Alberta Politics
An intensive care unit: top-notch equipment does no good without skilled health care workers to operate it (Photo: Norbert Kaiser, Creative Commons).

Guest Post by Cam Westhead: COVID-19 public health advice – armchair epidemiologists need not apply

Posted on November 22, 2020, 12:29 am
6 mins

By Cam Westhead

One of the first things I learned in nursing school was not to panic during times of crisis. Medical professionals are trained to act like a duck – appearing calm on top of the water but paddling like mad underneath.

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw’s demeanour is a prime example of this training in action.

Registered Nurse Cam Westhead (Photo: Cam Westhead/Supplied).

But when ducks are at risk of drowning they cause a commotion. That’s why so many of Alberta’s health care community are calling loudly for measures like a circuit-breaker lockdown to slow the spread of COVID-19. With hospitals bursting at the seams, staff shortages, intensive care unit beds over-capacity, and our infection curve taking off like a rocket, health care workers are barely treading water right now and they’re sounding the drowning alarm.

That’s why Rick Bell’s Nov. 17 column dismissing them as mere “paper shufflers and expert mouthpieces and safe and secure inhabitants of the ivory tower” was so deeply insulting. In my 16 years of nursing I’ve ever heard anything quite so disparaging. The last thing we need right now is an amateur mouthpiece belittling those who are desperately trying to help us avert disaster.

If Postmedia’s Calgary Sun political columnist won’t listen to thousands of health care workers or Calgary’s head of emergency management – whose job it is not just to manage emergencies but also to avoid them in the first place – who will he listen to?

As a former operating room nurse I’m currently 2nd Vice-President of United Nurses of Alberta, and I’ve been listening to the more than 30,000 Alberta Registered Nurses, Registered Psychiatric Nurses and other front-line health care workers UNA represents. They are overworked, frustrated and fed up with having their legitimate concerns dismissed as alarmist and being accused of fear mongering.

Morale among health care workers is at an all-time low. Not just because Health Minister Tyler Shandro has waged a campaign of defamation against them – during a pandemic, no less – and plans to lay off 11,000 of them and roll back compensation, but because their warning flares and cries for help have been met with indifference from the Kenney Government and condescension from professional commentators like Mr. Bell.

Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro (Photo: Alberta Newsroom/Flickr).

For a glimpse of Alberta’s future if we fail to act, we need only look two provinces to the east, where Manitobans wish they’d enacted their lockdown sooner. While Mr. Bell sides with the anti-lockdown protesters there, what advice does he have for the health care workers who now must decide which patients get an ICU bed and which don’t? There are no bunk beds in the ICU.

By the way, hospital beds don’t provide care for the ill. Highly skilled staff do. But due to occupational exposure to the virus and the requirement to self-isolate, they are in ever short and diminishing supply, even though physical beds and ventilators may not be.

This is an underreported story that deserves more attention from media.

Mr. Bell’s column won’t age well because COVID-19 thrives when we look the other way and pretend there is no crisis.

Now more than ever we need to stop listening to armchair epidemiologists and backseat experts, writing from a position of privilege, and start heeding the actual experts on the front lines like the tens of thousands of health care workers who are pleading for help by way of a lockdown to help bend the curve.

Postmedia political columnist Rick Bell (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

This health crisis has led to an economic crisis that’s no less concerning. Health care workers fully understand the devastating social and economic consequences a lockdown will impose on their fellow Albertans. Indeed, many of these same workers are the ones who help Albertans cope with those consequences.

But debilitation and death are worse. And if we don’t intervene now, we can expect far more severe economic outcomes, and much more death and suffering. To soften the economic and social consequences of a lockdown, Premier Kenney’s United Conservative Party Government has an ethical responsibility to erect a social safety net.

We’re at a point where our health care system can sink or swim. We have the civic and moral duty to throw it a lifesaver.

There is one thing health care workers and Mr. Bell can agree on: most Albertans do not want a lockdown.

But wants and needs are not the same. The reality is that Alberta’s COVID-19 crisis needs one. Now.

Cam Westhead is Second Vice-President of United Nurses of Alberta, the former MLA for Banff-Cochrane, and has been a Registered Nurse of 16 years.

18 Comments to: Guest Post by Cam Westhead: COVID-19 public health advice – armchair epidemiologists need not apply

  1. Kim Poirier

    November 22nd, 2020

    I hear you. This is heartbreaking as your health care workers work so hard in such a hostile environment! Good luck and if you just can’t anymore, BC is hiring.

  2. karl roth

    November 22nd, 2020

    have had a lot of dealings with health care workers in the last 8 months, from clerical workers to doctors and everything in between and have found them to be almost always friendly, professional and kind

    they are deeply appreciated by me

    also very much appreciate our healthcare system
    pretty sure i’d already be singing in the choir invisible if i was an American citizen

    the Kenney/UCP supporters and believers are citizens of a world i find lacking
    lacking in fellow feeling and a common sense understanding of the common good
    they know the cost of everything and the value of nothing and pursue profit before all else

    it’s world very much the result of a conservative economic agenda that has been aggressively pursued starting with policies and a world view (weltanschauung) most obviously reflected by Milton Friedman, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan and the proliferation of right wing “think tanks”
    it’s been mostly downhill from there

    AB with it’s Kenney/UCP “landslide victory” and the mostly supine AB press and its Shandros and its clueless MLA’s seems to epitomize the banality of this world view

    how tiresome it all is some days !

  3. Anonymous

    November 22nd, 2020

    I think it is prudent to take the advice of those who are employed in the medical field, like Cam Westhead, not columnists who are mere mouthpieces for the UCP, and other conservative parties. If we continue down the UCP’s wrong direction, it will only get worse with the Covid-19 pandemic in Alberta, and with everything else in Alberta. We also know that the UCP are playing the same bad moves with healthcare in Alberta, that Ralph Klein was doing. This isn’t going to end very well, with all the layoffs of healthcare support staff, and registered nurses in Alberta. The UCP wants private for profit health care in Alberta, just like the premier they so much admire, and want to emulate, Ralph Klein. I also didn’t notice Postmedia newspapers mentioning Miranda Rosin’s erroneous newsletter stating that the worst of Covid-19 is behind us. I didn’t see it at all. It wouldn’t surprise me at all as to why they wouldn’t report on it. That is an insult to all who are suffering from Covid-19 in Alberta, and elsewhere.

  4. Bill Malcolm

    November 22nd, 2020

    The contrast yesterday between the Covid-19 coverage between the National Post and the UCP-lover Calgary Herald/Edmonton Journal duo was amazing. The Post was serious and deep with criticism of Ford for being way too slow to return to lockdown, the Alberta papers had only case numbers and dumbo “opinion” as shallow as a rain puddle on a sidewalk after a shower. kenney must have dirt on local Postmedia management, because he gets away scot-free with no criticism for that peculiar gross incompetence of his fuelled by his personal ideology and sociopathy. To the Alberta Postmedia crowd, yesterday was just another day. Hey ho.

    As for Bell’s uncouth remarks on Alberta health care workers, it’s an age-old ploy. Accuse others of being/doing exactly what you are yourself: in this case a paper-shuffler living in an ivory tower, ordering in KFC by the bucket by the look of him. We cannot call him an expert, however, just a bought-and-paid-for drone. The Soviet Union used this accusatory tactic against the West for decades; it is a sign of America’s decline they now accuse Russia of doing exactly what they are in fact doing themselves: cheap shots that look authoritative but are puffballs of emptiness. It is a reversal of roles. Hard to say whether a chap like Bell has much of a clue on anything whatsoever — presumably not, but leading with his chin he does simply because it’s worked before with his followers in his echo chamber.

    I guess if Bell has such a low opinion of healthcare workers, he can opt out of using their services if he gets ill. I mean, who wants paper-shuffling ivory tower experts to care for them when they’re gasping for air? Not a ranting right-wing looney, that’s for sure. Perhaps there are foam-at-the-mouth nutcases in Alberta fully as out-of-it as those South Dakotans who rage at nurses that they haven’t got Covid-19 even as they are dying — they can’t have the virus BECAUSE IT DOES NOT EXIST.

  5. jerrymacgp

    November 22nd, 2020

    Well said, Cam.

  6. Bob Raynard

    November 22nd, 2020

    I wonder if Mr. Bell has considered how many comorbidity factors he has, if he should happen to become infected.

  7. tom in Ontario

    November 22nd, 2020

    Try not to despair, Mr. Westhead. During my three year experience with the Alberta health system, one would be hard pressed to find a more dedicated group anywhere in Canada. Surgeons, oncologists, ward and specialty nurses, office personnel, caretakers and kitchen workers, professionals every one. Do not let third rate Postmedia hacks get you down. They are typical establishment loving ass kissers who couldn’t do your members’ jobs in a hundred years.

  8. Alan Spiller

    November 22nd, 2020

    An excellent article and so true. I will never forget the nurses bawling their eyes out in my office when Klein destroyed their careers. I helped nine doctors and at least two dozen nurses relocate out of this province and not one of them wanted to go.

    Now this phoney conservative in Jason Kenney , and health minister Tyler Shandro are playing the same stupid mind games as Klein did with their ignorant supporters, trying to blame doctors and nurses for the high cost of health, yet promise to make it a lot higher with privatization. Paying for blood donations is just plan stupid and of course will add a lot more costs to taxpayers. We know these lairs have no intention of paying for it out provincial revenues because they don’t have any money to do so. They have given it all away.

  9. Lars

    November 22nd, 2020

    “If Postmedia’s Calgary Sun political columnist won’t listen to thousands of health care workers or Calgary’s head of emergency management… who will he listen to?”

    Well, like all right-wingers, he’ll listen to whoever tells him what he wants to hear. This appears to be part of an increasing tendency of those on the right to denigrate any sort of expertise that doesn’t support their ideology.
    Good column. We need to hear from those at the working edge.

  10. Kang

    November 22nd, 2020

    I have direct experience with these UCP types. Ralph Klein’s administration shut down the local hospital. It was a smallish rural hospital built by the community on land donated by the community and much loved.
    Premier Klein’s administration, at great expense, completely re-fitted the facility with new beds, two operating theatres, and along with all the other stuff a hospital needs to run. The place gleamed and the community thought Klein could walk on water. A year later the facility was closed and that expensive equipment was sold off to a US hotel chain which actually has more hospital beds than hotel beds, for pennies on the dollar. The land and building were summarily seized from the community.
    The dozen or so elders in the hospital at its closing were shipped off to facilities across the province. Isolated from their families, they were all dead within a year.
    The UCP are even more ruthless and greedy than the Klein PCs. They are fully prepared to see seniors die and to exploit the good will of health care professionals to privatize the system.

    • Anonymous

      November 22nd, 2020

      KANG: You and Alan are right. The UCP wants to finish off what Ralph Klein started to do, and simply does not care who they affect from their ill conceived policies.

  11. Hana Razga

    November 22nd, 2020

    Rick Bell also seems to be almost always first in line to ask questions at Dr. Hinshaw’s updates…..

  12. Abs

    November 22nd, 2020

    Thank you.

    One of the Jasons has let the cat out of the bag. The plan is to push the health system and ICUs to the limit, and then start thinking about what to do, albeit next to nothing, right Jason Luan?

    Look in the mirror, premier. Blood is on your hands. We will not forget.

  13. Abs

    November 22nd, 2020

    Today we overtook Ontario’s daily new cases of Covid-19. Very impressive! Alberta: 1584; Ontario: 1534.

  14. Bret Larson

    November 22nd, 2020

    Share the pain. If a lockdown is necessary, have all government labour contracts diminish value based on the curtailment of private industry revenues. It’s only fair, share the pain around so we are all in this together.

    • Kang

      November 23rd, 2020

      Bret: you do understand that those government expenditures support the “effective demand” in the economy which keeps business running? Think of it as “priming the pump.” The last time effective demand in the economy collapsed, there was universal misery which the following application of Keynesian policy demonstrated was unnecessary.

      You sound like you are too young to understand just how much you have benefited from that. Don’t be deluded that because “you got yours” you will be able to avoid the consequences of the UCP’s rigid application of their fantasy economic policies.

  15. Dave

    November 22nd, 2020

    To answer your question about who Mr. Bell will listen to, it is fairly clear to me he is a essentially just a mouthpiece for the UCP and has been for quite a while. I suspect he has pretty much given up independent thought some time ago and gets his cues mostly from our dear leader.

    He just represents another front for the UCP in its war against health care and health care workers, which unfortunately did not cease when the COVID crisis started. It is unfortunate that the newpaper continues to carry him, he really is quite a bit of an embarassment, but I suspect these days they are shameless and don’t care. Unfortunately there are some similar sycophants of the UCP in other newpapers in Alberta, but they are a bit more modest in tone and less aggressive.

    Perhaps the UCP hopes its various media attack dogs and sycophants will keep Albertans from blaming it as things get worse. However I doubt that strategy will work as well as they hope. Most Albertans realize our health care workers are doing their best in a difficult situation despite the lack of much support from Kenney and his UCP gang.

  16. Richard

    November 23rd, 2020

    Cam is clearly preaching to the choir, but one must ask, in this age where the oil patch is a ghost of it’s former glory, with revenues just a fraction of the former; so where is all the money going to come from to maintain the status quo? Seems everyone is demanding a 6 figure salary… how do you support these demands…or do we just take on more debt?

    Public health care in Canada is too bureaucratic, with highly qualified health care professionals spending too much of their time filling out paperwork and doing clerical work to satisfy additional layers of bureaucratic oversight.

    After spending time in Mexico you can be assured that health care, and much of it is excellent, is dispensed far more efficiently and at far less cost to either the patient or the public system…. yes there is even free public health care in Mexico, called the Secretaria de Salude, a basic health care service free even to visiting tourists. There is none of the pervasive beauracracy you see in Canada.


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