The thunderous sound of hooves charging towards the end of the track was met by a chorus of cheers from thousands of revelers in cowboy hats and jeans, dazzled by the colorful lights from the middle in the distance.
The Calgary Stampede drew 500,000 visitors in 2021 after a year of pandemic isolation and uncertainty, epitomizing Alberta Premier Jason Kenney’s “best summer ever.”
Kenney beamed from behind a podium that spring as he said Alberta had ‘crushed’ the spike in COVID-19 infections and heralded the return of backyard barbecues, dream weddings, concerts, parties and, of course, hustle and bustle.
“Today we are really close to the end of this thing. We are leaving behind the darkest days of the pandemic and walking into the warm light of summer,” Kenney said.
Months after what was called Kenney’s “mission accomplished” moment, Alberta was hit by the Delta wave. The province’s intensive care units have been devastated.
The moment left a lasting impression on the political psyche of the country.
Such a jubilant statement, albeit premature, is unlikely to be repeated in Canada’s response to COVID-19, even as other world leaders appear poised to leave the pandemic behind.
“The pandemic is over,” US President Joe Biden said last week as he walked the blue carpet at the Detroit Auto Show in Michigan during an interview with 60 Minutes.
The president said there was still work to be done, but suggested the disaster was over.
“No one is wearing a mask, everyone seems to be in pretty good shape and so I think that’s changing.”
Canada’s cautious political message on the virus has never yielded to such optimism.
“What we have seen consistently is that people are still struggling in hospitals across our country with the impacts of COVID,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said at a press conference Thursday. United Nations General Assembly in New York.
He encouraged people to keep up to date with their vaccine booster doses, assuring the public “we will make sure this pandemic is behind us as quickly as possible”.
Two high-level government sources, speaking on the condition that they not be named because they were not authorized to speak publicly, told The Canadian Press that Trudeau had agreed in principle to leave the vaccination warrants of Canada expire on September 30.
When the order expires, the ArriveCan app will no longer be mandatory for international travelers either.
The decision to end some of the last vestiges of federal COVID-19 restrictions is expected to be officially announced on Monday.
Trudeau has yet to speak publicly about the change, but the tenor of this announcement could be indicative of how the federal government plans to navigate this new transition phase of the pandemic.
When the Liberals last eased restrictions in June, scrapping vaccination mandates for domestic travelers, the tone was decidedly circumspect.
Rather than proclaiming the warrants were no longer needed, federal officials said they were simply “paused” and warned they would “bring back” the necessary policies should the virus resurge in the fall.
“I think part of the restraint of provincial and territorial governments and the federal government, in terms of overcoming COVID, is that we have the memory of how it didn’t work out well,” said said Dr. Alika Lafontaine, President. of the Canadian Medical Association.
Of course, Alberta’s cautionary tale isn’t the only reason for the federal government’s COVID-19 policy message.
“In Canada, our goal has been, every step of the way, to listen to the science, to respond to the facts on the ground,” Trudeau said Thursday, repeating a similar message when questioned by reporters in Ottawa on Friday.
Conservatives, meanwhile, argue that liberals focus more on “political science.”
“Canadians are asking a lot of questions, why the government seems to be making decisions not based on medical science, but on political calculations,” Conservative health critic Michael Barrett said last week.
The official opposition has accused the Liberals of using the pandemic and federal restrictions as a political wedge since the last election, when Trudeau first floated the idea of vaccination mandates.
“There’s no doubt that politics plays a role in decision-making,” said Julianne Piper, a researcher with Simon Fraser University’s International Pandemics and Borders Project.
“I think there are different political, geographic and public health factors that play into these decisions.”
This alchemy of politics and public health has the potential to set the tone for the rest of the country, she said.
“I think it signals general feelings around the pandemic and potentially signals what the various players who would be affected are going to expect,” she said.
Lafontaine said it will be important for politicians to keep this in mind during this next phase of the pandemic.
“I think it’s really important for politicians to realize that the things they say have a huge impact,” he said.
“We need, more than ever, people to be clear about the problems we face, to declare crises when there are crises and to talk about plans for the post-crisis when it is time to address these issues, towards what comes next.”
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on September 24, 2022.
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