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BTL 2022

Saskatchewan’s COVID-19 failure exposes the bankruptcy of neoliberalism

Ideology has depleted public services, turned health care into increasingly profit-driven business

Canadian PoliticsEconomic CrisisCOVID-19

For many organizers and progressives, the pandemic did not reveal anything we did not already know about the way the Canadian economy is structured. It is not that many Canadians did not realize that inequality exists in Canada, or that the lives and labour of many are often treated as expendable, but that the pandemic has brought these existing fault lines into sharp, ugly relief. In Saskatchewan, the provincial government’s pandemic response has exposed the failure of neoliberal policies in the face of crisis.

Despite the Omicron variant threatening to overrun the health care system and Premier Scott Moe’s own recent COVID-19 diagnosis, Saskatchewan remains the only province without any gathering restrictions. Adding to the confusion for residents, Dr. Saqib Shahab, the province’s chief medical health officer, has urged people to limit gatherings and reduce their contacts outside of work and school for two to four weeks. When asked by the media who people should trust, given the conflicting messages between medical and political authorities, Moe’s response was that citizens should simply “trust themselves.”

Nearly two years into this pandemic, we know that individual choice offers a poor criterion to guide the health and wellbeing of entire populations, yet leaders like Moe have retained a pervasive commitment to neoliberal ideology, harkening back to the Thatcherite mantra, “there is no society, only individuals.”

Beyond cuts to social programs and the privatization of public assets, a cornerstone of neoliberal ideology is the drive to transform the relationship between individuals and the state by privileging individual responsibility over government policies as the decisive factor in determining how individuals’ fare in society. Theoretically, individuals can make their own assessments of what is tenable during a pandemic, but that freedom is always tied to our place in an economic and social hierarchy, and our connection and relationships with others.

The provincial government’s lack of preventative action has had particularly disastrous consequences for the wellbeing of incarcerated people in Saskatchewan, with organizers staging a hunger strike in response. When asked how conditions became so dire in prisons, Minister of Corrections and Policing Christine Tell said she “can’t answer that.” Continuing to push the onus of a public health crisis onto individuals is particularly insulting when the government itself refuses to take any responsibility for its own decisions and lack of action.

In its response to the pandemic, the Saskatchewan Party has also not wasted the opportunity to usher in more privatization, funding private surgical clinics and contracting a private company to undertake contact tracing and case management. The recent resignation of top Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) officials points to further trouble ahead. This has been compounded by the appointment of a former Saskatchewan Party candidate and longtime political staffer to a newly-created vice-president position in the SHA, a move described by provincial NDP Leader Ryan Meili as reeking of “political cronyism.”

Regrettably, however, in its role as the official opposition, the Saskatchewan NDP has failed to gain more political support during the pandemic. Its criticism of the Saskatchewan Party for having a “political response” to the crisis misses the mark, while its call for an independent public inquiry into the provincial government’s COVID-19 response is unlikely to have much of an effect.

A government that is run as a corporation, with the premier amounting to a figurehead CEO that reports profits to its shareholders, can offer no answers to questions of public health and collective action.

Expressing little regret for government inaction in his year-end interview with the CBC, Moe suggested that “we need to move beyond looking inward at one another and start to look outward as to how are we are going to provide the goods to the world.” Back ‘inside,’ just over the past year, Saskatchewan can boast a record number of deaths from overdoses, while the provincial government continues to deny funding for a safe consumption site. Ongoing changes and cuts to social assistance have also resulted in increased evictions and made housing more difficult to secure and maintain for those who were already struggling.

The showing of People’s Party of Canada leader Maxime Bernier in Saskatoon during the last federal election points to the political capital the far-right has accrued in Saskatchewan through the exploitation of anti-vaccine sentiment. More broadly, the continued tensions around lower vaccination rates in Saskatchewan highlight the efficiency with which neoliberal ideology erodes our sense of solidarity and belonging to a larger community. Parties and groups that thrive off of “anti-vax” narratives are not threats to be ignored, but it seems highly unlikely that any left-leaning party will garner support by pushing a narrative of individual responsibility, instead of targeting how avoidable much of this suffering was in the first place.

More serious and overlapping issues are the federal government’s protection of pharmaceutical patents at the expense of the population of the Global South, and Ottawa’s failure to allocate enough public resources in the early days of the pandemic to procure adequate supplies of test kits and masks to assist health care workers and stem uncontrolled community spread.

While organizers and progressives might not have learned anything new about capitalism or inequality through the pandemic, we certainly have learned a profound lesson about the power that individualist narratives continue to hold across the political spectrum. It is much easier to place the onus of responsibility on individuals rather than to imagine ways of dismantling or reforming systems that disregard human welfare in the service of profits.

Structurally, neoliberalism has no answer to collective or social problems, which is why we have seen this ideology fail so spectacularly (and repeatedly) during the pandemic. While many of us have been socialized into hyper-individualist forms of thinking, as progressives we must continue to focus our critique, through the pandemic and beyond, on the root causes of violence and inequality, rather than its symptoms.

Emma Dane York is a Saskatoon-based writer and activist. She holds and MA in political studies from the University of Saskatchewan.

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