Written originally for Counterfire.
The United Conservative Party (UCP) presently forms the provincial government of Alberta and it is headed by one of the most rabidly right wing politicians in Canada, Jason Kenney. When he was the federal Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism from 2008 to 2013, he earned himself the nickname of Minister of Censorship and Deportation. Alberta has had the misfortune to have to deal with the spread of Covid-19 with this man as its Premier.
The priority he has placed on business profits over human life has put his government in a leading position when it comes to social murder in the face of the pandemic. In December of last year, Alberta had a quarter of the active Covid cases in Canada, despite its population making up only 12% of the country’s population. Two devastating waves of the virus have swept the province with the Kenney government taking only the most reluctant and inadequate measure to contain them.
It is hardly surprising, then, that the Kenny government is adopting a ‘just give up’ approach to the pandemic and the threat posed by the Delta variant. Though it is surging among both vaccinated and unvaccinated people, Kenney has staked everything on the vaccines, even though less than 60% of the population have received both doses, declaring that
“Thanks to vaccines and the millions of Albertans who have been protected by them, we finally have the upper hand on this virus and can safely open up our province.”
Kenney and his chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, have declared, without evidence, that the virus has now entered an ‘endemic phase’ in which it will become no more of a threat than an outbreak of the flu. On this basis, his government has decided to “..abandon masks on public transit, give up on contact tracing, reduce testing to the bare minimum, and ignore the real risks to children — that’s 15 per cent of the population that has not been vaccinated.”
Dr. Hinshaw has since apologised for creating the impression that the pandemic is over but has stood by her position that reliance on vaccines is sufficient. Dr. Tehseen Ladha, an Alberta paediatrician, responded to this by saying,
“Scientifically we are not at that stage yet. Yes, we will one day all have to live with Covid, it will become part of our lives, but that will be when we’re not seeing an exponential rise in cases, that will be when we’re not seeing novel variants.”
In throwing all caution to the wind in this way, Kenney is joining with a club of the most reckless and dangerous political leaders. His conduct is being compared to that of the governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, who has charted a lethal course that has put active infections above 100,000, ensured that 11,000 are filling the hospitals of the state and that some 58 people are dying from the virus every day. Kenney’s conduct is also, of course, very much like that of Boris Johnson and Sajid Javid, who are both fully prepared to “begin to learn to live with this virus” regardless of the human cost.
Capitalism vs life
Undeniably, there have been some political leaders who have played a particularly monstrous role during the waves of the pandemic. People like Kenney and Johnson have flirted with outright coronavirus denial and have taken measures to protect public health only belatedly and with extreme reluctance. Now they pretend that the vaccines are all that is needed, removing protections that place limits on mobility and interaction, so as to maximise business activity and profit making.
However, someone like Jason Kenney is only an impatient and extreme version of his somewhat more cautious counterparts. The Canadian government of Justin Trudeau is moving to open the US border, even as caseloads rise horribly in that country. Fully vaccinated tourists from the US will now be allowed into Canada, despite overwhelming evidence that many are likely to carry the virus with them.
On an international scale, governments that have followed a course of eliminating Covid have been few and far between. Inadequate measures to mitigate the impact of the pandemic have been the general rule.
A dangerous new readiness to rely on vaccines and abandon former measures of protection is now taking hold. This is despite the gathering threat posed by the Delta variant and other strains that have been created by the failure to contain the spread of the virus. This new herd immunity approach, turning the undeniable but partial protection provided by the vaccines into a pretext to put populations at risk, is being embraced by governments as accepted wisdom.
It means, of course, that the day when we really can learn to live with a greatly weakened virus will be pushed further into the future. Moreover, the threat posed by allowing the uncontrolled spread of the pandemic in rich countries, with high levels of vaccination, is considerable but the failure to protect vast numbers of people in poor countries creates an even greater danger. Global ‘vaccine imperialism’ ensures that the deadly risk of vaccine resistant variants hangs over us all.
The kind of responses coming from governments like that of Jason Kenney at present are more dangerous and callous than at any time during the course of the pandemic. A recent report from Sage in the UK, in response to the danger of the variants, offers the most alarming scientific evidence. It suggests that Delta could go from a lethality rate of between 1% and 2% to as high as 35%, as well as becoming far more infectious. It raises the prospect that it could develop a greater ability to evade vaccines and defeat antiviral treatments. In that context, the sheer criminality of the kind of steps the Alberta government is taking stand out clearly.
In many ways, the response of capitalist states to the public health crisis generated by Covid, points to an even more serious threat looming over us in the form of extreme weather and other dire manifestations of the climate crisis. Just as governments have failed to protect populations as a deadly virus spreads among them and mutates into something even worse, so we may be sure that the pursuit of short term profits will mean the clearest scientific evidence will be disregarded when it comes to the climate danger. It is hardly a coincidence that the Alberta government, even as it allows Covid to run its course, stands out as a leading mouth piece for climate change denialism.
In the era of pandemics and mounting ecological disaster that we have now entered, the struggles we must take up and the movements we must build are going to be shaped by a challenge to those in political power who disregard this crisis and abandon workers and communities to their impacts. Governments like those of Jason Kenney place profits ahead of all else and the struggle really has become a question of capitalism vs life itself.