From first to worst: How Manitoba squandered its pandemic advantage — and what it takes to get it back

Four months into the pandemic, southern Manitoba was the best place to be in Canada.

Another four months later, COVID-19 is spreading here like nowhere else in Canada.

In the span of 120 days — the gestation period of a domestic pig — Winnipeg and the surrounding area went from pandemic first to pandemic worst. 

This ignominious achievement underscores how quickly a contagious respiratory disease can go from a being a mere nuisance to a crisis.

Public health experts will argue COVID-19 was always a crisis. Clearly, the majority of Manitoba’s populace — including its elected leaders — failed to see it that way.

How else to explain the remarkable reversal of fortune for a province that only months ago took unusual pride in the manner in which it managed to hammer the COVID-19 curve down into a horizontal line?

Our government response appeared to be prudent. Our collective adherence to public health measures appeared to be resolute.

With the benefit of hindsight, we just got lucky. 

During the initial, panicked stage of the pandemic, when almost all of the cases of the disease in Manitoba were imported from elsewhere, containment via testing and contact tracing turned out to be an infinitely easier task than it is right now, when transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19 is widespread within the community.

This is no hyperbole. Manitoba is performing poorly by any metric you choose.

Chief among them is new cases. In recent weeks, people living in Winnipeg and Steinbach are contracting COVID-19 at  a rate unlike anywhere else in Canada.

Over the past week, a daily average of 27.2 out of every 100,000 residents of the Winnipeg health region was diagnosed with COVID-19. That figure was 24.4 out of every 100,000 residents of the Southern health region during the same time frame.

These are not just the highest infection rates in Canada. No other Canadian health regions are coming close.

The infection rate in the Winnipeg health region is nearly twice the rate in the Edmonton zone, double the rate in the Montreal health region and roughly two and a half times the rates in the Toronto Health Unit and Quebec City’s National Capital health region.

Slow-motion disaster

If you could travel back in time to July, when Manitoba went nearly two weeks without a new case of COVID-19, the notion Winnipeg could be twice as infectious as Montreal would have sounded wacky.

But this is where we are after several months of witnessing a slow-motion disaster in the making.

“The trend has been in the wrong direction,” Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin said Friday during a press briefing, after he was asked what he had to say about Manitoba’s terrible trajectory.

Roussin’s response was not just an understatement. He may as well have said Mary Todd Lincoln did not particularly enjoy her outing to the theatre.

Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba’s chief public health officer, says the province is heading in the wrong direction. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

The beleaguered doctor was more candid 10 days earlier.

“If we look at where we were during our first wave, we can see that, you know, we let the virus off the hook,” he said on Oct. 26.

“We know exactly how this virus is spread. We’re in a pandemic. We have to expect to see cases. We can’t avoid that.  

“But what we shouldn’t expect and we shouldn’t accept are people who have 50 contacts or people going to work when they’re ill or people not being forthcoming with health-care providers. This is what leads to numbers that we’re looking at right now.”

No single individual is responsible

It may also be argued Manitoba did not act more decisively to slow the first-to-worst trajectory. And that can not be laid at Roussin’s feet alone.

The pandemic enforcement regime Premier Brian Pallister initially promised in April did not materialize until this week. Public-health messaging from the province was slow to take an urgent tone.

And despite the premier’s admonishment of “armchair critics” who dared to question the wisdom of public health authorities in September, it is fair to ask whether the provincial cabinet dropped the ball by failing to get behind more stringent restrictions for the Winnipeg region at a time when cases were merely spiking and not skyrocketing.

Roussin doesn’t act alone. Health Minister Cameron Friesen doesn’t act alone. Even the premier does not act alone.

In September, Manitoba did not ramp up swabbing capacity in time for the surge of demand in Winnipeg. In October, it did not ramp up contact-tracing capacity in time to track the transmission of an even greater number of cases.

No single individual is responsible for any of these failures. And even if one person was responsible, locking them up in a public stockade would accomplish nothing.

Given the test-positivity rates in Winnipeg, Steinbach and elsewhere, the only thing for Manitobans to do over the next two weeks is to do precisely as Roussin asked on Friday and stay home as much as possible.

“Do you need to go out? Is it an essential reason why you’re going out or is it just our natural desire to go out?” he asked in what seems like a default-setting level of exasperation. 

“We need to focus on leaving just for those essential reasons, in the short term. Remember, it’s not going to be like this forever.”

It took almost no effort to go from first to worst in Manitoba. Achieving the opposite feat requires almost as little effort: Now, as in April, all you are asked to do is sit on the couch as much as possible.

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