The number of COVID cases has exploded in Alberta as Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party (UCP) scaled back preventative measures in early summer in the name of getting back to “business as usual.” With 13,349 active cases, Alberta now has the highest total active cases of all the provinces and territories.
Public health emergency and new restrictions
During the week of Nov. 15-22, Alberta surpassed 1,000 new cases in a single day on five occasions. On Sunday, Nov. 22, Alberta reported 1,584 new cases. This was the highest new case count in the country—higher even than Quebec and Ontario, which have populations two and three times larger than Alberta respectively.
These trends continued earlier this week until the Kenney government was forced to come out of hiding and declare a public health emergency on Tuesday, Nov. 24, implementing a series of “targeted restrictions” in the hopes of controlling the spread of the virus. Bizarrely, Kenney insisted that “Alberta’s response has been effective through most of the past nine months.” If that were true, why would he need to declare new restrictions to begin with?
Notably, these measures include a complete ban on indoor social gatherings. Outdoor social gatherings will be limited to a maximum of 10 people. Those found in violation of these measures could be fined up to $1,000. Students in Grades 7 through 12 will immediately transition into online classes starting at the end of November and until the coming winter break. This is despite Kenney’s previous insistence that “the evidence is overwhelming that schools can operate safely with little health risk for children and teachers, and low risk of causing serious outbreaks in the communities that surround them.” The closure is a simple admittance that children do, in fact, spread COVID-19.
What’s much more significant than what Kenney did ban, however, is what he did not ban. Restaurants, bars, pubs, and lounges will all continue to remain open. Not only that, but retail stores, museums, movie theatres, art galleries, libraries, casinos, farmers’ markets, and gyms will all continue to remain open as well, albeit at limited capacity. This begs the question: how can we even speak of a ban on social gatherings when the above continue to remain open? How can we speak of “social distancing” when thousands of workers are still required to go to work to keep these places running? The real situation is that there is a ban on social gatherings, unless you plan to spend money.
‘Personal responsibility’ and micromanaging
This all reflects a larger pattern of callous inaction and half-measures from the UCP. In early September, Kenney said in reference to rising COVID-19 cases, “Alberta’s belief is we’re not going to micromanage our way out of this.” Not only has there been no public “micromanaging,” there has been very little in the way of attempting to manage or curb the pandemic at all. Schools were reopened in a haphazard manner, the health-care system has been viciously gutted and targeted for privatization, all while business interests were prioritized. In reference to restrictions imposed in March, Kenney bragged that his government allowed 85 per cent of businesses to stay open during the initial lockdown, and made no plans to reinstate public health orders, or even simple preventative measures as outbreaks got worse.
Up until the new restrictions were announced on Nov. 24, Kenney had consistently argued that rather than restrictions on social gatherings and businesses, the only way the pandemic would be overcome is by people exercising “personal responsibility”, which became a mantra of his government.
While the UCP government has refused to “micromanage” a public response to the COVID-19 pandemic, a CBC article published on Nov. 26 shows the level of government interference in Alberta’s pandemic response based on the content of 20 secret audio recordings from the daily planning meetings of the Emergency Operations Centre (EOC). The article concluded that, “Taken together, [the audio recordings] reveal how Premier Jason Kenney, [Health Minister Tyler] Shandro and other cabinet ministers often micromanaged the actions of already overwhelmed civil servants; sometimes overruled their expert advice; and pushed an early relaunch strategy that seemed more focused on the economy and avoiding the appearance of curtailing Albertans’ freedoms than enforcing compliance to safeguard public health.”
The UCP government’s contact tracing efforts are turning into a total disaster. The UCP’s contact tracing app, ABTraceTogether, has been plagued with technical issues since the day it was rolled out. Before November, because of an incompatibility, users with iPhones needed the app to run in the foreground with the phone unlocked to work. If the user closed the phone to put it in their pocket, made a phone call, or sent a text, the app would not trace.
In early November, the government revealed the app had been used to trace 20 cases in the previous six months, despite the fact it had been downloaded more than 260,000 times. Yet the UCP have maintained that their app is preferable to the one provided by the federal government. The federal app has sent roughly one alert to users for every 1,200 downloads, while the provincial app has sent one for every 13,000 downloads.
The UCP are still refusing to abandon their app in favour of the federal government’s notification app, which they have called the “Trudeau app”. The Kenney government has pointed out that the federal COVID app is not a contact tracing app. This is true. However, it is at least doing what it is supposed to do and provides a service. The UCP has said that using the federal government’s app would mean abandoning the provincial one and that “ABTraceTogether is, from our view, simply a better and more effective public health tool” despite the fact that all the evidence points to the contrary.
In addition to the technological issues limiting the effectiveness of ABTraceTogether, Alberta’s contact tracing system has been completely overwhelmed. As a result a backlog has developed in contact tracing and thousands will no longer have their cases investigated. The UCP government had scaled back contract tracing on Nov. 6 because the system was already overwhelmed then. The Kenney government requested that those with positive test results notify their close contacts on their own unless they were considered to be associated with one of the high-priority locations such as schools, hospitals, and continuing care homes. Is this what Kenney means when he talks about “personal responsibility”, that individuals are responsible for doing their own contact tracing?
The government scaled back contact tracing even further on Nov. 23, stating that Alberta Health Services (AHS) was going to give up on tracing contacts temporarily for those with positive test results more than 10 days old. There are more than 11,000 people on a wait list, meaning that some 3,000 people will not get contact tracing calls because the newest cases are prioritized as they are considered the most infectious.
Despite all these problems with the spread of COVID-19 and contact tracing, Kenney is still refusing to implement a lockdown. Kenney instead has argued that his government “wouldn’t bow to ideological pressure” that “would cripple the economy”. Instead of a stricter lockdown, the Kenney government has instead implemented “targeted restrictions”, which are widely considered to be inadequate.
Kenney has spoken repeatedly throughout the pandemic about the need to “protect lives and livelihoods,” but we ask: whose lives and livelihoods? Kenney’s attitude towards those most vulnerable to COVID-19 has been the most disgusting kind of negligence. Just recently, the UCP decided now would be the perfect time to introduce damaging changes to Alberta’s disabled care program. Kenney has also often called COVID-19 an “influenza” that only presents a threat to the elderly. In May, Kenney told the legislature, “The average age of death from COVID in Alberta is 83 and I remind the house that the average life expectancy in the province is age 82.” This statement amounts to “the old are going to die anyway, no major measures are necessary!” No mention by Kenney that cases in long-term senior care homes have quadrupled in the past month.
Far from doing nothing, the UCP has actively made the problem worse. Back in October, the UCP announced 11,000 public healthcare layoffs. A leaked draft plan from Alberta Health Services revealed that this would actually mean the elimination of some 16,700 full- and part-time positions, including hundreds of nurses. It doesn’t take a policy expert or cabinet minister to understand why these cuts would be catastrophic. Hospitals are already reaching maximum capacity. Mass layoffs like these would be a terrible strain for even the best-equipped health-care services in normal times. During a global pandemic, they’re nothing short of criminal.
From the very beginning of the pandemic, Kenney has been tiptoeing between spoken half-measures and executive half-measures. We know we can effectively slow the spread of COVID-19 through a comprehensive lockdown. The majority of Albertans would support a province-wide mask mandate and “circuit-breaker” lockdown, and hundreds of physicians across the province have sent the government a joint letter pleading with them to implement one. Yet the UCP still refuses to budge. The UCP’s policies are tied to the interests of their rich friends and bosses. They’re not going to implement any measure which puts profits at risk unless forced to.
Kenney has been attempting to appeal to people’s moral sensitivities to keep business up and running. While announcing restrictions, he asked for “people who have the certainty of a paycheque, particularly a government paycheque, to think for a moment about those individuals whose entire life savings are tied up in businesses.” Never mind the fact that Kenney himself takes home an enormous “government paycheque,” or that most businesses are being kept afloat by even bigger “government paycheques.” This is an admittance on Kenney’s part that the UCP hasn’t implemented sufficient safeguards for small business owners.
Some business owners have been asking Kenney to implement a lockdown for safety reasons and because it would mean access to employment insurance and federal relief programs. Some restaurant owners have argued that the province would be able to fight the virus better by closing in-person dining and offering struggling restaurants rent support and bill freezes instead. The pandemic is so dire that some small businesses are taking the initiative to shut themselves down in an attempt to slow the spread.
The UCP has repeatedly shown that their main priorities are economic, and that they are unwilling to take any serious action to slow the pandemic if it harms profits or revenue. The lockdown in March contributed to decreasing government revenue from gambling and lotteries by $456 million. This time around, casinos have been left open. The absurdity of the UCP’s actions is not going unnoticed. The author of an opinion piece for CBC sarcastically said, “I guess if you want to hold a social gathering, do it in a casino.” Banning social gatherings in people’s homes, but encouraging them at businesses is not enough to stop the spread of COVID-19, nor will it save the economy. If the UCP is unwilling to take on the task of initiating a real, comprehensive lockdown, it should be taken up by the working class and the labour movement.
Wealth before health
In response to the Kenney government’s “wealth before health” approach to the pandemic, Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley has said that, “The UCP government has completely abandoned medical science… in service of political convenience.” She has called the UCP government’s latest restrictions “half-measures” that are “too little, too late”, adding, “It’s now clear that the official position of this government of Alberta is to do the very least possible to stop the spread of COVID-19.”
Kenney has responded to this line of argument by saying that “What you describe as a lockdown, first of all, constitutes a massive invasion of the exercise of people’s fundamental rights and a massive impact on not only their personal liberties but their ability to put food on the table to sustain themselves financially.” When he announced the new restrictions on Nov. 24, Kenney said, “Every new restriction makes it tougher for business owners to stay open and for thousands of people to pay their bills. Each new measure pushes more people into debt and more families closer to bankruptcy.”
The restrictions people face as part of lockdown orders do restrict personal liberties, but they also protect the rights of others in society from potential exposure to the virus. What about their rights? The restrictions also help to protect public health care, vulnerable people (the elderly and people with other illnesses) and to protect society in general from the impact of the spreading of the virus.
Furthermore, people are having trouble putting food on the table and paying the bills, and businesses are finding it difficult to stay open, only because the Kenney government is unwilling to provide financial support for those who need it.
Kenney has taken a page out of the Republican playbook in the United States by focusing on “personal responsibility” and arguing against stricter measures to stop the spread of the virus in the name of saving the economy. Kenney has faithfully represented the interests of his corporate paymasters by putting profit ahead of the lives of people.
As we pointed out in a previous article in relation to the Ontario government’s COVID response:
“[…] the choice between protecting people from the virus and protecting the economy is a false one. An MIT study of the 1918-19 flu pandemic showed that U.S. cities which responded with stronger social distancing and public health measures also saw improved economic recoveries. Economists are drawing similar conclusions from COVID-19. A recent survey of 32 macroeconomists found that 74 per cent believed the United States would be in a better economic position today if lockdowns had been more aggressive at the start of the crisis. Vietnam, praised for its strong response to COVID-19 and relatively low infection rate, is also looking to experience one of the highest economic growth rates in the world in 2021.”
Even from the perspective of the capitalists and their profits, allowing the pandemic to get out of control will lead to economic chaos. Those like Jason Kenney who argue for a laissez-faire approach to the pandemic claim they are focussed on protecting the economy. However, this is extremely short-sighted. The lockdowns implemented around the world have of course had a negative economic impact. However, there is a big difference between a planned and controlled lockdown in order to control the spread of the virus, which protects the health of workers and leaves the workforce intact, and an unplanned, chaotic shutdown of the economy forced upon us because COVID gets out of control and too many people are sick and businesses are forced to close anyway. A chaotic shutdown due to the spread of the virus is precisely what will cripple the economy and the workforce.
Bold socialist policies needed
By implementing lockdown measures we can control the spread of the virus. Restrictions could then be eased or strengthened as need arises. This would not be such a problem, except that capitalism cannot accommodate this and cannot provide social support for such measures. If we allow COVID-19 to overwhelm workplaces and hospitals, this will harm the economy to a greater extent than the lockdown measures and will force a shutdown anyway—not to control the spread of COVID, but because the spread is out of control.
There is an entire series of measures that could have been implemented from the beginning that would have given us greater control over the spread of the virus and which would have allowed us to keep the economy largely intact. But capitalism could not provide these measures. Class sizes at schools should have been smaller, but this would mean spending money on hiring more teachers and providing spaces for additional classrooms. Public health measures should have expanded across the board, but this would mean spending money on more doctors, nurses, technicians, and spaces for labs, clinics and intensive care beds. Small businesses suffering due to the economic crisis and social restrictions should be receiving full support in terms of rent and bills, but this would mean spending money to prop up these businesses. Workers should have access to paid sick leave, hazard pay, and guaranteed wages, but this too would mean spending more money.
The fact of the matter is that capitalism has proven incapable of responding to the pandemic. Capitalism has shown that it cannot preserve the livelihoods of working people in times of crisis. We must fight for a bold socialist response to COVID-19. We need to fight for a program of workers’ control that will ensure that all possible health and safety measures are implemented in workplaces. Non-essential businesses must be shut down for the duration of the pandemic and workers must be provided with guaranteed wages. Workers in essential services must receive double hazard pay and the right to safe workplaces. Workers who are unable to work because of lockdown restrictions could be employed in a comprehensive system of contact tracing and in other areas to help combat the virus.
The capitalists and their governments cannot be trusted to determine what businesses are essential and what can remain open. They cannot be trusted to safeguard society and the economy, because they always put themselves ahead of the rest of society and are only interested in preserving their profits. The situation in Alberta clearly shows they cannot be trusted to make these decisions.
Workers themselves must decide what workplaces are essential and what can safely reopen. “Personal responsibility” alone will not get us as a society out of this situation. Prioritizing profits over the health of the people will not get us out of this either. Only a bold socialist plan of action that prioritizes the health of the people and rationally plans economic activity will get us out of this crisis.