In Our Words: Provinces differ on COVID-19, Sask. approach isn't working

Straddling the provincial border between Saskatchewan and Manitoba gives Flin Flonners a unique perspective on a lot of things, including COVID-19.

While both provinces have similarities in how they've handled the outbreak, Manitoba and Saskatchewan are handling COVID-19 in the north in two different ways. One is working much better than the other. Both have flaws.

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Both provinces began “opening for business” earlier this week. There’s a lot I don’t like about saying business has “reopened” - it implies not only that all businesses were closed, which they weren’t, but that the provinces themselves were shut down, which essential workers would rightfully feel is false - but that’s their word, not mine.

Manitoba has reported almost no new cases in the past week. Meanwhile, in Saskatchewan, the disease is arguably at its worst point since the outbreak. More new confirmed cases of COVID-19 were reported Monday than on any other day during the outbreak started. There are now more cases in the far north - population between 35,000 and 40,000 - than there have been in Saskatoon - population 300,000.

Travel restrictions are in place for much of northern Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Manitoba’s travel restrictions were put in place well over a week before similar measures to the west. The measures in Manitoba have not exactly been clear, particularly in how the restrictions may look like on the ground, but they have been effective. If no cases have been reported Friday, the north will have made it a full month with no new COVID-19 cases.

Saskatchewan provided few details about the northern restrictions. We knew there was kinda sorta a plan for more checkpoints and we knew there was a sign up around Smeaton telling people not to travel north. We know there’s been some money devoted to it and provincial fire rangers are involved somehow - but how? What happens where there’s inevitably a forest fire? Who staffs the checkpoints? Where are they put up?

Then, a checkpoint went up in our area - but not on the highway going into the town from the region hardest-hit by COVID-19 in the province. No. That would make sense. They put it up between Flin Flon and Creighton instead.

Why? Good question. There isn't a good answer. I would assume that the move was made by someone who's never actually been to Flin Flon or Creighton. No local would make a decision that bad. Leaving the transport link from Creighton and Denare Beach into the hard-hit far north and cutting what basically amounts to one community in half was a head-scratcher.

Thankfully, that's a decision that's been rectified. That's good news. If you're going to have checkpoints, do them right.

Somehow, Saskatchewan has managed to be both more extreme and more careless on restricting northern travel than Manitoba has.

What’s more bizarre is that La Ronge and Stony Rapids were, until hours before our deadline, exempted from the travel restriction by local decree from La Ronge’s town council. That measure has been reversed, but still - how was that even considered? If councils in Flin Flon or Thompson wanted to stay open for travel, I suspect the Manitoba government would not care and would hold the line - maybe the first time the north being shouted down by Winnipeg would actually pay off.

The circumstances for several northern communities are similar on both sides of the border. Communities on either side, particularly reserves and majority Indigenous communities like Pelican Narrows and Pukatawagan, don’t have hospitals or quick and easy access to medical care. Overcrowded homes, close-knit communities, poverty and unemployment and all the other all-too-familiar issues seen by those paying attention won’t help.

Each of those things, during COVID-19, are a disaster waiting to happen. All that fire needs to erupt is a single spark.

We saw that spark in La Loche last month. Contact tracing has linked the outbreak there to a camp in the Alberta oil sands - presumably, someone at the camp was infected and came to La Loche without knowing what baggage they had. By the end of this week, there may be more than a hundred cases of the disease in La Loche alone - an insane total for a town of less than 3,000 people.

In Manitoba (and in northeast Saskatchewan), we’ve yet to see a single case of COVID-19 in a majority Indigenous community. The credit for that goes toward the Indigenous communities, their residents and governance - God knows we can’t give the provinces credit for that. First Nations locked down the roads in and out of town early in the outbreak, long before the provinces started their own restrictions. While I hope the restrictions are not needed sooner rather than later, they’re the best choice for communities without hospitals - if you can’t treat a disease at home, make sure it doesn’t show up.

Let’s look at the total number of northern cases as of May 4. Since the Northern Health Region (NHR) covers roughly the area of Manitoba north of the 53rd parallel - in other words, the “no go zone” - we’ll compare that to Saskatchewan’s “far north”.

Within the NHR, Manitoba has reported three cases. Not three cases today - three total.

In far north Saskatchewan, there’s been 167 cases. Most of them - 138 at last check - are still active. Almost all of them are within the western side of the region.

Manitoba has had 243 people get sick. More than twice as many people in Saskatchewan have gotten sick - 531 as of Monday.

I don’t understand the rush to be the first province with people back to work. Surely, being the first province with no cases of the disease has to be more important, right?

What do we care about most - the health of our citizens, particularly our elderly, our poor, our at-risk people, or how much money someone can make? We can say we care about one more than the other all we want, but these actions speak pretty loud. I know people will say "I need to get back to work because I can't afford to continue living" - neither province has helped you much with that. Any policy regarding financial handouts should be given right to workers and families, not to businesses - after all, workers and families can't just suspend operations or lay people off when things get rough.

If I think of this from the perspective I know most - a journalistic one - the decision is this: would I rather break a story really quick and risk making a careless mistake, or would I rather take the time, check things out and maybe risk getting passed by doing the job right?

Manitoba’s approach to northern COVID-19 care is working okay, Saskatchewan’s isn’t, First Nations have proven to be the real MVPs here and “reopening” provinces while there are still outbreaks is monumentally short-sighted.

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