For those Manitobans crushed to learn code red pandemic restrictions will remain in place for at least two more weeks, there’s one important fact that must be kept in mind.
We have no one to blame but ourselves. Except maybe the premier, just a bit.
There had been growing optimism the current social and economic restrictions — which have been in place for eight, long weeks and scheduled to expire at 12:01 a.m. Saturday — might be coming to an end.
Those expectations were created, in large part, by comments Premier Brian Pallister made in late December, when he said the pandemic restrictions would "almost certainly" be eased in the new year.
To be fair to the premier, when he raised hopes about a respite from the lockdown, he also acknowledged public health officials would be extremely cautious about removing or reducing social and economic restrictions. Any decision to do that would be guided by epidemiological metrics, he said.
In a further gesture of fairness to the premier, it should be noted he also attempted Wednesday to play down suggestions about a possible easing of restrictions, when he admitted there was little chance of significant change beyond Friday.
Lamentably, it became quite clear Manitobans were fixated on "almost certainly" and began to hope against hope the dawn of 2021 would bring an easing of restrictions. Even business lobby groups, who are in regular contact with the province, had publicly held out hope the first week of January might bring some relief.
Expectations continued to grow when public health officials made no definitive or official announcement on the fate of the restrictions before Friday.
Alas, it was not to be.
The great fear that prompted public health officials to wait until the very last moment to announce an extension came to fruition: an alarming number of Manitobans appear to have ignored public health orders and gathered with people outside their immediate households to celebrate the holiday season.
Dr. Brent Roussin, chief provincial public health officer, confirmed Friday that 355 new COVID-19 infections and some 1,900 individual exposures have been traced to holiday gatherings, some involving as many as two dozen people.
Roussin did not use the words "stupid is as stupid does." However, he did say public health officials strongly suspected, human nature being what it is, there would spike in COVID-19 cases about two weeks after Christmas.
"We’re not yet ready to make those changes," Roussin said Friday of the renewed restrictions. "Our numbers were going in the right direction, but now we’re at risk of reversing that."
Could the orders have been eased had people refrained from inter-household gatherings?
Roussin said it was certainly possible, and there was a plan (among many contingencies) for a return to normalcy beginning this week. At the same time, he made it clear the more-likely scenario all along was staying the course.
For the premier — quoted in a news release about the extension but absent from the news conference where it was discussed — the decision and the broad disappointment it has created is yet another hard lesson in the perils of sloppy pandemic messaging.
"We’re not yet ready to make those changes. Our numbers were going in the right direction, but now we’re at risk of reversing that." – Dr. Brent Roussin, chief provincial public health officer
Pallister’s Achilles’ heel throughout the pandemic has been his desire to play two different roles in the government’s response: he wants to be the disciplinarian father who delivers stern lectures, and the gregarious bearer of good news.
This unique multiple personality disorder leads the premier to make some very bad decisions when he’s in front of microphones. In those moments when he should only be dampening expectations, the premier cannot resist the temptation to dangle a few glimmers of hope.
Even this week, when he was trying to curb expectations, he couldn’t help but add a caveat about how, even though it looked unlikely, no final decision had been made. The premier should know, after more than two months of severe social and economic restrictions, Manitobans will fixate on any slim glimmer of hope.
Given Roussin’s comments about his very strong suspicions about a post-holiday spike in new cases, there was no reason for Pallister to raise even such a remote possibility.
Roussin’s comments are clear; Pallister was patently aware foolhardy Manitobans were highly likely to flout the public health orders. That should have been his only talking point.
All that said, the Pallister government needs to do a much better job of planning out the timing of public health orders. Roussin admitted it was an unfortunate coincidence code red restrictions had been set to expire exactly two weeks after Christmas Day.
In a perfect world, the original code red order would have been extended to the end of January, to give everyone time to assess the impact of holiday-themed social gatherings.
It would have saved public health officials from having to dash anyone’s hopes, and perhaps even saved the premier from himself.
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.