If you think Ontario’s pandemic situation is catastrophic, you should look west to Alberta.

As of May 1, Alberta had a daily average of 41.3 COVID cases per 100,000 people, just inching out Michigan for North America’s worst hotspot. The province’s rate of 508.2 active cases per 100,000 people was double that of Ontario, the only other province that exceeds Canada’s rate of 219.8. Also that day, Alberta reached its record high of 2,433 new cases, and thousands of COVID-19 denialists flocked to a “No More Lockdown Rodeo Rally” just outside Bowden, about an hour north of Calgary. 

The event’s organizers made their motivations clear on Facebook, saying they “will not stand by idly and watch as not only our businesses but also our Western heritage and more importantly, our basic human rights are ripped out of existence by the tyrannical beings of our current world.”

Premier Jason Kenney didn’t say a thing until late in the afternoon of the rodeo’s second day, tweeting that the event is “disturbing” and a “flagrant violation of COVID-19 public health measures.” 

Bowden Mayor Robb Stuart says he called his MLA, Agriculture and Forestry Minister Devin Dreeshen, to get the event shut down. Dreeshen — who earlier in the pandemic told meat packing workers their cramped workplace was safe before an outbreak led to multiple deaths — let the mayor know it was Alberta Health Services’ responsibility, not his. 

And the rest is history.

Sick Days For Me, But Not For Thee 

To demonstrate the severity of the situation, on May 2 Kenney opted to close down the legislature for two weeks. (Suffice it to say, this isn’t a liberty offered to working people who are ill but still need to work to get paid.)

On May 4, after months of kicking and screaming, Kenney imposed the tightest restrictions since April 2020, closing down salons, restaurants for dine-in service and gyms, sending students of all grades back home for online learning, and limiting outdoor gatherings to five people. Many of these restrictions didn’t go into effect until today.  

But if a municipality has fewer than 50 cases per 100,000 people, some of these new modest measures don’t even apply. And retailers are permitted to stay open, albeit at 10 per cent capacity, to ensure the wheels of capitalism continue churning.

If this doesn’t sound like it makes much sense, it’s because it doesn’t. As Lorian Hardcastle, an associate professor of health, law and policy at the University of Calgary, recently told VICE, “Premier Kenney has really tried to walk the line between appeasing the people who live in Alberta who are opposed to restrictions and the people who want more restrictions.” 

Hardcastle added, “And by walking that line, I think we end up with these sort of confusing half-measures that are difficult to follow, difficult to understand, and I think that’s contributed to compliance being poor.”

Half Measures Keep The Economy Pumping 

This isn’t incompetence from Kenney, but part of an insidious political calculus. Since he returned to Alberta to create the United Conservative Party (UCP), Kenney has been whipping his base into a fact-free frenzy. He needs to ensure they stay on board, lest his party splits in two again. 

The fact is, Alberta has never had a lockdown, but instead a varying array of restrictions that have been imposed and removed. Kenney has defended this laissez-faire approach as one that protects “lives and livelihoods.” 

“The economy is not some discrete sphere of financial transactions – it is woven into everybody’s life,” Kenney told the Globe and Mail back in December, revealing just how single-mindedly committed he is to neoliberal ideology. “When I talk about livelihoods, I’m talking about the broader impact on people’s lives rather than just narrowly focusing on one aspect of public health.”

Still, for a quarter of his caucus, this revolving series of half-measures is a bridge too far. In a highly unusual move, 17 UCP legislators, including Speaker of the Legislature Nathan Cooper, wrote a letter to Kenney in April, protesting the even less stringent measures he’d imposed at that time, which they characterized as a step in the “wrong direction.”

One signatory, Cypress-Medicine Hat MLA Drew Barnes — whose property management company attempted to evict a tenant in the pandemic’s early days — said the impact of restrictions on his constituents’ mental and physical wellness are “just as bad as the COVID crisis.” Earlier this year, he advocated for a regional approach toward restrictions “to keep the economy going,” as if economic activity doesn’t involve travel between regions 

Barnes and another UCP dissenter, Airdrie-East MLA Angela Pitt, were members of the national End the Lockdown Caucus, until founding member Randy Hillier, of Ontario legislature infamy, explicitly compared the province’s month-long lockdown earlier this year to the Third Reich. Yet Barnes and Pitt have continued their anti-lockdown streak in Alberta. 

Pitt, who recently asked her constituents to “do your own research” on vaccination, declined to say whether she’d take the COVID vaccine, essentially telling reporters it was none of their business before backtracking.

Vaccination Alone Won’t Get Us Out Of This 

In early April, Kenney assured Albertans that, “If we stick to our guns for a few more weeks, I truly believe we will head into the best summer ever in Alberta history.” He even added that he believes the Calgary Stampede will take place. When that inevitably doesn’t happen, he can go back to doing what he does best — blaming the federal government.

Meanwhile, Alberta Health Services has released a 50-page triage protocol to determine who lives and dies in the event that ICUs become overwhelmed. By Sunday, there were 155 people in intensive care, more than at any other time during the pandemic.

An emergency room physician in Calgary, Joe Vipond, recently said, “It has become evident the government either feels they will be able to vaccinate their way out of this wave or, alternatively, will just allow it to run rampant and suffer the consequences.” He added, “We’re fooling ourselves to think we’ll be able to vaccinate fast enough to prevent the unnecessary, predictable and preventable suffering from illness and death that are clearly befalling our province.”

You know you’re completely fucked when you’re depending on Jason Kenney to do the right thing and side with medical experts over a bunch of cowboys in his caucus.

With last week’s announcement of stricter measures, he’s moved a small step in the right direction. Don’t expect that to last.

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