Playing Politics with the Pandemic: Jason Kenney Between a COVID Rock and a Separatist Hard Place

Pfizer brought the world some great news yesterday, but an end to the pandemic is still a long way off. Getting Canadians there quickly will require lots of intergovernmental cooperation – and that has us worried. Politics and pandemics are a lethal mix, and Jason Kenney's decision last week to reject Ottawa's COVID Alert app has politics written all over it. This tiff could be the thin edge of a much bigger wedge.Ottawa's COVID Alert app takes a pan-Canadian approach to controlling infection; and so far eight provinces and over five million subscribers have adopted it. Alberta however has its own app and Kenney claims that it is better suited to the province's needs. There is support for this.B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix has also raised concerns about the federal app. But while his government has yet to adopt it, Dix doesn't treat these issues as a deal breaker so much as a challenge to Ottawa to improve the app. That would be good for everyone. So, why won't Kenney play along?The premier says that the Alberta app is essential to his government's contact tracing system and that, without it, the system will fail. This sounds reasonable enough, but let's dig a little deeper into the argument:
  • First, Kenney precludes the (sensible) option of letting people use both apps. He claims that to use the federal app, the Alberta app must be turned off – and that would compromise Alberta's contact tracing system. If true, this could be significant but the experts we consulted were baffled by the premier's claim. They insisted that soundly built apps can be launched and used simultaneously.
  • Second, the day before Kenney announced that he was sidelining the federal app, Alberta's Chief Medical Officer, Deena Hinshaw, reported that the province's contact tracing system had effectively collapsed from the surge in cases. Its operations have been scaled back to a list of critical groups; and it is unclear if or when the system will be able to take on the full load.
  • Third, the success of apps like these requires widespread use, but so far the Alberta app has attracted only about 247,000 subscribers from a population of 4.5 million – not nearly enough to make it effective
  • Finally, Kenney's assessment of the two apps fails to acknowledge the benefits that come from being part of the larger, pan-Canadian system. Travel is an obvious example. The federal app provides a way to keep tabs on people as they move in and out of the province, allowing citizens to know when travelers are infected. The Alberta app has no such capacity.
This last point is revealing. Kenney certainly knows the value of such information. Travel is a high priority for him and his province. Indeed, his government runs a national pilot project at Calgary International Airport (funded by Ottawa) that uses rapid testing to replace mandatory 14-day quarantines for international travelers.Our point is that Kenney's “oversight” of the benefits of a pan-Canadian connection is not just an oversight. More likely, it reflects the nothing-good-could-come-from-Ottawa mentality that now defines many Albertans' views of the federal government.Increasingly, Kenney too speaks from this perspective. As a result, there is little willingness to give Ottawa credit for something without getting something in return. Intergovernmental affairs are now calculated in terms of a net loss or gain for Alberta.These politics are creeping into the pandemic. For example, many of the same Albertans see the impact of another lockdown on Alberta businesses, such as restaurants and gyms, not as an unavoidable evil – that's the “Ottawa view” – but as an infringement on their freedoms.Kenney now also takes this view: “We've seen other jurisdictions indiscriminately violating people's rights and destroying livelihoods,” he said on Friday. “Nobody wants that to happen here in Alberta.”This may play well with Kenney's base, but the consequences for public health are deeply disturbing. Alberta's infection rates are skyrocketing – a record 919 new cases were reported on Saturday – yet Kenney refuses to impose serious restrictions. Instead, he urges Albertans to “make the right choices.”Outrage among experts is growing. Yesterday, some 70 physicians from across the province signed a letter calling on the premier to impose an immediate two-week emergency lockdown. So far, Kenney is still refusing to act.This brings us back to the federal app. Kenney's decision to abandon it is about more than striking a balance between “protecting lives and protecting livelihoods,” as he likes to put it. The app has become a symbol for Alberta/Ottawa tensions.Questions in the legislature about adopting the federal app were reportedly met with shouts of “Trudeau's app!” from government members. And that, it seems, was evidence enough of its unsuitability for Albertans.This may appease those on Kenney's right, but it won't stop the virus; and others in the province are getting angry and deeply concerned about that. Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, for example, has called on Kenney simply to adopt the federal app and get on with fighting the pandemic.Provincial NDP leader Rachel Notley wants the same – and she apparently now speaks for many of Kenney's voters. A recent Angus Reid Institute poll has the two parties neck-in-neck. Kenney's UPC has plummeted 17 points since the May 2019 election.All Canadians hope that Pfizer's announcement yesterday is the beginning of the end for the COVID pandemic, but there is still a long way to go. Manufacturing and delivering the vaccine raises a whole new set of challenges. Meeting them quickly and effectively will require close cooperation between all three levels of government, in every province and territory.The small-mindedness of this apps-in-a-teapot controversy should give us all pause. If our governments can't agree on which app Canadians should put on their phones, how will they ever get tens of millions of doses of the vaccine out to us in a timely way?Dr. Don Lenihan is Senior Associate at the Institute on Governance and an internationally recognized expert on public engagement, governance, and policy development. For more, visit his website at: www.middlegroundengagement.comAndrew Balfour is Managing Partner at Rubicon Strategy in Ottawa.