Jen Gerson: Well, I guess Kenney's fucked, eh?

The Alberta premier bet his remaining political capital on COVID being over.

By: Jen Gerson

We all hoped it would work. I did, certainly. Only a sadist would want Alberta’s Open for Summer plan to fail. In this I will offer some defence of premier Jason Kenney and, by extension, myself — it wasn’t crazy to announce the lifting COVID-19 restrictions back in May, back when all of the comparative nations were showing promising signs of exponential decay in case rates along with rising vaccination. It was a risk, and that was pointed out. Many Albertans and many others in other provinces fretted. But there was a sound basis for daring to hope that increasing vaccinations would decouple severe outcomes from case rates, allowing us to re-open without imperilling health-care access.

So if Kenney is fucked (and he is), it’s not just because he and others were wrong, per se, but especially because he bet so much on being right. Jason Kenney laid his own table, picked the game, dealt the cards, checked his hand, nodded in confident satisfaction, and then pushed all of his own remaining political capital into the pot.

And then he lost.

Remember, reader, the premier was chest-deep in it when the pandemic seemed like it might be petering out in May. His approval ratings sat at historic lows — below even that of the approval of Justin Trudeau in Alberta. On his left flank, Albertans furious with his handling of COVID-19 to date wanted harsher restrictions to reduce the risk of unmitigated spread. On his right flank, and within his own caucus, an increasingly restive civil libertarian wing unhappy with even existing restrictions seemed to be on the verge of open revolt. Two members of the UCP caucus were booted from the party after one called on Kenney to resign. Things were not going well.

The sensible approach would have been the cautious one. Kenney could have inched into easing COVID-19 restrictions, gradually lifting masking, capacity limitations and the like, promising nothing, always warning that an increase in cases would force him to pull back.

But the premier needed a win. He needed to be able to gloat — to hang our Best Summer Ever over his critics and enemies’ heads. He left himself no exit strategy, and no escape hatch. In the Return to Normal, Kenney saw a way to bridge his fractured caucus and rebuild his damaged political brand ahead of the next election. So he we went all in, baby. Leeroy Jenkins-style. While it was, indeed, very good summer, Kenney has now lost the game playing the hand he chose. He’s not the hapless victim of the shuffle of fate.

The humiliating and likely fatal flip we witnessed on Wednesday would not have been nearly so damaging to him if he had taken a sober and measured path from the outset. Instead, in June, Jason Kenney said: “This is open for good, not just open for summer … COVID will continue to be here. Care, precaution, and common sense is needed. If we see any completely unforeseen circumstances, we will respond to them in due course. But this is not a guess. This plan is based on the expert analysis of the chief medical officer, our public health team and looking at global experience and looking at the science of vaccines.”

He took the podium on July 1, the first day of Alberta’s re-opening. Wearing a red Canada jersey, elated, he told an outdoor crowd of cheering people: “Happy Canada Day, everyone!”

“Thanks to Albertans. Thanks to their diligence, thanks to the 73 per cent who have been vaccinated today, Alberta is open for summer.”

The crowd roared.

“We are leading Canada as the first province in Canada that is fully open.”

I’m told Kenney is a fan of scripture. Proverbs 16:18: Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.

That’s how we got here, and though the plan proved to be a dreadful failure, I can at understand how Kenney came to make the decision. But once he was so pot-committed on the bet that the worst of COVID-19 was effectively over, with so much political capital spent on a happy ending, his government became too invested in the outcome it wanted rather than the scenario that was actually unfolding. The government should have re-introduced more restrictions two, even three weeks ago. It didn’t, and there is no good explanation as to why. The only thing that makes sense is that the government could not admit what was happening to its best-summer ever, and froze.

Now that he has acted, Kenney is still trapped by his own earlier unbridled exuberance for the re-opening. The restrictions that have been announced to date are highly restrained compared to previous rounds. There is little in the way of an actual lockdown, here. The most substantive policy change is the introduction of a vaccine passport in coming days. The steps are modest. They just feel enormous because of how boldly he’d declared all such measures over and done with.

And now, we ride it out. It seems increasingly likely that Alberta will invoke the “critical care triage protocol” in coming weeks. The term “health-care collapse” is being bandied about in this province. The phrase is inappropriate, both because it will invoke panic, and because it’s imprecise and misleading. The Critical Care Triage protocol is available online here and I suggest Albertans become familiar with it. Once triage is invoked, patients who have a probability of survival of less than 20 per cent in the next year will no longer be able to access an ICU bed. In practice what this means is that someone coming into emergency with stage-4 pancreatic cancer and acute COVID is probably not getting the ventilator.

That’s where we’re heading right now. And Jason Kenney is going to eat all of it. I’m not sure if his caucus will fracture. I don’t know if he will maintain the confidence of the legislature. I can’t be sure he won’t resign — although who in the world could the UCP replace him with? What seems inescapably obvious at this point is that he can’t survive another election.

Regardless of how you feel about Jason Kenney, in Alberta’s failure, and in his, we have all received another crucial data point. Almost 70 per cent of the province’s eligible population is fully vaccinated, which places the province near the bottom of the rankings within Canada. Entire swathes of Alberta’s rural areas are comparatively under vaccinated, which may partially explain its current high ICU rates. Although the province’s overall vaccination rates don’t appear to be so far off from the Canadian average, zoom into any rural district and the picture looks less rosy. Rates of 38 per cent, 42 per cent, 45 per cent — too low to break transmission chains, evidently. This is what I think I got wrong. It was probably not enough to simply have a reasonably high overall vaccination rate. As long as there are under-vaccinated pockets of people within society, the virus will be able to take root and multiply. That’s why the majority of people filling ICUs right now are unvaccinated.

Unless vaccine passports or incentives or sheer fear can dramatically increase vaccination rates in the next few days, these are the rates we have. And what we’ve learned from Alberta is that these rates are not high enough.

So … what now?

Kenney may be doomed, but he was was correct about one thing when he offered Albertans his infuriating apology-not-apology on Wednesday; we can’t lock down the population indefinitely. The more effective the measures we introduce to curb the spread of COVID, the longer the virus will take to burn its way through the remaining unvaccinated and vulnerable population, the more we prolong the crisis. In other words, we preserve the health-care system at the cost of our time.

The choices left to us are all hard. We either implement some adequate spectrum of restrictions for months or maybe years in order to preserve health-care capacity — or we don’t, accept the consequence in death and move on. Sometimes I think this province rages at Kenney and our chief health officer Deena Hinshaw because it’s easier to blame them for their errors than to grapple with this fundamental trade off.

But then, these are the trade offs they chose.

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