Braid: Kenney begins to normalize COVID-19 as a risk mainly to the elderly, almost zero danger to the young

The UCP isn’t exactly trying to underplay the COVID-19 threat. No government in Canada has worked harder to contain the disease, and no province has been as successful.

But still, there is a powerful urge to get back to regular life, with COVID-19 relegated to a seniors-only corner.

Braid: Kenney begins to normalize COVID-19 as a risk mainly to the elderly, almost zero danger to the young

In a legislature debate on the pandemic Wednesday, Premier Jason Kenney stressed that the disease has a low mortality rate among young people, and a high rate for those over 80.

“The average age of death from COVID in Alberta is 83, and I’ll remind the house that the average life expectancy in the province is 82,” he said.

I’m not sure what to make of that, but it suggests that if you make it to 83 before dying of COVID-19 you’ve already beaten the odds, so, congratulations.

Kenney went on about the age split:

“In Canada, 95 per cent of fatalities from COVID are from those over the age of 60, 80 per cent are in care facilities, and the risk of death from COVID for people under 65 is 0.006 per cent.

“What we are learning is that younger people, although not completely immune, have a rate of mortality related to COVID that is no higher than their general mortality rate from other illnesses.

“For most Albertans, the risk of death from other pathogens, accidents and traffic fatalities is actually higher than it is for COVID.”

All this is true, if cold-blooded. The general outline of COVID-19’s impact on age groups is well known.

The question is why Kenney described the age split so vividly in the only legislature debate on the pandemic since April 1.

And here’s why.

Kenney said: “We cannot continue indefinitely to impair the social and economic as well as the mental health and physiological health of the broader population for potentially a year for an influenza that does not generally threaten life apart from the most elderly, the immunocompromised and those with co-morbidities.”

He added that while there will be more outbreaks, hospitalizations and deaths, “I challenge our public health experts and our officials to ensure that our policy response is predicated on protecting the most vulnerable in the strongest and most discrete ways possible.”

Rather surprisingly, that doesn’t appear to include homeless people, despite early fears that they would be devastated.

“One thing I think we’re learning epidemiologically is that that population has a very high level of immune resistance, of immunity, and resilience against an influenza of this nature,” Kenney said.

Here’s the crux — the whole point the premier had been leading up to.

“Perhaps the most important strategy as we move forward is building a wall of defence around the most vulnerable, seniors in particular.”

Watching all this, and then reading the transcripts, you get a sense of a society soon back to something very close to pre-COVID normal, apart from measures in care centres and for older people in general.

Kenney does not propose to drop testing, screening and other protections for the larger population. In fact, he wants them increased.

But NDP Leader Rachel Notley, responding to Kenney, thought the premier glossed over the threat of a second wave of infection that puts the whole population at risk.

Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley speaks to the media after the Alberta 2019 budget was delivered, in Edmonton Thursday Oct. 24, 2019. Photo by David BloomAlberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley in Edmonton Thursday Oct. 24, 2019. David Bloom/Postmedia

Now is “not the time to rest easy or let our guard down,” she said.

“We must, if we are cautious and prudent, actually see the time we are in as the eye of the hurricane, and we must use this time wisely to prepare for what most scientists tell us will be a second wave in the fall.”

Notley made strong arguments for improving protocols in care centres, meat-packing plants and other places prone to infection.

In seniors residences, she said, “the issue is that when confronted with these challenges, the government didn’t move faster when it mattered most.”

She has a point there, but many other things also matter to Kenney — including the prospect of a monstrous seven per cent drop in Alberta GDP this year.

Increasingly, he refers to the disease as “influenza,” although most health experts put it in a unique category of severity and contagion.

The march is on to normalize COVID-19 as an oldster thing. It was inevitable.

Luckily, Alberta does not have a government that, like some others, would abandon the elderly to miserable death. The promise of help is genuine.

But no government has ever talked like this before, either. Give gramma a hug today.

Don Braid’s column appears regularly in the Herald

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Twitter: @DonBraid

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