Even an ounce of humility and honest self-reflection from provincial officials right now would go a long way towards convincing Manitobans they have a handle on the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Instead, many senior officials — elected and non-elected — continue to display a level of arrogance and defensiveness that’s making it increasingly difficult for the public to have confidence in government.
That could hurt buy-in when it comes to public-health orders and the need for people to get vaccinated.
Earlier this week Dr. Brent Roussin, the chief provincial public health officer, claimed the only reason Manitobans are seeing record case numbers is because they are not following the rules. He took no responsibility for failing to heed warnings from neighbouring jurisdictions last month — including in Ontario, where highly contagious COVID-19 variant strains drove up infection rates and overwhelmed hospitals — by adopting preventative measures here.
Premier Brian Pallister, in his usual belligerent and abrasive style, lashed out again this week at anybody who suggested his government didn’t act early enough to prevent the crisis now before us. In a moment of utter delusion Thursday, Pallister claimed the province had the right level of public-health measures in place prior to the latest surge in cases.
Dr. Jazz Atwal, the deputy chief provincial public health officer, was asked Friday to explain how he got it so wrong three weeks ago when he predicted the surge Ontario was experiencing would not happen here. His response: Manitobans didn’t follow the rules.
"We were anticipating people would adhere to the orders," said Atwal.
"We’re all responsible for our interactions, we’re all responsible for adhering to the orders and adhering to the messaging... that’s one of the issues with models, is that it all depends on adherence to public-health orders."
It’s an absurd statement. Public health operates under the assumption that not everyone follows the rules. Officials tailor their orders accordingly. The province has good data on compliance through contact-tracing investigations, including how adherence changes over time. Public health has the ability to ramp up orders if more people are flouting the rules.
When they saw the impact variants were having on infection rates and hospitalizations in Ontario and Alberta, they had advance warning that strict measures were needed here immediately. They also had good intelligence on compliance levels at the time. Their job was to find the right level of public-health orders to get ahead of the surge, knowing not everyone would comply with the rules. They failed to do so; now they're making excuses.
If government can’t recognize when it fails, it’s impossible for it to take corrective action to prevent a repeat of its mistakes.
Indeed, those who don’t comply — or do so only haphazardly — bear the greatest responsibility for the situation we’re in. If everyone followed the rules diligently, Manitoba would probably not be in this mess. But short of handing out fines, beefing up enforcement and begging people to obey the rules, there’s not much more government can do to get that minority of people to co-operate. Government has to act beyond that to protect the public and prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed. By failing to do so last month, in the face of clear evidence and persistent lobbying by medical experts and scientists, officials were derelict in their duty.
If government can’t recognize when it fails, it’s impossible for it to take corrective action to prevent a repeat of its mistakes. By digging in and claiming they did everything possible to avert disaster, it’s difficult for people to have confidence in their public officials.
First ministers set the tone in government. Pallister’s arrogance and combative nature has seeped into the bureaucracy. He has created an unhealthy culture within government that makes it almost impossible to acknowledge errors and realign policy when things go wrong.
Manitobans are now witnessing the consequences of that poisoned environment.
Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.