Canada dispatches: Alberta lifting of COVID restrictions prompts public protests Dispatches
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Canada dispatches: Alberta lifting of COVID restrictions prompts public protests

[Ian Profiri is JURIST’s Staff Correspondent for Canada, joining JURIST’s existing teams of correspondents already filing from India and Myanmar. He files this dispatch from Calgary.]

Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Deena Hinshaw made a series of announcements last week regarding the western Canadian province’s COVID-19 strategy.

On July 29, the Alberta government rescinded mandatory isolation periods for those that have come into contact with an individual who is known to have COVID-19.

Starting Aug 16, isolation periods following a positive test result will no longer be mandatory, and support for hotel isolation upon entering Canada will no longer be available.

Alberta will become the only jurisdiction in the North America not to have mandatory isolation periods for those known to be infected with the virus.

Opposition to the move has been swift. Protests occurred in Edmonton and Calgary. Doctors and nurses vented their frustration over the lifting of the restrictions and the general lack of support over the course of the pandemic on social media. Medical experts in Ontario and Manitoba voiced concerns over Alberta’s decision, recommending that their provinces decline to follow Alberta’s lead and emphasized that provinces need to have a coordinated approach to ensure further disasters don’t occur. Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi called lifting the restrictions “the height of insanity.”

Alberta’s health minister Tyler Shandro of the United Conservative Party (UCP) defended the decision, telling a crowd on Thursday that the “other provinces know this will be the inevitable next step” and that the “data shows that what the vaccines are doing is making it less infectious and less deadly.”

The head of the Alberta Medical Association (AMA), Dr. Paul Boucher, stated in an open letter that the pace of opening needs to be “less precipitous” and that he understood the concerns that the incredible work-load medical staff have endured over the pandemic will “no doubt increase.” Boucher said their members’ concerns have been heard but not addressed by the UCP.

The data on the spread of COVID appears to favour the detractors. Alberta currently has the highest rate of infection in Canada, as well as the highest number of active cases despite a comparably smaller population. Alberta also has the lowest vaccination rate of any province, coming in at only 55 percent fully vaccinated according to data compiled by the CBC as of July 15. This is alarming considering the threat of the Delta variant, which appears to spread “like chicken pox” and is likely the main cause of deaths among unvaccinated populations where Delta has taken hold.

Comparable jurisdictions to Alberta include Florida, which currently sits at 57 percent vaccinated. The state famously flouts US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations for controlling the spread of COVID, emphasized by a recent executive order from Governor RonDeSantis that bans school districts from requiring students to wear masks. Florida now has some of the highest transmission and infection rates in the US; the fear is that Alberta will head in the same direction.

As if to demonstrate the effectiveness of medical recommendations for controlling the spread, Edmonton and Calgary, Alberta’s two major cities, took alternate routes regarding festivals over the summer. Calgary permitted its annual Calgary Stampede, a massive festival orientated around a rodeo, live music, and a carnival, as well as the Calgary Folk Music Festival; while Edmonton canceled plans for their large annual festivities. Edmonton currently has 301 cases; Calgary has 990.

Hinshaw’s announcement is another in a long line of what some believe to be a purposeful attempt to overwhelm Alberta’s public healthcare system to coerce privatization.

Premier Jason Kenny famously pledged to “maintain or increase health spending” and “maintain a universally accessible, publicly funded health care system” during the 2019 provincial elections. However, since winning the election, the UCP outsourced medical-related jobs, cutting at least 11,000 public employees; initially froze the wages of nurses and doctors, then proposed wage cuts; and continued to promote the installment of private clinics for specialized surgeries at the expense of the public system.

The actions of the UCP government initially prompted “wildcat” strikes; but recently (in combination of the toll of Covid and anti-vaccination protesters) doctors, nurses, and other critical medical staff have left Alberta en masse. Those that have publicly voiced their reasoning directly cite UCP actions for their departure.

Like all good democracies, the reason for Hinshaw’s announcement may be related to the polls. Recent polling shows the opposition Alberta New Democrat Party (ABNDP) consistently ahead of the UCP by wide margins, while the revamped Wildrose Independence Party (WIP) continues to gain ground.

The UCP lost a lot of support over the pandemic as it tried to appeal to both progressive idealists that favored the implementation of further restrictions in an attempt to “circuit-break” the spread, and libertarian idealists that sought to remove all restrictions in the name of Section 2 of the Charter and Albertan’s “Fundamental Freedoms.” The UCP bled support to both the ABNDP and WIP, who each took the opposing views, as the balancing act continued.

Anti-lockdown protesters routinely voiced their concerns over government over-reach and the negative effect the lockdown measures have on small businesses. The protests culminated in a clash between protesters and RCMP at GraceLife Church after Alberta Health Services barricaded the building in response to continued gatherings in violation of, what was then, Covid response protocols. The soon-to-be enacted measures align with what the anti-lockdown protesters have been asking for; the UCP appears to have chosen a side.

As of today, pleas and anger continue to be directed at Hinshaw and the UCP caucus over the announcement, but neither has shown any interest in backing down from the decision.