Opinion

It was yet another head-on collision between medical science and politics. And politics won, again.

Winnipeg Free Press

Delivering Crucial Information.
Right Here.

Support this work for just $3.92/week

It was yet another head-on collision between medical science and politics. And politics won, again.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney — who foolishly decided to remove all pandemic restrictions July 1 — is deep into a COVID-19 crisis overwhelming his province's health-care system.

The threat is so severe, Kenney reluctantly agreed two weeks ago to implement a vaccine passport system. However, he still refuses to impose a total lockdown — a decision that prompted two of the province's top doctors to issue an open letter pleading for immediate action to prevent "more disease, deaths and suffering."

Kenney's response to having medical science thrown in his face? He claimed a lockdown would be unfair punishment for the majority of Albertans who are vaccinated.

Dr. James Talbot (former chief provincial health officer) and Dr. Noel Gibney (one of Alberta's leading critical care experts) sought a "fire break" lockdown and a transfer of ICU patients to other provinces to ease capacity concerns. Otherwise, they said, hospitals would have to start implementing a triage protocol that would deny life-saving treatment to some critically ill patients.

"Your government’s own policies are responsible for collaborating with COVID in creating this killing surge," the letter stated. "Continued inaction is not moral or ethical."

Kenney's response to having medical science thrown in his face? He claimed a lockdown would be unfair punishment for the majority of Albertans who are vaccinated.

So, who is right? If past practice means anything, Alberta is headed for a world of hurt as the premier clings to a deeply flawed plan.

It makes you wonder: is this approach supported by medical and scientific experts within the Alberta government? Or are they silent dissidents to Kenney's madness?

In some ways, it's a trick question. Top public health officials in each province do not have the authority to impose or remove restrictions on their own. Even though they are often used as spokespeople for public health orders, these experts serve an advisory role to political leaders.

Which is to say, politicians make the decisions.

The set-up works fine as long as political leaders can show their decisions are based on solid medical and scientific advice, and not manipulated for fiscal or political purposes.

However, if such decisions were based on the best expert advice available, then why are so many groups of experts with unparallelled credentials outside government writing open letters to shame premiers into changing strategies?

The contrast between the government's pandemic response and the advice coming outside government raises troubling questions.

In Manitoba, both last fall and early this year, open letters from medical professionals outside government warned then-premier Brian Pallister about the need for immediate action to mitigate COVID-19 surging case loads.

Two things happened after these open letters were made public: they were largely were ignored by government and the dire predictions contained within were fully realized.

Last fall, doctors and nurses repeatedly pleaded with Pallister for a lockdown. While he did tinker with restrictions, he wouldn't shut the province down until Nov. 19.

The results of this procrastination: 247 Manitobans died due to COVID-19 in November 2020, almost a quarter of all the province's pandemic deaths.

It happened again in the spring, when front-line physicians pleaded with Pallister for more restrictions to stem rising hospital admissions. In May, hospitals were overrun with new COVID-19 cases and Manitoba was forced to start airlifting ICU patients to other provinces.

The contrast between the government's pandemic response and the advice coming outside government raises troubling questions.

Is this the result of a lack of expertise within government? If internal experts are just as qualified as those outside, is this just a case of politicians supplanting best practices in science and medicine with political instinct?

All evidence suggests it is the latter. That means the only antidote to this loathsome predicament is a massive dose of transparency and accountability.

The only antidote to this loathsome predicament is a massive dose of transparency and accountability.

Citizens need to hear the advice internal experts are providing before decisions are made. More external experts should be brought into the deliberations to ensure the broadest range of options are being considered.

This was the approach taken by New Zealand in the early days of the pandemic. With a shortage in-house expertise, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern created an all-star advisory group comprised of scientific and medical experts. It was given a direct line to Ardern, but at the same time was allowed free to speak candidly in public.

Within a few weeks of the first confirmed local case, the New Zealand parliament created the epidemic response committee — a group of MPs who met regularly to question key scientific experts and government officials. Every meeting of the committee was webcast live and transcripts posted on the government's website.

Every province in Canada needs to adopt the New Zealand model.

We need all the pandemic data and modelling in real time, and unfettered access to medical and scientific experts advising government — and those experts must be free to give opinions on decisions ultimately made by politicians.

Right now, we have politicians, deaf to voices outside government, masquerading as subject-matter experts. And it's killing us.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

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