EDMONTON — It was a scene plastered to social media with obvious intent.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney stands at a podium, locked in a handshake with his Saskatchewan counterpart, Scott Moe.
The picture appeared in a July tweet from Kenney with the caption, “Congratulations to my friend @PremierScottMoe and all of our neighbours in Saskatchewan on lifting their pandemic health restrictions and kicking off a #GreatSKSummer. … Once again, the prairies are showing the rest of Canada how it’s done!”
It was a celebration, of sorts, for the two Prairie provinces — Alberta swaggered into the summer as it lifted nearly all its public health restrictions on Canada Day, opening its economy and seemingly viewing the end of the pandemic within its sights. Ten days later, Saskatchewan did the same.
Seventy-eight days later, the neighbouring provinces have found themselves hand-in-hand again amid twin COVID-19 crises that threaten to overwhelm their health-care systems in a record-breaking fourth wave.
It’s a situation critics say shows the rest of the country what happens when governments put politics ahead of public health.
Alberta’s troubles have made international headlines recently as ICUs have nearly buckled under intense pressure caused by the worst pandemic situation in the country and as beds fill up with mostly unvaccinated patients.
But over the past week, it was Saskatchewan that had the highest rate of average daily cases per capita in Canada, outside of the Northwest Territories, at 283 per 100,000. Alberta was just behind it with 244.
Over past weekend, Saskatchewan reported 1,042 new COVID-19 cases while Ontario, which has a population of more than 10 times the size, reported 1,266.
The situation is dire and “only getting worse,” since Saskatchewan is just a few days behind Alberta in seeing the full effect of lifting all public health restrictions in July, said Hassan Masri, an ICU physician and associate professor of medicine at the University of Saskatchewan.
Intensive-care units are already buckling in the province and the only reason hospitals haven’t been fully overwhelmed is because patients dying from COVID-19, usually after two- or three-week battles with the disease, is opening up space, he said.
While the province isn’t in a formal triage scenario — in which health-care workers choose who gets care and who doesn’t based on resource scarcity — they are still in a state of triage, he added.
Hundreds of surgeries are being postponed every day. When somebody’s father doesn’t get a colonoscopy or when a 12-year-old has their surgery cancelled, “This is what triage is,” Masri said. “You decide to give resources to someone over someone.”
Alberta and Saskatchewan are the two provinces that have most seen their vaccine uptake stagnate. They both sit at just over 71 per cent of eligible people being fully vaccinated — a number that has only increased by a few percentage points since midsummer.
As for Saskatchewan’s decision to reopen in July, “I think it was a gamble on the government’s end to brag, essentially, about how well they’re doing and how they can open the economy and, certainly, that has backfired significantly,” said Masri.
The provincial government also didn’t do enough to encourage more vaccine uptake or use mandates to get the rest of the population to get jabs, Masri added.
Much like in Alberta, Saskatchewan has seen resistance to mandating vaccines for health-care workers, teachers and government workers — even though some experts have recommended that governments take this approach.
Both provinces lifted their mask mandates in the summer, before bringing them back after the fourth wave crashed down on them. Both also resisted vaccine passports until finally bringing them in this month; Alberta’s began last week, and Saskatchewan’s isn’t slated to officially launch until October.
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Much like Kenney in Alberta, Moe has tried to appeal to a certain base of support — many of whom are against public health restrictions and vaccine passports, said Tom McIntosh, a political scientist at the University of Regina.
For months, medical experts in the province tried to get the attention of the Saskatchewan government and asked for those measures, he said.
“The question now is whether it was too little, too late,” McIntosh added.
But the political situation facing the two Conservative premiers is vastly different, he noted.
Kenney’s popularity has continuously tanked throughout the 19 months of the pandemic and has ranked among the lowest in the country for premiers. Moe, meanwhile, would probably form another majority government if an election were held tomorrow, McIntosh said.
Kenney has also faced public criticism from people in his own caucus, had a near miss with a vote of non-confidence from his party’s MLAs last week, and is facing a leadership review next year.
The anger at Kenney comes from two sides of the spectrum in Alberta — those who oppose public health restrictions and those who say Kenney didn’t bring them in quick enough.
He famously flip-flopped on vaccine passports, vowing never to bring them in before an abrupt about-face this month. Kenney also promised to not bring in more public health restrictions, but ended up doing just that when the fourth wave became overwhelming. The move angered rural MLAs in his caucus who disagreed with it and some want him gone as leader.
In both provinces, there’s a “libertarian streak that runs through the political culture,” said McIntosh.
Even while Moe has sent “mixed messages” during the pandemic — urging people to stay home at times, then telling them to go out and support local businesses; or telling people to get vaccinated, but only if they want to — he hasn’t had to face the same political pressure as Kenney, said McIntosh, as Moe governs with a united caucus and strong public support in Saskatchewan.
“That gives Moe a lot more room to do what he’s done without the kind of blowback that Kenney has received,” said McIntosh.
Moe’s base of support is found in rural Saskatchewan and among voters who don’t want mandated vaccines, restrictions, or who don’t think COVID-19 is serious, he added.
“It is playing into, I think, this false notion that asking people to be vaccinated and wear a mask and whatnot is some horrific infringement of their human rights,” said McIntosh.
“Apparently, though, mandating that you wear a seatbelt or have a driver’s licence or having your car insured is not a violation of your rights, but wearing a mask in the midst of a pandemic is.”
Alberta has brought in a vaccine passport system that non-essential businesses and events can opt into. Doing so means they can require proof of vaccination or a negative test and offer their services free of public health restrictions.
Saskatchewan, after the government announced a vaccine passport system that requires businesses to ask for proof of vaccination, saw an uptick in vaccine doses administered. On Tuesday, the province also announced that its health-care workers would need to show proof of vaccination or take part in a monitored testing program.
“There is still more that could be done and more planning that needs to be done to get us through this fourth wave,” said McIntosh.
“The numbers are not coming down very quickly and they’re not expected to.”
Kieran Leavitt is an Edmonton-based political reporter for the Toronto Star. Follow him on Twitter: @kieranleavitt
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