Alberta’s Public Health Emergencies Governance Review Panel has made 90 sound recommendations which that, frankly, all provinces should enact.
The panel chaired by Preston Manning examined whether the province needed better structures and legislation to handle public emergencies. Of course, Alberta needed stronger legislation to handle the COVID_19 pandemic.
The report’s strongest conclusion is that the premier, cabinet, and key ministers “have the ultimate authority and responsibility…[t]o make decisions on the emergency response measures adopted, accounting for key values, priorities and tradeoffs.”
The previous provincial Emergency Management Act left decisions with the provincial health officer (PHO). The Manning Commission showed that Alberta actually had a very bad process for making critical decisions. Specifically, a court case showed that the PHO checked in with cabinet decisions, but the cabinet denied that the decisions were up to them. This was not even legal, as the law said the PHO had final authority in emergency situations
Some critics warned that putting emergency management decisions in the hands of elected officials could leave them swayed by politics. This is a very weak argument because the same could be legitimately said for everything an elected government does.
The government responses to the pandemic led to an eight per cent contraction in the Alberta economy. This $24 billion burden had its own economic and health consequences. Unfortunately, a myopic focus on the virus by the health bureaucrats disregarded the serious toll that isolation, addiction, and suicide had on citizens.
An unfortunate dogma emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic, that social distancing, lockdowns, and rushed vaccines all deserved to be fully supported, while, at the same time, certain inexpensive generic drugs should not be used. At this time, a considerable amount of research shows that there is a defensible contrary perspective, which is a point that the Alberta report’s sharpest critics don’t seem to acknowledge.
In fact, the report wisely advises “‘[t]hat a clear and conscious decision be made by elected officials as to the scope of the scientific advice to be sought and that this decision not be left entirely to the subject-matter agency or department, given that it may have a narrower perspective than that actually required.”
To this end, “whatever scientific advisory committees, advisors and contractors are assembled to support the response be broadly based, multidisciplinary in nature, and appropriately balanced from both inside and outside government.”
The recommendation to consult widely and not to become “stuck” in political paradigms that may not work seems irrefutably sensible. Unfortunately, an openness to “alternative perspectives” has been unduly bashed.
The report emphasized that the education of school children must continue despite an emergency. Most countries avoided the long months of school closures common to Alberta and, indeed, common to other provinces. The report warns that the “compromised learning and reduced socialization…will be felt well into the future by both Alberta and Canada, across all dimensions of society, economy and country.”
Correctly the report recommends that n the future schools must remain open “except under the most exceptional circumstances,” The authors said Alberta law should enshrine not just a right that children have to education, but the province has a duty to offer it, with stiff penalties for the dereliction of such duties. The report argues that in-person learning is preferred to online learning, but improved access to technology for on-line learning was also advised.
The panel also called for helping students who fell by the wayside during school closures so that they can “make up for learning loss.” As well, the panel also called for a system-wide “intensification of punctuality, behavioural and academic performance standards.”
The panel also called for changes to the Employment Standards Code to “disallow permanent dismissals of non-compliant employees during a temporary public emergency.” Those fired for not taking the vaccine can only welcome this recommendation. The report also says that the Health Professions Act needs its “standard of practice” amended to include “recognition and protection of the rights of members to freedom of expression.” Basic measures to bolster health care will only come about when experts can freely express and defend their concerns in open debates.
The panel also recommended that the Alberta Bill of Rights be revised and strengthened. Guarantees of personal and professional freedom and “protection against discrimination on the basis of opinion, disability and medical status or history” were among the most important revisions that were suggested.
Obviously, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a painful memory for both policy makers and citizens, but the thoughtful analysis offered by the Manning panel is necessary so that Alberta is ready for the next crisis. Hopefully, all provincial governments, and indeed the federal government, will look carefully at the Alberta report and they will prepare accordingly. The next crisis, whatever it may be, could unfortunately be soon be upon us.
Lee Harding is Research Fellow for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.