Over to you, members of the Executive Council. It’s time to respond to calls from the business community, doctors and residents to reconsider the hardship being caused by the Emerging Wisely plan.
I recognize the plan is a risk assessment that contains the best advice of the Chief Public Health Officer and her staff. It’s the roadmap that directs us back towards a return to normal life, while protecting against the entry or spread of COVID 19.
But the effect of the plan – surely unintended – has been to sow resentment and frustration for many residents. I get calls or emails daily from constituents who are not receiving government services, or who have waited weeks for responses to questions posed to Protect NWT. People who are back at work question why many government offices remain closed. Even the NWT Medical Association says the social distancing measures are excessive, and should be eliminated in favour of stepped up testing, tracing and rigorous self-isolation.
The question I get most often from constituents is about medical appointments. They accepted that during the lockdown phase, medical resources were focused on preparation for COVID 19 cases. But with three months since the last case, they want an appointment for the problem that sent them to the doctor in the first place. Virtual care has taken off but is not universally available.
I spoke in the Legislative Assembly in the last session about the length of time it takes to get responses to questions from Protect NWT. I know there are good people working hard at Protect NWT, but there aren’t enough of them. People asking for exemptions to the public health orders expect answers in days rather than weeks. It’s urgent to increase staff in this unit to meet public demand in a timely way.
Another frequent complaint is about the lack of follow up on self-isolation plans. Some diligent people have proactively checked in with Protect NWT and followed all the rules. Meanwhile, constituents have met people who say they are in self-isolation – in a public place like a grocery store. I find this situation frustrating. If a closed border is our best defense against COVID 19, then shouldn’t Protect NWT be diligently promoting as well as enforcing self-isolation plans? I believe this again speaks to a lack of staff.
Phase two of Emerging Wisely has highlighted disparities in what is expected of business. I have been in convenience stores and garages where it’s business as usual – as if COVID didn’t exist. No distancing, no hand sanitizer, no plastic shields around the cash register. Other businesses have been told to adopt measures that would be suitable for dealing with hazardous waste – full PPE, strict social distancing, arrows to direct foot traffic, rigorous cleaning. The problem for this second group of businesses is that their volume of business has gone down to accommodate these measures. They are having trouble earning enough money to cover their regular expenses, let alone pay for COVID measures. One thing I’ve learned about COVID is that it doesn’t distinguish among locations when infecting people. I understand that the duration of contact can make infection more likely. But it’s worth noting again, we have no cases and none of the cases we had came from community spread.
Despite the obstacles, most businesses are open or on their way to opening. But what about government offices? I am awaiting a response from the Finance Minister to these questions: At what stage is the GNWT return to work plan at? What are the steps departments are required to perform to get ready for return to work? What percentage of the workforce is now working in office buildings again? What percentage is not returning to office buildings? When do you expect this transition to be completed? The lack of clarity in this area is promoting resentment, not only from the private sector but from those government staff who have worked through the lockdown whether on the front line or from home. This situation needs priority resolution.
This is my first pandemic – and yours too. It is inevitable that the Chief Public Health Officer, her staff and the government got some things right while other measures haven’t worked out. There is no harm in discussing and considering adjusting the Emerging Wisely plan. My concern is that people are freelancing and will continue to freelance because they don’t see the value in following the CPHO’s advice. This will undermine her credibility and might create problems for the response to the second waveIt’s time to have the conversation the business community and doctors have initiated.