Blaine Higgs didn’t cancel Christmas. And that is about the best thing you can say.
He should have cancelled Christmas: cases in New Brunswick are on a steep upward trajectory, with a record 237 cases reported on Wednesday, December 22. The Omicron variant is quickly outpacing Delta, which became entrenched after the Premier’s ill-fated decision to open during the summer—a disastrous decision I take no pleasure in reminding readers was evident to anyone paying attention to the science over the summer.
Higgs did not have to cancel Christmas: at any point over the last two months, knowing that Delta variant transmission was increasing exponentially, and that our health care system was stretched beyond its limits in terms of staff, if not ICU beds, Higgs could have implemented something—some sort of measure—to reduce the chain of transmission.
For instance, Higgs could have called for reduced contacts and put in place two household bubbles for two or three weeks, especially in zones 1, 2, 3 and 7. He could have prevented travel between zones for a two-week period. He could have closed schools earlier in December, especially in zone 3, when and where it became evident that the Delta variant was circulating amongst the unvaccinated population of elementary children. He also could have strongly urged working from home.
Any of these measures might have kept businesses open, but he also could have put some curbs on bars and restaurants, re-imposed capacity limits, and with a $407 million surplus from last year, he might even have offered some of these businesses compensation for it.
Cancelling schools would have been hard for families, but he could have called on the precedent of 1918, when the provincial government closed schools, churches and theatres to cut transmission during the Spanish flu. He could have also installed HEPA filters earlier, instead of just studying air quality (we need to study air quality, but we also need HEPA filters).
He could have said we needed to do this to keep transmission low, and protect more vulnerable populations, especially in light of growing evidence of waning vaccine efficacy against the Delta variant.
All of these measures would have made a difference, and each of them stops far short of a full lockdown—a measure he also could have implemented based on the amount of community spread of the Delta variant, and knowledge from late November that the Omicron variant was coming.
He could have said: “we need to make this sacrifice now so that we can have some modicum of normalcy at Christmas, and so we can concentrate our efforts in the New Year on beating Omicron and ending the pandemic.”
But the Premier did none of these things.
Instead, he and his ministers echoed the anti-science COVID denialism of a fringe minority he obviously wants to keep under the wing of the Conservative Party. They chafe at COVID restrictions like masks (which the Premier said we didn’t have to wear anymore), and prefer that decisions about risk be left to individuals, rather than to collective measures.
On December 3, the Chief Medical Officer of Health Jennifer Russell, and Health Minister Dorothy Sheppard announced the new COVID Winter Action Plan, which actually reduced restrictive measures from “steady 20” socializing, to a cap of 20 people per gathering.
Dorothy Shephard said the measures were “consistent with several other provinces,” even though the situation here was different: New Brunswick’s ratio of infections per capita was the second highest in Canada, and Omicron had not yet arrived.
As CBC’s Harry Forestall quite rightly pointed out on December 7, the rule change didn’t make people safer, just at a moment when cases were on the increase.
Only two weeks later, on December 14, the Premier was already walking that move back. Due to the predicted increase in cases, the Premier sprung into action to “try to save Christmas.”
But that did not mean moving to the Winter Plan’s Level 2, which would have limited social contacts to a “steady 10.”
The measures were underwhelming: the steady 20 was back on, and despite rising school infections, especially in Fredericton, elementary schools would not be closed until the following Friday.
As Higgs explained, “we’re taking the measures appropriate for what we know right now.” This was the day after it was announced the Omicron cases had entered the province from an outbreak at St. FX, where the university failed to follow masking protocols at an X-ring event.
“We could implement a significant lockdown and do it overnight,” he told the press conference on December 14. “But would people accept it? And then do things just get worse because people say, ‘You’re not ruining my Christmas?'”
Premier Higgs acted like a man determined to ruin Christmas all on his own.
The ebb in public confidence in government is a self-fulfilling prophecy, given how the Premier’s inaction and ineptitude have been nakedly exposed to so many over the last six months.
Moreover, enforcement of the limited rules that were in place at the start of December appear not to have applied to the province’s Great and Mighty, further discrediting them.
On December 2, the Fredericton Chamber of Commerce held a State of the City address for 270 people (sans social distancing) that would have been more accessible—and maybe more interesting!—had it been held on Zoom. Of course, accessibility is the enemy of prestige.
As Harry Forestall put it in a scathing interview with a hapless Chief Medical Officer of Health: “So if I am not allowed to have more than 20 people in my home, even if they are all vaccinated, why can I go to a restaurant and sit with 100 other people I don’t know who may or may not be vaccinated?” Forestall was specifically referencing the Chamber of Commerce event, but he could equally have been referring to the ridiculous Thanksgiving measures.
Throughout December, cases rose, and as they did, public health played down the risks to the public.
“Public Health does not see a need to recommend further restrictions on New Brunswick at this time,” Chief Medical Officer of Health Jennifer Russell told the press on December 10, citing stable hospitalization numbers.
Of course, higher case counts baked in higher hospitalizations (as CBC’s Jeanne Armstrong put to Minister Shephard on December 10).
COVID modeling – not listening to experts
Rather than grounding its public health decisions in modeling expectations and science, New Brunswick’s Health Minister leaned on ideology: “We need the people of New Brunswick to take their power back,” is how Shephard put it. People, acting in their own self-interest, and with higher vaccination rates, would help keep the pandemic under control.
It is nice theory, but in pandemic practice, that is not how this works, and the proof is in the pudding less than two weeks later.
A pandemic plan requires data, and people who know how to use it. The current leadership clearly do not.
On December 21, Russell finally tipped her hand and showed us her data.
What we saw was ghastly.
It is not just that the model predicted weeks ago that we would be facing 250 cases a day by early January and 400 by the end of next month in the absence of curbs. These numbers are scary enough—and ensure that our hospitals will be over-run (so why are we taking no action to bend the curve?).
What was galling was that the model didn’t factor Omicron into its equations at all.
Let that sink in: we are in the midst of a rapid Omicron outbreak, and we are making public health decisions a week in advance using models that don’t account for Omicron at all.
If heads rolled in New Brunswick, they would roll for this, but alas… heads rarely roll in New Brunswick, even when it costs hundreds of people their lives.
Some will say that it is Higgs’s fault that we had a Delta wave in the fall, which made over 8,000 people sick and killed more than a 100 people. The costs in terms of Long COVID will be counted sometime in the future.
But few people would blame the Premier for the Omicron pandemic, which is now about to superimpose itself on the disaster already striking our health care system.
Yet measures could have been taken earlier to check its transmission and perhaps limit the sense of impending disaster.
At time of writing, knowing that we will have 1000s of cases within days, we are still in Level 1 restrictions.
Responsible people all over the province are now cancelling their Christmas plans. Many others (me included) will take rapid tests and huddle with another household, knowing we may not see them again for months.
In 2021, Christmas is ruined.
But it could have been very different if the province had taken its Delta outbreak more seriously earlier in the fall (as it did with outbreaks in December of 2020).
Hope is not a plan
In this a lesson for 2022: the self-help individualism in which everyone takes their own responsibility for risks works really well in some situations. Those are good values. They are really lousy ones though in a pandemic, when everyone is depending on everyone else.
What is needed instead is something like what you would learn in the army: discipline and solidarity with your people.
It won’t be fun, but if we are going to make 2022 a more hopeful one—if we are going to end the pandemic this year and enjoy Christmas next year—we are going to need to do more than rely on vaccines alone. Nor can we rely on a weakened variant (Omicron is not that weak) to come along and end this thing. We can hope, but hope is not a plan.
We will have to be more compassionate towards people who either can’t get vaccinated or who are hesitant to do so (always for reasons that are meaningful to them, ill-informed or not) instead of punishing them with the risk of death and disability through premature re-opening programs.
We are going to have to continue to wear masks (and up our mask game to N95s, especially for our health care workeres). We are going to have to continue to socially distance, and put up with occasionally working from home (especially this January). We should encourage people to travel to visit us (or to visit folks away), but we may, at times, have to ask them to isolate and test upon their return (preferably, let’s allow those individuals to make their own plans, and impose quarantine hotels only in cases where no plan is presented).
We are also going to have to call on public officials to follow the science: install HEPA filters, improve indoor air quality, and enforce mask mandates.
Leading from science is hard, because science is not like religion. In religion, the rules are hard and fast, and supposedly forever. In science, the goal posts continuously change as we discover new things. Remember March 2020, when we knew so little.
We are better equipped to get through the middle innings of this pandemic than we were a year ago, when we thought it would soon be over. We can return to normal, but only if we have leadership that is willing to build public consensus for acting on science, rather than on ideology. Sadly, that is not Blaine Higgs, who now must step down.
It will also mean making choices about the future that will appear inconvenient from the perspective of 2019. But we are not going back to 2019. We are going forward, and we need to embrace the challenges that this new decade is throwing at us.
Beyond Coronavirus, there are other big emergencies that need our attention. Just as with the virus, mutual aid, collective solidarity, and fellowship will see us through.
Matthew Hayes is a professor of sociology at St. Thomas University and an editorial board member of the NB Media Co-op.