Alberta Politics
Edmonton’s skyline from the 106th Street Lookout (Photo: awmcphee, Creative Commons).

Is the huge gap in COVID-19 cases between Edmonton and Calgary bad luck or bad management?

Posted on May 05, 2020, 1:32 pm
8 mins

So far, Alberta’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has been a tale of two cities.

It may not have been quite the best of times, the worst of times, but Edmonton’s certainly done well and Calgary’s not done so well at all. That state of affairs extends into the larger regions around Alberta’s two principal cities.

Calgary’s skyline (Photo: Realc, Creative Commons).

But how do we explain the huge gap between Edmonton’s 503 COVID-19 cases and 12 deaths, compared with Calgary’s 3,905 cases and 70 deaths?

The proximate cause, it’s pretty clear, is the disaster at the Cargill Inc. meatpacking plant in the historic town of High River, 60 kilometres south of Calgary. There, 936 workers at the plant had tested positive for the virus by yesterday, as the slaughterhouse was reopening. One of them, 67-year-old Bui Thi Hiep, has died.

As a result, however, there has been much wider spread of the disease in High River itself and in Calgary, whence many of the workers commute. Indeed, the Cargill plant is the epicentre of the largest COVID-19 outbreak in Canada, possibly North America.

The second largest Canadian outbreak is at the JBS SA meatpacking plant in Brooks, in southeastern Alberta.

The two plants alone have more cases than the provinces of Saskatchewan, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador combined,” the Globe and Mail reported on Sunday in a major story well worth reading but which, alas, remains behind the newspaper’s paywall.

COVID-19 victim Bui Thi Hiep (Photo: From her Cargill ID, via Facebook).

This is not merely a case of bad luck, though, as the province’s United Conservative Party would prefer us to believe, but one of bad management.

It has long been widely understood that meatpacking plants, especially large corporate-owned slaughterhouses that operate at a fast pace with their eye unrelentingly on the bottom line, are, like cruise ships, Petri dishes for infectious disease.

If anyone seriously doubted this, the coronavirus pandemic has provided a cruel teaching moment.

The phenomenon is obvious throughout North America. Two weeks ago, USA Today reported COVID-19 outbreaks at 48 meatpacking plants in the United States. The Smithfield Foods Inc. pork plant in South Dakota is the epicentre of the largest outbreak in the U.S. Poultry plants in both countries are experiencing outbreaks.

The author of an opinion piece in The Hill, the online Washington political newspaper, was hardly delivering a major scoop when he wrote that “slaughterhouses are clearly a weak link in the food system, and pose serious threats to our health, especially during a pandemic.”

The conduct of large meatpacking corporations — not supplying personal protective equipment, close-quarters working conditions, resisting change that would slow the pace of production, relying on vulnerable, low-paid workforces and encouraging employees to work sick — is clearly a factor in the spread of COVID-19. By most accounts, this has been part of the problem in High River. Managers got masks, “but the workers got nothing,” one worker said.

The health professionals at Alberta Health Services could not have been unaware of this. The political leaders of Alberta’s UCP Government, heavily influenced by the meatpacking and the cattle raising industries, knew it too. Agriculture Minister Devin Dreeshen certainly knew when he assured workers it was safe to return to work.

United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401 President Tom Hesse (Photo: Facebook).

That the UCP put so much effort into keeping the plants open when it became obvious they should be closed may be a disgrace, but it’s hardly a surprise. Nor is it a shock that Alberta’s departments of labour and health both contributed to the effort to keep the plants in operation. Alberta Labour even permitted an inspector to assess plant safety by FaceTime with a Cargill manager holding the smartphone at the other end!

But surely it’s a stain on the leadership of Alberta Health Services that they contributed to the effort to persuade workers that the plant was safe.

“We want to see this industry operate, we want to see the ranchers prosper, I want to eat beef, workers want to work safely,” Tom Hesse, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401, which is trying to get a stop-work order at the plant, told a reporter. “That could have happened if health authorities had done their jobs properly and Cargill did the right thing and shut this plant down on April 6 when that first case was found.”

I’m sure the professionals at AHS and the Labour Department gave better advice behind the scenes, but failed to sway the politicians.

In other words, when our health care professionals have been able to call the shots — as in the Edmonton region — we mostly seem to have done OK, or at least not much worse than our neighbouring Western Canadian provinces.

But where our Conservative politicians have a reason to put their oar in, the results are disastrous.

In other words, when it comes to the UCP, its inattention may be a huge advantage!

Unfortunately, regardless of what the professionals advise, the decision about when to “relaunch” Alberta’s economy rests in the hands of Conservative politicians anxious to get back to “business as usual” before voters notice how much help we’ve been getting from Ottawa and how little from our provincial government.

That’s why workers at the Cargill plant went back to work yesterday despite their own fears and their union’s objections after a quick two-week shutdown by the company, which seems to have considered the optics and made the decision without any encouragement by the government. That’s why despite the spread of COVID-19 the Brooks plant has never closed.

And that’s why the UCP, just like the Trump Administration in the States, is in an unseemly hurry for Alberta to open for business, never mind the risk of more super-spreader events and another wave of coronavirus infection.

This does not bode well for either Edmonton or Calgary in the next few weeks.

27 Comments to: Is the huge gap in COVID-19 cases between Edmonton and Calgary bad luck or bad management?

  1. Keith McClary

    May 5th, 2020

    Meanwhile, the federal Cons (and Liberal Cotler) want to punish China for its handling of the early stages.

    Reply
  2. Davein Sask

    May 5th, 2020

    You should always do what works.

    When John Kenneth Galbraith, the eminent US economist replied when asked if he favoured Capitalism or Socialism replied that he favoured what works best in a given situation. If a socialist way of doing something works better that a capitalist way, go with the socialist way and vice versa.

    Kenney thinks only in terms of the capitalist way. In the case of the meat plants that resulted in a huge covid-19 outbreak to ensure business continued to prosper and workers health be damned.

    Reply
    • F. Honey

      May 6th, 2020

      Minor off-point observation: J.K. Galbraith was born in southern Ontario and attended Ontario Agricultural College. He’s a Canadian economist as well.

      Reply
  3. Scotty on Denman

    May 5th, 2020

    The meat-packing industry and the UCP stand out, take centre stage and dominate the COVID19 narrative in Alberta. Casting itself in the main character’s role, the government must dismiss the glaring dichotomy between the two cities, the drastically more-infected Calgary and conspicuously less-infected Edmonton. It is a sort of reification in order to make the pandemic, which is a natural thing, into an ideological thing: free-enterprise versus government, the business hub of Cowtown versus the public-bureaucrat centre of Redmonton. It’s really a UCP-partisan thing—that is, the cultivation of partisanship and partisan advantage instead of responsible focus on getting citizens through this pandemic, assuaging the potential for mass panic or unrest by reassuring hospitals won’t be overwhelmed so they can be treated if they get sick (not only from COVID19, but any illness), and preparing to reopen the economy for all Albertans.

    The virus of course doesn’t differentiate between partisanships so naturally it’s suspect such an infection dichotomy exists, but also that such irony exists (UCP interference in cogent epidemic protocols at meat-packing plants makes the party look bad), and that such perversity exists (the interference is tantamount to criminal negligence on the minister’s part)—and that they partner so ironically and perversely: the UCP favours the employers but endangers the workers upon whom the industry ultimately depends.

    But, then, anti-unionism is essential to UCP partisanship, so, among supporters it’s a sustainable cultural more, not a morally suspect cult.

    From the start COVID19 has been about public info-management. The dichotomy between responsible and not-so-responsibile governments is this: The former manages the release of info in order to prevent panic (so citizens will comply with restrictions), to organize remedies, anticipate reactions and consequences and, most important in the pre-peak phase, get past the point where hospitals can be overwhelmed; the latter, no-so-responsible governments manage info to promote partisan ideology (and accuse instead their political rivals of doing it), to reify the circumstance into a kind of thing which the strong (the right) are unafraid and invulnerable and, conversely, the ‘lilly-livered’ Liberal wimps are hopelessly or ridiculously hysterical—like of a mouse or a spider; and, finally, to dismiss critics, defend against criticism, and deceive citizens as to the ulterior motives the not-so-responsible governing party has.

    It’s a sickening sight, yet one can hardly look away.

    Unlike the US presiduncy, the Alberta government has no immunity except against liability for what MLAs say while inside the legislature—that is, so-called ‘special prosecutors’ notwithstanding, the Agro Minister is liable to be prosecuted for criminal negligence for effectively putting workers at Cargill in harms way, and plaintiffs don’t have to wait because, supposedly, a sitting politician can’t be indicted. At very least, the UCP deserves a sound thrashing at the polls for COVID19 and all the rest of its shitty administration. But, this is a democracy and the electoral comeuppance can’t be relied on—which is why the legal route should be pursed.

    Second: Cargill workers need to gird themselves for job action, including scab sanitation. The company and the UCP can explain themselves in court because, in a free and democratic country, seeking injunction against quasi-wildcat action is reasonable.

    Meanwhile, emergency meat-packing diversity needs to be facilitated ASAP before farm animal processing chain gets mad rush disease, necessitating euthanasia of livestock. If industrial meat-packing workers need to sever their employ with the giants, they might consider start-ups in this newly presented opportunity. I suspect BC will be seriously considering repealing the BC Liberals’ shutt-down of farm-gate meat sales now that smaller, more local abattoirs are so obviously needed—they can find work in trucking Alberta meat animals to BC, or come to live here (after two-weeks quarantine, of course). We’d love to have them.

    Isn’t that ironic now that BC meat-packers (the few that exist) are also facing the same problem? Yes, perhaps, but at least it’s not perverse.

    Reply
    • Political Ranger

      May 6th, 2020

      Same ideological bullshit going on in the petro-biz. These feckless, cowardly Albaturda pols need to go, and sooner rather than later.

      Alas, I suspect the next election will be quite favourable for the UCP.
      What can you do with people like this?

      Reply
  4. Adam BOHNET

    May 5th, 2020

    As you say, terrible management! And we should have been prepared for massive spread within a workplace since the Guro-gu call centre case in Seoul. This is really completely unacceptable. I worry very much about my family in Alberta.

    Reply
  5. Public Servant

    May 5th, 2020

    This goes way beyond Alberta’s usual hostility toward worker safety. Workers are dead because of what appears to be gross perhaps criminal negligence.

    Workers begged for weeks for the Cargill plant to be closed, but because they are “of low human capital” or whatever phrase Kenney uses to insult workers, they were ignored. Worse yet, Shandro and Dreeshen told them it was fine to go back to work.

    The Westray disaster resulted in a new law on the books to charge employers for criminal negligence in cases like this, but as far as I know it’s never been used. This seems like a perfect case to lay charges under this legislation.

    In Alberta workers don’t matter, but especially unionized workers and most of all temporary foreign workers. It’s shameful that these people are worth less than keeping the beef cartels running.

    Reply
  6. Murphy

    May 5th, 2020

    Is the problem really the bug or the nature of slaughterhouses when a 67-year-old person dies with a respiratory disease? The problem couldn’t be conditions that drive a 67-year-old person to work in such a facility. Since North America de-industrialized or automated, there aren’t that many industrial mass-employee work settings anymore. How many were kept open as “essential” during the great Chupacabra Plague? 900+ lab-confirmed cases of influenza would have had a death tally of about six, based on figures from last year in Alberta. Exactly how long should economies continue to operate under the various restrictions imposed, restrictions which have no precedence in any previous epidemic. We live in a world where people actually swallow the risible notion of good-guy billionaires, so it was easy to turn reality on it’s head and pretend that lock-downs and social-distancing choreography and glove-wearing are the norm and the Swedes are crazy and suicidal for following reasonable practices. Bojo the Clown, surely by no dint of his own reasoning, had a reasonable approach at the outset, but his creepy government was beset by outrage at the refusal to “do something”. Sure has worked out well in the UK.
    Covidmania really is just like a war, in that it can be whatever political tool anybody chooses it to be, and there is nary a particle of truth to be found in any discussion of the phenomenon.
    Let’s live in lock-down until the the same people who take up most of the advertising space on US tv to sell their wares, and whose products are the subject of lawsuits whose conductors take up the rest of the tv ad space, have a vaccine to both sell and get sued over. Fingers crossed, Rumsfeld still has enough gas in the tank to give this the final thrust to get it off the ground. Never mind the fact that most people experience mild symptoms and there are a number of clearly identified groups who are susceptible to the bug, let’s go on pretending that keeping the kids in the back yard is protecting the 80-year-olds with diabetes and COPD trapped in care facilities.

    Reply
  7. Beyan

    May 5th, 2020

    Let’s completely gloss over the fact that Calgary is one of 4 international airports still open for the COUNTRY, and focus on a small town in Alberta and temporary foreign workers. Yup, that has to be the cause FFS.

    Reply
    • Abs

      May 6th, 2020

      Okay, let’s focus on small town High River. This way it becomes glaringly obvious that the Cargill outbreak has made High River a disease hot spot in Canada.

      Reply
  8. Dave

    May 5th, 2020

    There initially was some bad luck in the higher number of cases in the Calgary region, but increasingly it seems to be bad management that is contributing to the worsening situation there.

    Calgary is the closer city to the US border, where much of the problem in Canada came from and receives more international flights, hence the initial bad luck. The Calgary area also seems to have more meat and poultry plants than the Edmonton area. In itself that is not a problem, but the failure of the UCP to deal with things better led to a lot of infections and some deaths of workers at these facilities.

    The Alberta numbers look increasingly bad compared to BC, which had even worse luck initially. Vancouver and area is even closer to the US border and receives many travelers from the far east where the virus initially came from. However, they seem to have got things under control, whereas in Alberta things seem to have become more out of control in some parts of the province. Southern Alberta initially and for a long time had the fewest cases, now there are more than in Edmonton and area. What does this area have that Edmonton doesn’t? A meat packing plant!

    In some ways the UCP could end up being its own worst enemy here. A short initial shut down to clean the facilities thoroughly at the first sign of problems and to carefully plan out procedures and make appropriate changes could have saved time, protected the workers health more and perhaps even saved lives. Of course they will try to sweep it all under the carpet somehow, but I hope people will not forget after and hold them accountable for their bungling response here.

    Reply
    • Doug

      May 9th, 2020

      AB’s per capita numbers clearly better than those of BC. Number of cases is a misleading statistic as the vast majority of cases go undetected. The greater the testing rate and the bias of who gets tested influence the number of cases. The real indicators are deaths and hospitalizations. According to the union trusted data source of CBC (https://newsinteractives.cbc.ca/coronavirustracker/), BC has 129 deaths vs. 116 in AB up to May 8th. By Statscan (https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/t1/tbl1/en/tv.action?pid=1710000901), BC population is 5.1M vs 4.4M in AB. Death rates are 25.3/M in BC vs. a nearly identical 26.4 in AB. The cumulative hospitalizations for AB as of May 9th (https://covid19stats.alberta.ca/) are 260, or 59.1/M. The BC numbers as of May 8th (http://www.bccdc.ca/Health-Info-Site/Documents/BC_Surveillance_Summary_May_8_2020_Final.pdf) are 467, or 91.6/M. So even with one less day of data, BC’s rate is almost double. Some of that could be due to BC having older demographics. The same data sources have BC conducting 90K tests, or 18/1000, and AB completing 164K tests, or 37/1000.

      In summary:
      -identified cases: equal
      -deaths: AB far lower
      -hospitalizations: AB far lower
      -testing rates: AB far higher

      Reply
  9. Bill Malcolm

    May 5th, 2020

    Why the assumption by some commenters that the Cargill plant is full of temporary foreign workers? The lady that died was a Vietnamese boat person who’d worked there for 23 years! Also jumping to a probably incorrect conclusion is blaming Calgary’s problems on an International airport. That’s a kenney-grade right wing misdirection. Has Vancouver Intl caused problems there since the lockdown? I don’t think so.

    Best comment here by far was the article itself, in my opinion.

    Reply
    • David Climenhaga

      May 6th, 2020

      Bill: I have written about this. The Cargill plant at High River has a history of hiring from each wave of new Canadians. At the time the plant opened, in 1989, when I was agriculture reporter for the Calgary Herald, it was hiring large numbers of new Canadians who had recently immigrated from Vietnam. Some obviously remained, but most will have moved on as they integrated into Canadian life, sent their kids to school and university, retired, and so on. Many employees at the plant now come from the Philippines, according to news reports, and there are many from East Africa at the JBS plant in Brooks. I don’t believe most of these workers are Temporary Foreign Workers, rather, they are recent immigrants to Canada, either citizens or on their way to citizenship. But I can’t say I’ve stayed current on the hiring practices in the industry or paid much heed to it at all until this situation developed. I have been through both the High River and Brooks plants, and most of us who have the choice would not choose to work in a meatpacking plant. The work is hard and often dangerous, the pay is modest, and there’s not much that’s uplifting about being inside one of those places, but it’s a road to Canadian citizenship and we’re luck people take it. DJC

      Reply
      • Doug

        May 9th, 2020

        The two packing plants in southern AB must have extremely high testing coverage to have ~1,500 cases between them. Have other Canadian and US plants had testing rates this high?

        Something else has to be at play. The kill floor is literally a bloody place. Do the workers not wear protective gear to guard against blood and guts? Is COVID spread related to the actual work line or due to workers riding shuttles, car pooling and living together?

        Building the Lakeside (now JBS) and Cargill plants was the legacy of the Getty government’s diversification efforts, the tired “we need to process our resources” argument. Given the low wages and monotonous work, a large percentage of the workers arrived from outside Alberta. Perhaps the economic growth strategy should have focused on the most profitable step in the supply chain.

        Reply
  10. Abs

    May 6th, 2020

    It seems the Sprung pandemic tents might see some use after all, for the second wave of this disease. In Calgary, the second wave may just blend into the first.

    As we know, many of the meat workers can’t get health cards, and doctors don’t get paid for treating patients without health cards now. That’s the danger of being part of Alberta’s untouchables. There is no social safety net. Go to work or don’t get paid. Got to work sick, without access to care. Rent comes due no matter what, and many of these workers do not qualify for federal relief.

    Alberta will increase COVID-19 test processing to more than 16,000 tests a day by June, so it’s clear government knows this won’t be going away soon.

    Yet here we are, reopening and sending all those workers back to process meat. It makes a person wonder if the meat will be shipped south of the border under the free trade agreement, due to meat shortages there from closures at U.S. processing plants. There seems to be a lot of pressure to keep Canadian operations open, come hell or high water. (And by the way, the snowpack in the mountains is high this year; rain, rain, stay away.)

    Reply
    • Doug

      May 9th, 2020

      Hard for a large company like Cargill to pay employees unless they have SIN’s. Irvine qualifies for a SIN, one definitely qualifies for AB Health.

      Reply
  11. Just Me

    May 6th, 2020

    It’s becoming apparent, as with the experience of the meatpackers in the US, is that management sought to downplay and ignore the high potential for infection at their facilities. Why?

    I suggest that it has a lot to do with what the workers at these facilities look like. Asians and Africans. Migrant labour, easily expendable, replaced, and forgotten.

    The UCP can pay whatever lip service to tolerance for these they want, but they have no intention of enforcing the improvements at these plants.

    Reply
  12. e.a.f.

    May 6th, 2020

    many of those working in these slaughter houses are new to Canada and also people of colour. Kenny and his gang just don’t care. to them these new Canadians are disposable. All that is important is that they continue to receive financial contributions.

    Years ago I recall they used to call Alberta, well Calgary, Texas North. We know how Texas works. Alberta not so different. All we can hope for is kenney and some of his clowns come down with a good case of COVID 19, not so that they’d die, just so they know having it is like breathing glass.
    As the death rate increases lets hope people remember it come election time. Kenny kills. nice slogan. These workers’ lives are so much more important than the profits of these corporations, which aren’t also not Canadian. Why Kenny thinks its a good thing that Canadians die for foreign corporations is beyond me. But I’d sure like to have a look at his bank account and that of his party.

    Reply
    • David Climenhaga

      May 6th, 2020

      Whatever you say about Texas, it has almost as many people as all of Canada, saltwater seaports and a very diverse economy. Alberta is Canada’s Oklahoma. DJC

      Reply
  13. watty

    May 6th, 2020

    meat plant outbreak is obviously huge, but don’t forget all the other issues. looking at the AHS site, it shows 2 outbreaks at assisted living/old folks, but Calgary region has a total of 30. smaller outbreaks than meat plants and Amazon warehouse, but something also seriously wrong with assisted living homes in Calgary, what? different companies, different AHS supervision, more cheap workers? worth looking into.

    Reply
  14. Athabascan

    May 6th, 2020

    Not that it matters, but…

    Alberta is the worst province in Canada to live in during this pandemic. Calgary is the worst city in Alberta to be in during this plague.

    When this pandemic is over (12-18 months), Alberta will be the worst province to be in from an economic standpoint, because kenney and his gang will still be governing like a king without opposition.

    All of that suffering is due to UCP and Kenney. Just ask the sacrificial lambs forced to work at Cargill, and JBS.

    Reply
    • Doug

      May 9th, 2020

      The numbers say otherwise. Even with a far higher testing rate, AB has fewer cases per capita than do QC and ON:
      https://newsinteractives.cbc.ca/coronavirustracker/

      As per my previous post, cases is a poor stat as it is influenced by testing rate and testing bias. The important stats are hospitalizations and deaths. AB has clearly done better than the three other large provinces.

      QC had an early spring break, geographic proximity to the densely populated Boston-Washington corridor and cultural ties to NYC. ON and BC are also close to the US and have lots of international travel. AB ex. Calgary more closely resembles the small provinces in being distant to the US, low population density and experiencing relatively little international travel. Edmonton has gotten off easy as it is a backwater, not because it is righteous for voting NDP or supporting public sector unions.

      Reply
  15. watty

    May 7th, 2020

    correction……….. left out the words “in Edmonton” when I said AHS shows only two at assisted living

    Reply
  16. jerrymacgp

    May 7th, 2020

    I noticed many weeks ago, back in March, that the case counts in Calgary Zone were far out of the norm versus the rest of Alberta … by an order of magnitude. I sincerely doubt that was totally attributable to the Cargill plant, at least not at first. But there must be some explanation … many have postulated that Calgary International Airport receives a lot of overseas flights … but, then, most international travellers from the rest of Alberta pass through YYC, so that should have led to far more cases in Central, Edmonton & North Zones.

    Oddly, in the North, the two main population hubs — Fort McMurray/RMWB & the greater Grande Prairie area (comprising the City of GP, the County of GP No. 1, & the MD of Greenview) — have had very few cases all through this, have very few active cases today, & still no deaths. But the tiny Franco-Albertan communities of Donnelly, Falher, Girouxville & McLennan — where Manoir du Lac is — have had dozens of cases (67 so far) and 10 deaths.

    As I’ve said before, some enterprising grad student in epidemiology should do their thesis on why Calgary got hit so hard when compared to E-Town & the Central & North Zones.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

  • (not be published)