In a recent interview on CBC News Network’s Power & Politics (Jan. 3, 2022), Premier of New Brunswick Blaine Higgs looked good. For someone who had contracted COVID-19 the week prior, Higgs seemed almost chipper as he discussed his own health, and the state of the province’s healthcare system, in the midst of the latest tsunami of infections driven by the Omicron variant.
While the Premier’s condition was likely a reassuring signal for some, his language in the interview was a telling reminder of how eager the political class is to declare the ongoing global pandemic a shrinking concern here in North America. No doubt realizing the fears of the immunocompromised, public-facing workers in precarious employment, and those who are justifiably concerned about Long COVID, Higgs used the occasion to highlight his successful recovery from what he described as “a bad congested cold, for me” and to express his hope that “more people are able to do what I’ve done” – easily acquire masks and testing, self-isolate with help from a support network, and have instant access to medical care.
The reality for many New Brunswickers has been and continues to be far removed from this experience. The Premier and those around him were very likely handed N95 masks, visibly worn during press conferences – the N95-type mask being the most effective tool for limiting exposure to the airborne particles which carry Covid-19 – while the public has been left with little recourse to procure the same protection. Rapid tests have been in short supply and difficult to access for those without a vehicle. Paid sick leave is nonexistent for many. Waitlists for family doctors and nurse practitioners persist.
Of course, to those who have been following the machinations of this government, the events of the past two years – including the recent swift and brutal reaction to the rise of the Omicron variant –have not been wholly unpredictable. We have commodified every aspect of the pandemic. We have paid tribute to those who died using the New Brunswick flag and stopped issuing condolences. Gone are the days of heaping praise upon the frontline healthcare workers who have borne the brunt of successive waves of infection. Here now are the days of “Living With Covid” which, apparently, means the absence of documented evidence of its impact.
Who would have thought that the one relatively valuable metric the public could use to gauge the success of government policy, the daily case counts obtained through testing, would be the first to be deprioritized in the face of an unmitigated and preventable flood of infections? With each passing day, as the pandemic situation becomes muddier, one thing does become clearer – the current administration does not only see itself as representative of the province as a whole, it does not even see itself as a partner to the public in forming a broad strategy to successfully navigate this collective crisis.
This is to say nothing of the fact that the language used by the Premier in his interview, positively downplaying the severity of his own personal experience with the virus, will undoubtedly give those in the anti-vaccination camp much to crow about in their agitations for “personal freedom” from the “tyrannical” motivations of modern medicine and the health concerns of the most vulnerable in our society.
The Premier, for his part, has passed along the broader message loud and clear. “We’re not going to be able to stop this.” It seems abundantly evident that despite ample lead time to prepare for a wave we knew was coming, the Higgs government and its advisors thought it best to simply turn the ship broadside and open all the portholes. Indeed, the view from the bridge looks fine – below the waterline is quite a different story.
It is worth noting that this is not a unique strategy in Canada. Across the country every provincial government has enacted policies which align with the established business interests in prioritizing short-term economic growth and keeping businesses open over the health of the citizens and workers.
Save for a few outspoken voices, the opposition parties of New Brunswick have remained reserved in their reactions to these public health decisions, which ultimately amount to an unprecedented passive science experiment overseen by bureaucrats who have a very questionable record in their handling of the pandemic.
The singular focus on vaccination of the domestic population, with little regard for increasing the capacity of aid programs and access to vaccines for the rest of the global population – the lack of which can be held up as a primary factor in allowing COVID-19 to mutate into the Omicron variant we are currently dealing with – continues to be the drumbeat we march to across Canada. It’s entirely plausible that we will see other variants circulate as we move through 2022, and it will be on all of us to push at every level of government to ensure equitable access to protective measures for all citizens.
Ryan Hillier is a writer and settler living on the banks of the Petkootkweăk.