Alberta Premier Jason Kenney is being accused of using a new, dangerous tone when talking about COVID-19.
During an emergency debate in the legislature on Wednesday, Kenney referred to the virus as “an influenza” on multiple occasions.
“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 elderly and the immunocompromised,” the premier said in the legislature.
At another point in his speech, he talked about the relative threat of COVID-19 to the population.
“The average age of death from COVID in Alberta is 83. And I remind the house that the average life expectancy is 82.”
Kenney’s choice of words were noticed by some of his critics and by academics.
Timothy Caulfield is a professor at the University of Alberta. His studies include public representations of science. He says hearing the premier call COVID-19 “an influenza” troubled him.
“It’s disappointing. First of all because it is not influenza,” said Caulfield, who added the illness has become politicized and those who minimize its risk tend to describe COVID as “just the flu.”
“The scary thing is when you have a leader of a province making these comments — whether he meant it or not — it plays into some of those conspiracy theories and some of those narratives.”
“I hope this is not a start of that kind of polarization. It would be unfortunate, at this crucial time, when we feel like we’re starting to get a handle on it, to derail that as opposed to follow science-based policy,” Caulfield said.
Labour leader Gil McGowan described the premier’s words as “Trumpian rhetoric dismissing the disease.”
McGowan said as Albertans move into the economic relaunch and hundreds of thousands of people begin returning to work, he worries about people becoming too complacent and says the premier’s words don’t help.
“He’s basically giving them the false impression that they will be safe as they return to work even if public health measures aren’t observed. That simply isn’t true.”
The premier did highlight Albertans most at risk were the elderly, and younger people had very little risk of dying from COVID-19.
McGowan says that’s not always true. As an example, he pointed to two workers who died from the virus who worked at the Cargill meat packing plant at the heart of one of Alberta’s largest COVID-19 outbreaks.
A day after his speech in the legislature, Kenney says his comments are being misrepresented or they’re misunderstood.
“I was not trying to provide a comprehensive scientific exposition on the nature of this disease but rather that I believe Alberta has done very well,” he said Thursday morning.
He said his point was never to minimize the risk of the virus but to point out that some groups are at greater or lesser risk. He wanted to emphasize that Alberta’s economy and its people can’t endure indefinite blanket restrictions so measures must be targeted.
“In the future, we need to be very focused on protecting the most vulnerable.”