From schools to hospitals, up and down the province, Manitobans are sitting in confined death traps. As of December 1, 312 people have died from COVID-19. Judging by the leisurely response of Premier Brian Pallister, it appears the sick and dead act as nothing more than sacrificial lambs to the political divinity of neoliberalism in Manitoba.
We should all be questioning the integrity of Pallister’s words, as he has repeatedly shown he is incapable of leading the province through the pandemic. From stripping the health care sector of vital resources, to treating public employees as little more than expendable balance sheet items, the premier has displayed that the health of Manitobans is much less important to him than his own political agenda.
Pallister has tended towards blaming individuals for the resurgence of active novel coronavirus cases. But it is becoming increasingly clear that the primary blame rests on his government’s shoulders. Not only did Pallister re-open the economy prematurely in fear of lockdowns wreaking havoc on his budget, he also took a leisurely two-week trip to Costa Rica only days after the province formally began its COVID response.
Business as usual for Manitoba schools
To escape responsibility, the premier stated emphatically in late October that the primary transmitters are young people neglecting restrictions. He went so far as to fund advertisements with taxpayer dollars to target youth. But, during the second rise in infections during the middle part of last month, COVID cases per 100,000 people showed a shockingly uniform transmission rate in all age groups ranging from 20-60 years of age. Pallister’s rhetoric consistently places the onus of responsibility on individuals as opposed to the systemic roots of virus transmission. Manitobans need leadership—not political opportunism, more flowers for the dead, or thoughts for the sick.
Pallister has yet to bring attention to the rise in cases reported among the 0-19 year age group. Together, from mid to late October, when the premier was actively blaming young adults for the surge in cases, this demographic reported roughly 267 cases—more than any other statistical age group.
As of November 17, there were 675 COVID-19 cases in schools, of which 513 were students and 162 were staff. It is important to recognize that this statistic does not include the number of people unknowingly infected by school-aged children and teaching staff. Further, it is probably safe to assume that the real numbers are much higher given young students represent roughly 3,000 of Manitoba’s total case load.
School and daycare related exposures are disproportionately high in Manitoba, but this is not the fault of education workers. Canadian Dimension spoke with an employee from the Winnipeg school system about the concerns educators have about the insufficient and piecemeal precautions the province is taking to ensure staff and children are safe.
“Teachers and their administrators are doing the best they can within a quickly changing environment, with a government tone-deaf to the needs of both staff and students,” they said. “Support that is relevant and practical is needed. Teachers are burning out quickly with the heavy demands and are feeling like they’ve been thrown into the pit and left to manage on their own. We’ve risen to the challenge and simply want the government to provide practical support to continue keeping children safe and learning.”
But children and educators are not safe and judging by the current circumstances they may not be for quite some time. As the entire province shuts down to living on bare essentials, our education system has been left out in the cold—responsible for facing the new wave of cases with nothing more than expired face masks and a hope that the children attending school have been tested.
Budgets and bureaucratic violence
The invisible violence of neoliberal economic policy is becoming increasingly evident amidst the pandemic. The unwillingness of the provincial government to spend money on bolstering the social safety net and expanding the public sector is a fundamental source of endemic spread in Manitoba. The infection rate in schools across the province is acting as a hearth for the virus (and Pallister likely knows this), but closing daycares and schools means shutting down more of the economy than the government is willing to do.
It is easy to forget just how institutionally important the education system is to the maintenance of capitalist economies. In typical neoliberal fashion, the OECD, an intergovernmental development organization, recently published a study on the economic impacts of school closures on gross domestic product across G20 nations. The study found that the learning losses incurred by school closures will result in GDP losses ranging everywhere from $500 billion in South Africa to $15.5 trillion in China—losses that will have considerable impacts on growth-oriented economies.
A pause on learning contributes to considerable costs in the future. Yet, school closures also inhibit the economy in less abstract and more immediate ways. Everywhere parents would be forced to stay home from work to look after their children and potentially homeschool them. Should schools close, low-income parents, without the option of working from home, would miss out on the abysmal wages that keep them hovering around the poverty line. A missed paycheque in these scenarios is simply not an option for a large portion of families.
Manitoba is not exempt from these losses. Pallister anxiously launched his #RestartMB campaign in August because of it. In a rather relaxed fashion, the premier essentially called on Manitobans to make sacrifices to their personal health to aid Manitoba’s economic recovery. As he announced the new #RestartMB platform he claimed, “public health and safety is a key driver of recovery, and as we continue to safely restart our economy and reopen our communities, we must learn to live with this virus.” He added that, “[Manitobans are] ready to live with COVID-19, ready to return to school, ready to restart our services, create jobs and grow our economy.”
Judging by Pallister’s record, it would be safe to assume the reason schools have not shut down is because sending daycare and school-age children back home would cause enormous economic strain throughout the province (in the COVID economy, “you’re allowed only a kid or a job”). In other words, closing schools would mean driving the public deficit deeper—something the Progressive Conservatives are unwilling to do.
Beyond this, the province is relying on the consumer power of workers to recover from the recession. Yet, subsidizing the wages of low-income parents is something the Pallister government wants to avoid at all costs, even if that cost means the lives of Manitobans. Remember, this is the same government that was paying recipients of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit a single instalment of $2,000 to abandon the relief program—citing the dated 19th century Dickensian logic of worker “idleness” as its anxiety with public welfare policy.
Now, as cases surge in underfunded schools without the resources to respond effectively to the pandemic, so too is our under-resourced health care system being overwhelmed. Currently, intensive care units are over capacity, and hospitals are now resorting to moving the “least sick” to hotels and public buildings. Hospitals have also been forced to triage emergency room patients from their cars. In an interview with the CBC a nurse stated, “the system is breaking along with the backs of those who are trying desperately to hold it together.”
Perhaps Manitoba’s hospitals would be more prepared had the PCs not taken great strides to defund the health system back in 2017. As a result of the slashed budget, the premier closed three of Winnipeg’s six ERs, including those at Victoria Hospital, Seven Oaks Hospital, and Concordia Hospital. Significant capital funding to six proposed healthcare facilities was also cut early in the government’s term, including $300 million for a CancerCare Manitoba expansion. Predictably, critical infrastructure, staff, and emergency beds that could have alleviated the brunt of the pandemic were gone due to Pallister’s subservience to the almighty dollar.
As many predicted, spending cuts produced unintended costs. Little did we know it would be the lives of so many Manitobans. As John Maynard Keynes once said: “It is better to be roughly right than precisely wrong.” Pallister was precisely wrong, and his frugal approach to politics and spending is exactly why Manitobans are dying. The blood is on his hands.
Lucas Edmond is the comments editor at the Manitoban and a writer based in Winnipeg. He is completing his double honours degree in history and anthropology at the University of Manitoba and has specialized interests in economic and social history, labour history, and critical political ecology. The opinions expressed in this piece are his own, and not necessarily those of his employer.