Not quite ready to embrace Phase 2

(May 28, 2020)

I WISH I could share the enthusiasm of those who are now happily booking haircuts, eating in restaurants and making plans to visit with friends and families.

My hair has not been this long since I was a teenager, it would be nice to share that home-cooking load with a chef, and I miss being able to sit around and just visit with people.

But I can’t. A Facebook meme shared last week sticks in my head: “Relaxing restrictions doesn’t mean the pandemic is over. It means there is now room for you in the ICU.”

Ouch. And then that famous tagline from Jaws 2 (1978) surfaces in my memory: “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water.”

OK, maybe I am over-thinking all of this. So I asked myself the blunt question, which no one has really asked our public health officials — the question for which Premier Brian Pallister needs a good answer before opening the doors to Phase 2 on June 1:

“What has changed from March 28 to May 28?”

Remember March? The frantic closing of everything, the suspending of in-class education as the educational system was shut down in a few days and students (and teachers) dispatched to their homes? Those restaurants I like simply closed, along with the churches, the hair salons — everything except liquor and cannabis stores, the new essential services to pacify the population as we watched jobs and entire industries shutter, perhaps for good? When professional sports just stopped? When tourism was reduced to “How quickly can I get home?”

We were told there were good reasons to do these things, to shelter in place, to avoid contact with anyone we didn’t live with, and as we watched the body count rise elsewhere in the world, it wasn’t hard to be convinced it was a good idea, whatever else happened.

Sixty days later, is it really safe to go back in the water? By fluke of geography and timing, Manitoba dodged the initial wave — the advantage of having a later (and thus cancelled) spring break, and not being a tourist destination in February for anyone sane enough to travel.

There will be a second wave, we are told — and if other pandemic patterns hold, it will be worse than the first, especially if it is later in the fall, when flu season starts.

What has changed? We still have no vaccine (if there is going to be one, it could be a year away from mass distribution). We have learned how best to treat people in intensive care, to improve their chance of survival. We might have enough PPE now for those in front-line roles … but it will be harder to identify who is front-line as society opens up again. The extra ventilators are on order, and the new Canadian design might help improve their delivery.

Yes, we know more about the virus, and have a better idea of who is at increased risk. We know more about how it spreads, and that, while it is highly contagious, it is less contagious than it could be. We know people who contract the virus can die, but fewer will die than with other, more deadly, pandemic diseases.

We also know most people who contract the virus will recover, though there are troubling questions about serious long-term health damage.

What we still don’t know, however, is how many asymptomatic people are carriers. We don’t know what makes some people — of any age — more susceptible to getting the virus, or why some people get very sick, very quickly, and others shrug it off in a couple of days, like a cold or the flu. We don’t know if it will mutate, again, and what those potential mutations could mean.

We know people should wear masks, to reduce the likelihood of spreading the virus. We know social distancing and not spending a long time in a poorly ventilated space with others reduces risk, too. We have always known the importance of washing our hands — and now are actually doing it, for a change.

But is it safe to go back in the water? Are we making that decision for good public-health reasons, or only because of economics? Or just because we are going stir-crazy?

What is clear is that leaving our bubble — for any reason — involves a risk we have never considered before, especially if you have health conditions, or are older.

I don’t know if I would recover in a couple of days, or if I would be fighting for my life in ICU within a week. Or when I spread it to my family, what would happen to them.

So, I really don’t think much has changed since March.

Please tell me I’m wrong — my barber wants to hear that, too.

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Pallister’s ‘bucket list’ of irritations

(May 20, 2020)

I wrote the first words of this column as the sun rose over the Red River on Manitoba’s 150th birthday.

After bemoaning the fact the Snowbirds did not swing north of the city during the local leg of their now-interrupted inspiration tour, it was then back to life in the midst of a pandemic.

At heart, like all activists, I am an optimist. You have to be, because there are always lots of reasons to quit, as you listen to the voices of those who tell you it is hopeless, or pointless or futile.

So, last week, I hoped we would see some sign of Pallister’s plan to mark the province’s sesquicentennial, some blueprint for Manitoba’s future that showed the collective wisdom of our political leaders in a time of crisis.

Instead of a plan, however, it seems Premier Brian Pallister has an agenda — a personal agenda, his own “bucket list” of irritations before he hands off to a new leader just in time for the Progressive Conservative Party to face Manitobans at the polls in 2023 (or sooner).

Bloated civil service, propped up by nasty unions? Check. Post-secondary institutions, where people do very little except belly-ache for more money? Check. Environmental organizations that keep telling me the government is not doing enough for the planet or the future? Check. Manitoba Hydro, which just won’t roll over and die? Check.

All of this, of course, is ostensibly to provide more money for health care — but then, in the same breath, Pallister gifted seniors $200 each ($45 million) and dropped another $500 million worth of promises into construction. That $360,000 cut from the budgets of Green Action Centre, Manitoba-Eco-Network and Climate Change Connection — which were told “the fact of the matter is, all of us are in this together, and that includes advocacy groups” — is a long way from even being nickels in that scenario.

Calling them “advocacy groups” also misrepresents most of the work they do, from ecological education in schools and working on sustainable transportation to establishing the composting service the city (and province) continues to dodge. But silencing them eliminates awkward questions, asked on behalf of average citizens left out in the cold, that this premier would also prefer to dodge. Check.

For younger Manitobans, facing unemployment this summer and yet wanting to return to school in the fall, there is the promise of a wage subsidy — as long as there are employers with jobs for students, and who have the cash to float that $5,000 advance until the government pays up in the fall. Publicity that will cost little or nothing? Check.

Then $10 million for summer Green Team funding for students — with the irony that many sponsoring organizations (such as churches or community groups) are now closed or reliant on those environmental “advocacy” groups for organization, resources and support. Vaguely green gesture, that again will cost little? Check.

So, here we are. Hard to be an optimist for Manitoba’s 151st year, isn’t it?

I have confessed this before, but the only political party to which I have ever belonged was the Progressive Conservative Party. Granted, it was a long time ago, back when — in Manitoba, especially — you could be both progressive and conservative without being a walking oxymoron.

As a young person, I was proud of what the Progressive Conservatives were doing — at least, until the Reform wind blew from the west and Alberta’s Social Credit ideology took over. Like many other young people I knew at the time, I left, and have never really found a place since I could call home.

I think that progressive element is still out there in rural areas, among the people who vote for the PC Party in Manitoba, but whose personal lives, in their communities and in the wider world, reflect values that support their neighbour and help others in need, ahead of ideology and budget cuts.

I propose, to those readers who regularly get financial requests from the party, that they reconsider where their donations should go at the moment. As the premier says, “We are all in this together” — and right now, the Progressive Conservative Party of Manitoba does not need a war chest. It needs a wound chest, or it will not deserve re-election.

So politely refuse the opportunity to give more money to the PC Party — and tell them instead it will be going to the food banks, the theatre and music groups, the social services in your community, the environmental groups — all of which are suffering and have not made it onto the premier’s agenda, except as targets.

For the seniors who can afford it, top things up with the $200 you didn’t expect.

Premier Pallister makes it clear he won’t be forced to do the right thing — so it’s time for the progressive members of the PC Party to do some damage control of their own.

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COVID-19 response will cement Pallister’s legacy

(April 8, 2020)

As the water levels rise again this spring, Winnipeggers are less anxious than others who live along riverbanks. Sheltered behind the recently expanded floodway, we have safely managed several “floods of the century” since the city was swamped in 1950.

Duff Roblin did not regard that 1950 flood as an isolated event, something unlikely to reoccur in his time as premier. Instead, he took the lesson of that flood to heart, and did something generations of Manitobans since have appreciated. It is his legacy.

“Duff’s Ditch” was an object of derision at the time, however. He paid a political price for digging it. His government put principle ahead of politics, doing what was right instead of what kept people happy.

Premier Brian Pallister has watched Manitoba deal with a flood of another kind, as the COVID-19 pandemic spreads. Mostly because of our geography, we are behind the lethal numbers seen elsewhere. Outside of the Festival du Voyageur, Manitoba in February is simply not a travel destination for tourists who have a choice.

In this brief breath before the first big wave of the pandemic hits here, there are already some lessons to be learned. We will be watching to see what kind of leadership Premier Pallister and his Progressive Conservative government provide, and whether he personally has the wisdom in crisis that a good leader must demonstrate to keep the confidence of the people.

Right now, I have some serious doubts, but in the hopes that first impressions are misleading, and that, in a crisis, good advice from all sides is needed and heeded, I offer the following:

1. This is not “the Pandemic of the Century.” It is the pandemic of 2019-21. There will be more pandemics, and likely subsequent waves of COVID-19. We need to plan ahead to minimize the impact of future pandemics on health care, communities, education and the economy.

2. Local communities and neighbourhoods matter. Resources geared to strengthening them are essential. Budgets should not be trimmed at the expense of libraries, recreation centres, pools and other local community infrastructure. In a pandemic, we need neighbours.

3. Basic essential services must be supported in local communities, not centralized elsewhere under the guise of “efficiency.” This would include basic medical, dental, prescription drugs and food services. There should be no “food deserts” or any other kind of local hole in essential services.

4. Reducing dependence on essential supplies from elsewhere is critical. Borders can be closed, and will be. What happens to local communities if the trucks and trains stop? We need to develop and support all stages of food production in Manitoba, for example, from farm to plate.

5. Education systems need a plan, with resources and supplies, for moving back and forth between in-class and distance delivery. This requires both the right technology, so no Manitoban child is left behind because they can’t afford the equipment, and the right pedagogy. The answer to every distance education question is not Zoom.

6. High-speed internet everywhere in the province is essential. The technology is available to do this. Even communities right around Winnipeg have poor service — or none at all. To allow for education and work to be done at home, everyone needs the same level of access, not just those in prime locations or who have the money to pay.

7. Guaranteed basic income is necessary, with housing to suit that budget. Raise the floor, and there will be less need for social services and emergency supports, less child poverty, and less dependence on the charity of others that can disappear when times get tough.

8. We must identify core medical supplies in the event of a mass event such as COVID-19 and stockpile enough for six months. Identify local suppliers or industries than can be quickly retooled to provide additional supplies.

9. Encourage essential services to abandon “just in time” delivery practices and return to maintaining local inventory of crucial items — for those times when the trucks will be forced to stop.

10. Electrify the province. We could be virtually self-sustaining in terms of electricity for vehicles and heating, but instead we rely on energy from away that also generates greenhouse gas emissions and fuels global warming. We already make electric buses for people elsewhere!

Resilience and sustainability depend upon us living close to home. This is not only true in pandemics, but also — and especially — in a world facing climate crisis. The problems will grow, not go away.

Mr. Pallister, I met your mother once. I’m sure she would have told you to put on a necktie, sit up straight at those briefings, fix your hair and take charge. Rely on the wisdom around you, from wherever, and make a practical, sustainable plan for Manitoba’s future.

“Pallister’s Plan” — in Manitoba’s 150th year, that would be a legacy to remember.

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