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72 hours and 18 deaths later, Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister finally faces the province on COVID-19 surge

COVID-19Canadian Politics

Community members and organizers set up a display of carboard tombstones near the home of Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister, criticizing his government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by Buck Doyle.

On Saturday, October 31, Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister woke up at his $2 million Wellington Crescent residence to a couple of his least favourite things: Halloween and public accountability.

Earlier that morning, activists had installed a display of 65 tombstones on the boulevard opposite the premier’s home to recognize all those who have died from COVID-19 under his watch. This action was organized after an announcement on October 30 by the province’s Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Brent Roussin, that Winnipeg will enter the highest level—code red, or critical—of the pandemic response system and implement new restrictions the following week.

This news, along with the uncertainty of new restrictions, was tough for many Manitobans to hear. During difficult times, we turn to our elected leaders for direction and reassurance. We rely on their participation in press conferences so we can ask questions and hold our leaders to account for their decisions.

Not a single Conservative MLA—nor the premier himself—was available for comment for over 72 hours after Friday’s announcement. This left unelected public health officials to quell the public’s fears. In fact, 18 more Manitobans lost their lives to COVID-19 in the time it took Premier Pallister to address the province.

The tombstone display was born from collective frustration and fear felt by many across the province. In addition to visually representing the human loss caused by the virus in Manitoba, it placed the spotlight on the provincial government’s lack of accountability and action in addressing the massive second wave of cases.

Unfortunately, by the time the tombstone display could be documented by reporters, the number of fatalities were outdated as four more deaths were counted on Saturday. The absence of the premier and his cabinet in crucial moments like these is alarming because their failure to publicly address Manitobans effectively shields them from being held accountable for their lack of substantive action in preventing avoidable deaths.

As of Monday, November 2, there are over 3,400 active cases in the province, which has an astounding test positivity rate of nine percent. 80 Manitobans have now died. In what is turning out to be the defining moments of his premiership, Pallister and his government have not shown up for Manitobans when we need them the most.

Instead of doing the job we elected him to do—that is, supporting teachers, nurses, small businesses, and minimum-wage workers who are directly impacted by the move to code red—the leader of our province has chosen to shirk responsibility and download it onto the people.

In fact, Pallister stated clearly his unwillingness to help Manitobans when he recently said that “a government can’t protect you from this virus, you have to protect each other.” Dr. Amir Attaran, a professor of public health at the University of Ottawa, described this as “the most incompetent reaction I’ve seen in Canada since the pandemic started.” And while properly addressing the COVID-19 pandemic does not have to be an explicitly political issue, a myriad of connected problems related to the virus have been exacerbated by dubious political decisions.

Illustration by Andrew Kohan/Instagram

Not only is the Pallister government’s failure to properly act on the dramatic spike in COVID-19 cases proving to be lethal, but it has also been exacerbated by years of austerity measures. This includes the closure of three emergency rooms in 2019 and a 20 percent reduction in intensive care units across the province in 2020. Manitoba’s healthcare system was already spread thin prior to the pandemic—the issues we are witnessing now are the direct result of years of Conservative cuts.

Manitoba’s dire state is further proof that short-term cost saving measures have failed to stop the spread of the virus. What’s more, penny-pinching our way through a global pandemic will cause lasting damage to the economy. We are already feeling the consequences and the worst has yet to arrive. Manitobans are literally dying a death by 1,000 cuts.

COVID-19 is ravaging correctional facilities and long-term care homes across the province. There are outbreaks at hospitals and schools. Nurses and teachers are afraid to go to work. As we saw during the premier’s last press conference, his government is not interested in leading by example. The Conservatives will continue to react to, rather than prevent, the spread of COVID-19 and countless more lives will be needlessly lost.

Echoing the concerns raised in a passionate letter published in the Winnipeg Free Press by 12 Winnipeg doctors, organizers of the tombstone display are calling on the provincial government to respond with immediate action and implement a province-wide shutdown. This includes developing a holistic plan to support educators, healthcare workers, and small businesses during this time.

We have heard countless calls from teachers asking the government to provide proper funding to equip classrooms with sanitization stations, personal protective equipment, and remote learning tools. On November 1, an open letter was published on the current outbreak and grave conditions at Victoria Hospital. And so, while implementing a curfew may help, as recently suggested by the premier, it is not a solution on its own without investing in social supports like province-wide universal paid sick leave, for example, which would allow all workers in Manitoba to abide by safety mandates. If people are sick, they need to stay home from work. But this can’t practically happen when we rely on work to pay rent and put food on the table.

The overwhelmingly positive response to the tombstone display indicates just how fed up Manitobans are with the Conservatives’ response (or lack thereof) to the massive second wave of cases in the province. It is up to Premier Pallister and his government to introduce the measures outlined above and to get Manitobans healthy soon. That means “focusing on the fundamentals.”

Rebecca Hume is a settler living on Treaty 1 lands. She recently graduated from Ryerson University’s Master of Arts in Communication & Culture Program and is one of the community organizers behind the tombstone display.

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