR person?" he jokes — the negativity he’s been witnessing inspired him to approach Harder.
"Right now, there’s no positivity coming up around here around the pandemic," he says. "If it just runs its course from this point on, I think most people will only remember all the negative articles, all the negative stuff, because there wasn’t much local positivity… for the average person."
Anesthesiologist Dr. Ganesan Abbu says the majority of COVID-19 admissions to Boundary Trails Health Centre — located between Winkler and Morden at the connection of Highways 3 and 14 — are from people who have chosen not to get vaccinated, making the work being done on a grassroots level even more crucial.
"I think it’s very important, when local people, people who were born here and have the undying trust of the community, come out and state unequivocally that this is not a hoax, that vaccination does help," he says.
Malak Abas is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.