Alberta Politics
Train passengers in Wuhan, China, have their body temperatures monitored (Photo: China News Service).

Worried about coronavirus? Ideology trumps expertise when Conservatives meddle with health care

Posted on January 25, 2020, 1:28 am
8 mins

If the world is on the cusp of another deadly coronavirus outbreak, this might seem like a peculiar time to be signing up for a high-risk experiment in health care management based on ideology instead of facts.

But as far as Canada’s increasingly extremist conservative movement is concerned, of course the time is right! It always is.

An electron micrograph of coronaviruses (U.S. Centers for Disease Control).

This goes double here in Alberta, where the United Conservative Party Government seems determined to plunge the province’s public health care system into chaos in order to create the right conditions to sell privatization as a solution for a system in crisis.

The reality, as is reasonably well understood outside the ideological market-fundamentalist circles that dominate Canada’s so-called Conservative parties, is that when it comes to universal health care, private “solutions” inevitably make things worse.

This is why crises need to be generated to persuade citizens to accept changes to a health care system that works reasonably well despite its imperfections.

So expecting more private clinics to solve health care’s problems is a good example of the definition of insanity widely attributed to Albert Einstein, to wit, don’t do the same thing over and over and this time expect different results.

Epidemiologist Dr. Saad B. Omer (Photo: Yale School of Medicine).

With more people than the population of Canada now under lockdown in China after a new coronavirus outbreak in the city of Wuhan, and cases of 2019-nCoV starting to show up in Western Europe and the United States, it seems likely it’s only a matter of time until this new cousin of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) virus that afflicted more than 400 people in Canada in 2003 and 2004 comes our way too. SARS killed about 800 people worldwide before it was brought under control.

So if you were inclined to tilt at windmills, you could argue this might be a good moment for the Alberta government to pull back, at least for a season, from its plans to gin up a major crisis in health care by declaring war on public sector health care workers like physicians, nurses and other health care professionals.

After all, these are the people we will depend on to risk their lives, and perhaps even sacrifice them, if the Wuhan coronavirus comes our way, as seems likely, and turns out to be virulently deadly, as remains yet to be seen.

Yet for such selfless public service and the years they spent training for their professions, the UCP government expects nurses, for example, to endure a four-year pay freeze and stand by while their collective agreement is gutted.

Virologist Dr. Yi Guan (Photo: University of Hong Kong).

And if the recent past behaviour of Canadian Conservative governments is anything to go by, nor is there much chance our governing politicians will pay much attention to the expertise learned at such cost and effort by our medical professionals.

Among the clear lessons of the SARS crisis in China, Canada and other countries, wrote Yale Institute for Global Health Director Saad B. Omer in the New York Times on Thursday, is that in a situation like the emerging coronavirus contagion countries need to “be ready for anything, and leave it to the experts.” (Emphasis added.)

Decisions such as border screenings, travel restrictions and potential quarantine have major public health consequences,” Dr. Omers wrote, so they “should be driven by science and emerging biological and epidemiological evidence.”

In other words, not by politicians — especially by a group of conservative politicians for whom conspiracy theories about science and demonization of scientists have become politically convenient alternative facts.

One of those experts, virologist Yi Guan, director of the State Key Laboratory of Emerging Infectious Diseases at the University of Hong Kong, said of the Wuhan conoavirus outbreak: “This time, I’m scared.”

Of course, if worse comes to worst, we can be reasonably confident in Alberta that our current government would do the precisely opposite.

Premier Jason Kenney (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

It’s not as if their hostility to science when it’s heard saying inconvenient things about the planet’s climate will be easy to turn off when it comes to how to respond to an epidemic — especially when there’s money to be made by throwing health care into chaos.

Consider how Premier Jason Kenney and the UCP have responded to what the experts have to say about the effectiveness of supervised injection clinics at lowering the death toll of our opioid addiction crisis, which continues to kill about two Albertans every day on average.

They would rather take advice from a handpicked panel of their supporters that includes ex police officers, a retired economist with a side in criminology, and a real estate salesman, and call the clinics, which are saving lives, “NDP drug sites.”

Their panel members are fine, public-spirited citizens every one, no doubt, but not necessarily universally qualified to give sound advice about an epidemic of drug addiction.

For that matter, this is not unlike the same government’s approach to expert economic advice.

When the experts in their own government’s finance department told them not to expect the $4.7-billion tax cut for big business to create 55,000 or more jobs as Premier Kenney was promising, they ignored them too. They went instead with the recommendations of a few economists who share their ideology and the likes of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

Well, we know how that one’s working out. At least 50,000 jobs have been lost since the Kenney Government slashed corporate taxes and there’s no sign this is going to get any better.

When it comes to the potential for a global coronavirus epidemic, absolutely none of this is very reassuring!

12 Comments to: Worried about coronavirus? Ideology trumps expertise when Conservatives meddle with health care

  1. Bill Malcolm

    January 25th, 2020

    How exactly is kenney going to get around the Canada Health Act? There were new initiatives passed in August 2018 by the Liberals in Ottawa.

    If he starts pulling off the kind of weird things you are concerned about in this post, he’ll be legitimately open to criticism from the federal government if enough residents complain their rights as Canadians are being abrogated. Transfers to Alberta for health care can be stopped, and no amount of wriggling will get around that, no stupid ideological rhetoric will work. Unless, that is, Alberta residents really want to take it on the chin and let the madman run wild by wexiting, and if they decide to do that, the best of luck because nobody else is going to cry about not helping Alberta to clean up/decommission old oil wells, among other things. Many people would simply leave the place and return to family in other parts of Canada. Then kenney could holler to his heart’s content and be shown up for the real fool he is, a dope of monumental proportions. He’s apparently one for brinkmanship, abhors criticism of his idiocy, and on this issue would likely quickly find he’s hemmed in. What, the US wants the tarsands, you say? Perhaps so, but kenney would soon find out that he’s a mere piker in that pool by joining the USA, and his self-esteem would suffer quite a blow as he’s sidelined by people with much larger gonads than he has, as well as a great deal more money.

    Time to call his bluff at a national level. That still leaves him free to caterwaul around Alberta impressing oil and gas people and farmers and fundamentalists, but precious few others in my estimation. It doesn’t seem to have dawned on the man that most of the rest of Canada has generally been rejecting Alberta’s way for a good four decades. It’s not time for the rest of us to change to suit ideological nitwits there; it’s time for the place to acknowledge their way is not Canada’s way. No more tail attempting to wag the dog. It was annoying for decades – now it’s getting just plain unacceptable.

    Hell, the Cons can’t even attract half-decent candidates for their federal party leadership. Ford’s screwing up Ontario so badly, his stink means no hope there. Maybe kenney will have to run for the CPC leadership, he thinks so much of hisself. The Chub riding in on a golden palomino from Alberta equipped with the fastest tongue in the West and a mission to save “Canada” from the Liberals is not going to hack it either.

    • jerrymacgp

      January 27th, 2020

      “…How exactly is kenney going to get around the Canada Health Act? There were new initiatives passed in August 2018 by the Liberals in Ottawa….” The problem with the Canada Health Act, is whether the federal government chooses to enforce it. Given the Trudeau Liberals’ stated intention to make nicey-nice with the governments of Saskatchewan & Alberta after being shut out in both provinces in the last election, how likely is it that they will turn around and get into a confrontation with the UCP government over federal health transfers? I wouldn’t hold my breath …

  2. Kang

    January 25th, 2020

    Let’s not forget those medical people need the technical support of a comprehensive laboratory system. The Ab Health laboratory project Jason Kenney ordered destroyed would have been nearing completion by this time. Instead diagnosis of this new plague will be delayed by the chaos created by Premier Kenny’s dictate. Delaying a diagnosis of this type of plague means more people will die needlessly. For families who suffer the preventable death of a loved one, voting against their UCP MLA will be too late.

  3. Just Me

    January 25th, 2020

    I recall a comment that I strongly believe fits this conservative mindset perfectly.

    Historically, we have seen this before. In the days of the French Revolution, when the state was bankrupt and in desperate need of funds, the sovereign called his assembly together to consider the option of raising taxes to cover the government’s debts. The assembly, composed of nobles, who had inherited their seats in the assembly, was opposed to any increases in taxes. There had been no increase in taxes for well over a century and the nobles had done very well, so why wreck a good thing? But if there must be taxation, charge it on those who didn’t have a voice in the assembly. And so formed the genesis of the Revolution.

    What befell France was chaos, anarchy, destruction, wholesale slaughter, mass cults of personality, and conspiracies everywhere. Sound familiar? Today’s CONs are like archarcists. They have one desire and one only: to break everything, destroy order, smash stability, and ruin progress. They have such a lust for vandalism and chaos that they have fetishized it. Of course, they are well protected, so to hell with everyone else.

    When His Grace, Lord Conrad “Tubby” Black of Crossharbour declared himself to be a avowed and religiously committed social-Darwinist, he was speaking of the great cull of humanity that he lusted for. Surely, as with fine race horses, humanity could be improved by weeding out and disposing of the defectives that prevent the species from achieving great leaps of success, genetic and otherwise.

    Break the public health care system, private clinics will enter, and care will improve immeasurably. Well, so long as that rising body count is ignored anyway.

    • Lars

      January 26th, 2020

      Likening today’s Cons to anarchists is very unfair to many anarchists. While there are those who’ve arrogated the name “anarchist”, these should more properly be known as right-wing libertarians. Syndicalist anarchists believe in mutual aid, workers’ control of the means of production, and organization from the bottom of society up, and no further than necessary to secure a comfortable and dignified life for everyone. Nothing like today’s Conservatives, in other words. “Nihilists” might be a bit more fitting for them.

  4. Murphy

    January 25th, 2020

    Greed and sentiment do not an ideology make. The treatment industry in the US is a $35 billion hoax, and the Kons have been trying to help Great Calgarians wet their beaks up here since 1990, but the pseudoscience keeps tripping them up. JK’s own brother ran into trouble with his entrepreneurial foray into the unlicensed treatment biz, and I doubt that those bleeding heart eggheads poking their nose into the magic healing sat well with Tailgunner Jason.

  5. Abs

    January 25th, 2020

    We’ll see if public anger at government officials in China over the coronavirus turns into revolt.

    Given the UCP history of doing the opposite of what is needed, and the opposite of what they have been advised by experts, I’d expect something in the way of a response to this like what happened when professional hockey players and their families were given priority treatment over ordinary citizens at a vaccination clinic during the conservative years here in Alberta. Except this time, I expect UCP government officials to save their own skins instead of hockey players, and throw everyone else under the bus.

    Maybe they will even boast that this is what Alberta voters wanted, and they have a clear mandate that was clearly stated in their very clear election platform, under the section about contagions, retroactively updated as of today. Meanwhile, the citizens will have to stampede to B.C. if they want help, because pulling one’s self up by the bootstraps is a little batty during an epidemic.

    You could say I have little faith in this government to manage health crises.

  6. David Grant

    January 25th, 2020

    God forbid we have an outbreak as there was with the SARS epidemic. The cuts made by the Harris government has an impact on the ability of the health care system to respond effectively to situations like this.

  7. Dave

    January 26th, 2020

    One of the reasons this crisis happened in China is that the authoritarian, top down government is not that responsive to criticism or input. Of course, there are many other reasons too and they actually seemed to have learned something from SARS. It seems this time the the local government there was more the problem in trying to focus on not panicking, when it should have been focused on the problem and listening to the experts, while the national government was unaware of the seriousness of the situation for too long. Of course, western governments are not perfect either and we struggled with the response to SARS, but I do agree with your point that it was the experts in the health system that figured out what the problem was and how to deal with it and so helped us overcome it.

    This is also a good example of why our Premier should resist his more authoritarian impulses that have worryingly been on display a lot lately. Mr. Kenney has in his personality a potentially dangerous combination of ideological certainty and over self confidence that leads to disastrous micromanagement and mismanagement by the government in many different possible ways. A good example lately is his advanced education minister telling educational institutions to reduce travel expenses. It is a pat and simplistic answer, but is not the solution to budgetary woes.

    It is kind of ironic when you think about it. Real conservatism is generally thought to be about less government interference, not more and micromanagement. In that spirit, you would think a real conservative government would just set the global budget and let the educational institutions figure out for themselves what it makes the most sense to use the funds for. Of course, Mr. Kenney also harbors a suspicion of experts and presents himself as an anti elitist, which is also incongruous with his lengthy influential career in politics and the sort of people he solicits donations from and gives tax cuts to are largely the business elite.

    One wonders whether all these contradictions will cause the whole thing to collapse upon itself at some point. Surely, micro management and ignoring experts could hasten this.

    • Abs

      January 28th, 2020

      More and more stories are coming out about the top-down Chinese government’s handling of the #Wuhancoronavirus epidemic. There’s nothing but rumor, but some are saying the public health crisis in Wuhan dates back to November 2019.

      Meanwhile here in Alberta, N95 nasks have sold out everywhere. There won’t be any more coming in. They’re made in China, and the government there has intervened to prevent shipments.

      Chaos and panic in China: do people here in Alberta trust top-down government? I guess if they did, there would still be N95 masks available.

  8. Jerrymacgp

    January 26th, 2020

    Conservatives increasingly distrust science & scientists. This has been borne out by some recent public opinion research put out by EKOS — in which it can be seen that 30% of Conservative supporters have low levels of trust in scientists, and only 42% have high levels of such trust. This is a significant change since 2014, when these numbers were 14% & 64%, respectively.

    Conversely, among Liberal supporters, only 6% distrust scientists, while 82% trust them; those numbers are virtually unchanged, given the margin of error, from 2014 (3% & 87%, respectively). Mr Graves’ slide presentation does not give data on belief in science for NDP or Green supporters, but I would hazard a guess that it is somewhat in synch with Liberal supporters.

    How this will affect Conservative governments’ actions in health care issues is worrisome, since they clearly won’t trust the health experts that know the most about any given issue.


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