Any belief that Alberta could avoid the fate of other provinces and countries and side-step a painful second wave of COVID-19 has disappeared.
The province has seen a dramatic rise in new cases recently; this week the rate of active cases stood at about 110 per 100,000 people. The two largest cities, Calgary and Edmonton, reported 121 and 183 active cases per 100,000 people respectively. As a comparison, Montreal – a city where the Quebec government has shut down all indoor private gatherings and dining inside restaurants and bars – has had a rate about 166 active cases per 100,000 people the last two weeks.
It’s a blow to Premier Jason Kenney’s argument that the province’s emphasis on voluntary public-health recommendations is enough to dampen pandemic spread. Alberta was forced to implement its own, lighter version of bans this week, with mandatory, 15-person limits on private social and family gatherings in Calgary and Edmonton.
Almost immediately, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said he would go further and ask Calgarians not to hold any gatherings this weekend, even for a party of less than 15.
“Just don’t do it this year," he said. “We can have Halloween in the spring, once there’s a vaccine.” But he added that “at this point” the city is not going to declare a state of local emergency, as it did in the spring.
Even beyond the rising COVID-19 case numbers and the possibility of more emergency measures, it’s striking that the necessary and good divisions between political leaders and levels of governments are making it more and more difficult for people to figure out what to do.
Also in Calgary this week, the city’s Emergency Management Agency chief, Tom Sampson, referred to the province being in a second wave as a matter of fact, describing it as a “wake-up call.” But both the Premier and Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw have avoided calling it a second wave.
Mr. Nenshi said he wasn’t sure the province and the city were on the same page until Monday, when Dr. Hinshaw implemented at least some mandatory measures for the province’s two largest cities.
That kind of clash isn’t limited to municipal and provincial relations.
This week, Alberta and British Columbia continued to be the only provinces not using the federal government’s COVID-19 exposure notification app. As cases in Alberta rise, and some people push back against giving contact tracers information, there’s been concern expressed by the opposition NDP, the city of Calgary and some doctors that the federal app hasn’t been adopted here.
Alberta officials say they continue to talk to Ottawa about it, but apparently not everyone is enamoured with the design. B.C. Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry said this week the app is problematic and has caused “frustration” for users in other provinces.
We have consoled ourselves in a smug Canadian way that we aren’t facing millions of confirmed infections like the United States, or we are not yet in a full lockdown like parts of Europe. Belgium – a wealthy, small, densely populated country of 11.5 million, has become a European hotspot for coronavirus. Even with less than a third the population, it has recorded 1,000 more deaths than Canada, and its health care system is being tested to the point that some COVID-positive nurses are being asked to continue to work if they’re not showing symptoms.
The Associated Press reported that the country, made up of many regional and national health officials, and three linguistic communities, is united these days in a “general sense of bewilderment about the ever-changing rules imposed by the different layers of government, and a growing confusion caused by clumsy communication.”
This description might feel familiar to many Canadians. What app do people use? What public-health official or politician do you listen to? Is attending a small dinner party in Calgary this weekend really safe?
Our federation is celebrated for its divisions of powers. They’re constitutionally enshrined. But as we face a historic public-health and economic threat, it sometimes feels as if the cracks between parts of the country are getting harder to bridge. In an age of misrepresentation and political extremes on social media and in real life, this echoes the divisions between extended family members, friends, workmates and spouses.
The situation has the potential to deteriorate. The U.S. election next week does not mean the end of political turmoil or civil unrest in the country that is both our closest neighbour and our largest trading partner. And what happens if high rates of joblessness here stretch into the medium term, more businesses go bust and the drudgery of being in-and-out of lockdowns becomes too much for the mental health of more people? What happens if the rollout of a vaccine is slower and more difficult than politicians such as Mr. Nenshi suggest? Canadian governments will still need people to listen to public-health orders well into 2021, at least, and not start ignoring them based on perceived political bias.
Less squabbling between different levels of government in these fraught financial times is probably too much to ask. The city of Calgary and the province are clashing on a number of issues, including Alberta’s push to consolidate ambulance services. Ottawa still hasn’t given a clear answer on the fiscal stabilization program, or more funding for health care. And as it looks to get a handle on a massive deficit, Mr. Kenney’s government continues to clash with nearly every major health care group in the province.
At the very least, communication from governments has to become ridiculously simple and clear, and public-health advice and orders have to become more consistent. Finding some kind of national alignment on a contact tracing or an exposure notification app would be incredibly useful.
There will have to be some recognition that to truly cut down the virus in the months ahead it’s not only about unity of purpose. It’s also about some unity of design.
We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.