As has been the case with much of the provincial government’s response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the decision to allow about 500 fully vaccinated health-care workers to attend Wednesday night’s NHL playoff game at Bell MTS Place drew swift and decidedly divided reactions.
Some were supportive, calling the gesture an appropriate show of gratitude to front-line workers who have sacrificed greatly, as well as a signal to the broader public that a return to normalcy — while still obviously not in immediate view — is coming eventually.
Others quickly dismissed the move as ham-handed currying of public favour, another example of our premier’s need to "compete" with other provinces (Montreal and Toronto had fans at their games, so we must keep up), and a wildly inappropriate loosening of restrictions at a time when critically ill patients are being airlifted to three other provinces, owing to our inadequately supported intensive care units’ inability to treat them.
Regardless of one’s position on the relative merits of the game-access decision, there’s no denying the presence of a limited number of selected fans in a professional hockey arena signals the province is moving into a new phase of the COVID-19 pandemic — one whose successful navigation is going to require more nuance and flexibility than the Progressive Conservative government has to date shown an inclination to employ.
The point is this: the health-care workers who were rewarded with access to the game are fully vaccinated individuals. In other words, their presence in a shared space — distanced or not — posed a minuscule level of virus-related risk, to themselves or each other. It’s almost as if they represented a very small herd enjoying a brief moment of hockey-abetted herd immunity.
And as halting and hesitant as the province’s vaccine rollout has been, we are now moving into a phase in which an increasingly significant proportion of the population will soon have received the prescribed double-dose full vaccination against COVID-19. So how will the province address the disparities in a population that includes some who are fully vaccinated, some who are partially vaccinated and eagerly awaiting a second shot, and some who have opted — for a variety of personal, medical, religious or simply misinformation-fuelled reasons — not to participate in the vaccination process?
What awaits Manitoba is an interesting stretch of weeks and months as the Pallister government — whose pandemic efforts to date have been hamstrung by slowness to act, a reluctance to take forceful action and woefully inadequate communication, leading twice to this province becoming the nation’s COVID-19 hotspot — rolls out a next-phase strategy that will necessarily include provisions for reclaiming normalcy as an aspect of daily living.
It’s a matter of decisiveness rather than dithering. Up–front information rather than backhanded dismissal and deflection. Refinement that recognizes the current realities.
A much-improved ability to predict, react and adapt will be required. For example, one might be inclined to hope that a government able to offer health-care workers a good-will-gesture ticket to a hockey game might find a way to allow the health system in which those workers toil to exhibit sufficient compassionate flexibility to allow a dying parent to be visited by his children (outside the declared certainty of death within two weeks).
It’s a matter of decisiveness rather than dithering. Up-front information rather than backhanded dismissal and deflection. Refinement that recognizes the current realities.
Manitobans who have heeded the government’s call by investing time and trust in the vaccination process deserve to know what benefits have accrued. And the rest of the population might be well served by a reminder of what they are forsaking.