Premier Heather Stefanson got it half right.
In an alarming news conference Wednesday, Stefanson correctly acknowledged Omicron — the hyper-infectious variant of the novel coronavirus — cannot be contained. At least, not in the way previous variants have been curbed through vaccinations and restrictions.
"The virus is running throughout our community and it’s up to Manitobans to look after themselves," Stefanson said. "We must all learn to live with this virus; there must be a balance."
Stefanson is not alone in this perspective; an identical sentiment is being expressed by political leaders and public health officials all over the world.
On the same day Stefanson faced reporters in Winnipeg, Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical advisor to U.S. President Joe Biden, said that Omicron’s "extraordinary, unprecedented degree of efficiency of transmissibility, will ultimately find just about everybody." Also on the same day, Dr. Janet Woodcock, acting commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, said governments need to put their first focus on ensuring health-care systems do not collapse under the weight of Omicron infections.
However, after noting that Manitobans have to "learn to live with the virus," Stefanson argued that because Omicron cannot be controlled in the same manner as previous variants, "the government can’t protect everyone out there."
Even though personal responsibility is a huge issue, that is simply not the right thing to say. It’s a statement that will likely define Stefanson’s political career, particularly if it is portrayed as the moment she abandoned all hope. And that is, broadly speaking, how it’s being portrayed.
Stefanson’s error in logic is interpreting the properties of Omicron — highly infectious, generally milder symptoms — as a greenlight to make fewer public health interventions. This is a problem all over the world.
Yes, Fauci said Omicron may "find everybody," but he did not say that governments should do nothing to control the spread of the virus. To that point, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organization, cautioned governments not to "give the virus a free ride, or wave the white flag, especially when so many people around the world remain unvaccinated."
Clearly, we have reached a point in the pandemic where, perhaps not surprisingly, the phrase "learning to live with the virus" means radically different things to politicians than it does to medical and scientific experts.
Increasingly, political leaders are using the phrase to justify an end to lockdowns and only limited restrictions; medical and scientific experts are pleading with their political masters not to abandon restrictions, but apply them in a more focused fashion.
To be fair, there are still interventions in place here in Manitoba.
The Stefanson government continues to be bullish on vaccinations, limit indoor capacities and — despite the premier’s apparent ideological objections — impose vaccine mandates for some indoor locations like bars, restaurants, fitness centres and sporting or cultural events.
However, as Omicron has gathered steam in Manitoba, Stefanson has tuned out the chorus of pleas — many from the front lines of health care — to further restrict some activities to ease pressure on the hospital system.
Social and economic restrictions cannot stop Omicron, but they could reduce the total number of infections just enough to keep the health-care system from total collapse.
Instead, the Stefanson government has left us in a hellish limbo where our lives are somewhat restricted but not to the extent where it provides any relief.
Why, for example, are we still allowing people into casinos and to attend in-person church services but schools were shut down for additional time after Christmas?
These unexplained policy contradictions leave Stefanson in a precarious position.
Stefanson’s comments not only undermine restrictions in place now, they make it impossible to get public support for more stringent controls should they be needed in the future. After telling the public further restrictions are pointless, many members of the public will no doubt be asking themselves, "Why do we need any indoor capacity limits or mask and vaccine mandates? They don’t work anyway."
Stefanson’s great failing at this stage in the pandemic is that she and her advisors seem unable to prioritize restrictions.
If we were to rank pandemic priorities right now, protecting the health-care system would be at the top of the list, with keeping schools open a close second. Unfortunately, allowing anyone to gather indoors for any other reason makes it harder to protect hospitals and keep schools open.
So let’s ask ourselves, what is more important? Keeping churches, bars, restaurants, casinos and gyms open with limited capacities, or giving those activities up in the hope it helps us keep hospitals from collapsing and schools open?
And let’s remember, government has held back hundreds of millions of dollars in pandemic relief money from this year’s budget. There has never been a better time for government to put that money where its mouth is by selectively closing places where people gather in the name of protecting health care and education.
Stefanson no doubt expects some pats on the back for being honest about our predicament. However, you only get to say that government can’t do anything more to protect people if you have already proven you were willing to do anything and everything.
And the Stefanson government has fallen woefully short of that.
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.