This is one of those moments that can make or break a premier and the province she leads.
Barely two months into the job, Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson finds herself on the precipice of a new and potentially greater threat driven by a new variant of the virus that causes COVID-19.
Omicron has not appeared in great numbers in Manitoba but, given that it’s exponentially more contagious, it could, according to the latest modelling, result in 1,000 cases a day by early next month.
To put that into perspective, remember that in the outbreaks last fall and again this past spring — outbreaks that nearly broke the health-care system — Manitoba saw a peak of about 600 cases per day.
At the same time, Stefanson is hounded by a stubborn constituency of vaccine-resistant citizens who were, even before omicron arrived, overloading the health-care system and prompting the premier to ask Ottawa to provide emergency nursing support.
This is the hand that Stefanson has been dealt. What will the new premier do?
Will she lock down the province and stop omicron from overtaking us, as many medical professionals are urging? Or, follow the approach set by former premier Brian Pallister, who dithered and delayed on restrictions until we were overrun with new infections?
It seems as if the latter approach will continue to dominate Manitoba’s pandemic response.
Like some sort of perverse tribute to her predecessor, the government is once again steering the good ship Manitoba into the eye of the latest pandemic hurricane without taking any direct measures to batten down the hatches.
Stefanson, along with Health Minister Audrey Gordon and Dr. Brent Roussin, the chief provincial public health officer, advised Manitobans Wednesday to essentially shelter at home. We’ve been asked to limit contacts to only those people who have been vaccinated and avoid large gatherings. "We all need to reconsider our holiday plans," Roussin said unambiguously at a Wednesday news briefing.
However, despite the alarming language, we learned quite quickly the Stefanson government would not impose any new social or economic restrictions.
This is a song we’ve heard many times before.
Prior to Stefanson beginning her tenure as premier, Manitobans watched in horror as Pallister and the same cast of advisers waxed poetic about applying "the least-restrictive means" in the war against COVID-19. In every instance, panicky voices from within the health-care system urged the government to do more, and do it quickly; in every instance, Pallister did not, and the results were an unmitigated tragedy.
Are conditions different enough now to justify a different approach? Manitoba does have an enviable vaccination record: 84 per cent of us have received one dose, nearly 80 per cent have had two, and about 10 per cent — undoubtedly the oldest and most vulnerable citizens — have received a booster shot.
However, the harsh reality is that even fully immunized people are not safe from omicron; vaccines help, but breakthrough infections are soaring. So, the debate over whether new restrictions are unfair to those Manitobans who have become vaccinated is really moot. We’re all facing some level of threat in this latest wave.
Stefanson is hesitating, it seems, in large part because the arguments against imposing new social and economic restrictions are powerful.
Pandemic restrictions carry with them their own burden on our physical and mental health. They increase our stress, and reduce the much-needed support we get from family and friends.
On the economic side, restrictions erode livelihoods and ruin business models. The shuttered small businesses plainly visible all over Winnipeg and other communities is testament to the consequences of those restrictions.
However, if the premier and her advisers could dig deeply into their folder of hard lessons learned, they would likely discover we do not need to go into total lockdown again to stem the omicron tide. We do, however, need to do something.
As long as we keep the indoor mask mandate in place, malls, retail stores, personal services (haircuts, tattoo parlours) and fitness centres may not need to close, although they may have to dramatically reduce capacities.
We do not need to go into total lockdown again to stem the omicron tide. We do, however, need to do something.
We might have to live without other indoor activities, however.
Some big events (and yes, we’re talking about the Winnipeg Jets, live music and movies) might have to significantly reduce or eliminate in-person attendance. Churches may also have to curtail or suspend in-person services.
Perhaps most importantly, restrictions on household gatherings need to be reimposed. Perhaps we could go back to identifying one other household with which we can socialize; perhaps we need to eliminate family gatherings for this holiday season.
We know that, from a public-health perspective, all these measures are justifiable given the threat posed by omicron. We know that because the premier, health minister and senior public-health officials have already strongly recommended all these things. They just won’t make them the law of the land.
The world is rotten with political leaders who, for reasons that remain somewhat unclear, continue to ignore the mistakes they’ve made in the past.
Stefanson could stray from that well-worn path and demonstrate to Manitobans she has the courage and determination to act while we still have a chance to dodge the worst of the omicron wave.
Or not. Then stand back and count the bodies like the man who came before her.
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.