Pandemic response favoured balanced approach

Article originally published in Winnipeg Free Press
By Nathan Clark

Friday marks the anniversary of a significant and unfortunate milestone in Manitoba.

March 12, 2020 – the day when the province’s first COVID-19 case was announced – is a day many of us remember well. I know I do.

As special assistant to Manitoba’s health minister, I had expected this day was coming for quite some time. It was inevitable. The pandemic was already wreaking havoc in Ontario. In British Columbia’s Lower Mainland, officials were scrambling to combat an outbreak at the Lynn Valley Care Home. Our teams had prepped speaking notes weeks ahead of time for Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba’s chief provincial public health officer, and then-health minister Cameron Friesen. Despite the strong warnings from public health officials and the province’s top politicos, COVID-19 was bound to be detected in Manitoba whether we liked it or not.

That morning I received a text message from a top official within the Department of Health. “We have a case,” the text read. Immediately I rushed into the Legislature and we got to work. The public was informed 90 minutes later. By that afternoon, we had announced two additional presumptive cases.

Over the past year, over 32,000 cases of COVID-19 have been diagnosed in the province and, tragically, more than 900 Manitobans have died. Far too many families are being forced to deal with the devastating consequences of losing a loved one in the most untraditional of ways.

Manitoba’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has stewed criticism from all corners of the province. This is not unexpected. Manitobans are frustrated as they continue to be urged to stay home. Many are also struggling emotionally and financially with the economic consequences of public health orders. And opposition parties feel criticism is the only way to attract media attention at a time when reporters are rightly focused on daily press conferences by public health officials.

Let me be clear, criticism of governments throughout the pandemic is healthy and necessary. That said, Manitobans should take pride in their government’s response, which has balanced necessary public health measures with the need to ensure the provincial economy avoids catastrophic damage both during and after the pandemic.

Manitoba led the country in its response to the first wave of the pandemic. This is a fact. Case numbers and, more importantly, test positivity rates remained low. The province rapidly increased testing capacity to supplement the work of the provincial lab. Manitoba signed on to a bulk order of PPE from the federal government and when that order got held up, the province acted immediately to set up a COVID-19 procurement table of its own. Schools were closed, public health orders were put in place and financial relief programs, such as the Manitoba Gap Protection Program, were launched.

The second wave of the pandemic hit Manitoba much harder, and earlier, than the rest of the country. Yet again, the government showed it was ready. By then, the colour-coded Pandemic Response System, which laid out various restrictions to enact in a particular public health climate, had been put in place. Alternative Isolation Accommodations, an innovative concept that has since been replicated in Ontario and Saskatchewan, were ready for Manitobans who needed a place to self-isolate – including those experiencing homelessness. And public health orders were again enacted to bring the pandemic back under control.

Have there been mistakes along the way? No doubt. The horrific events at Winnipeg’s Maples Personal Care Home could have been handled better by all involved. Contact tracing capacity could have been increased before case counts reached such high levels during the second wave. And government could have acted quicker to provide financial supports to those Manitobans in need.

But these criticisms are not unique to Manitoba. Similar complaints have been made in all jurisdictions across the country. As someone once told me, “There is no playbook to follow when dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.”

So, one year into this pandemic in Manitoba, where do we go from here? Manitobans should have a sense of confidence in their government’s response and hope that, as vaccines continue to be administered, there is indeed light at the end of the tunnel. More importantly, Manitobans should feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the health care workers who continue to risk their lives, day in and day out, on the frontlines of this pandemic.

Nathan Clark was special assistant to former health minister Cameron Friesen for two years, including the opening months of the pandemic. He now is a senior consultant at Enterprise Canada, a national strategic communications firm.

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