Premier Brian Pallister’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has prioritized the free market over the public services that have acted as the backbone of Manitoba before and during the current crisis. Cuts to universities and services have been implemented with little ear given to external opinions or alternative solutions. Demands to bring back “business as usual” have left workers, service providers and those most in need in the dust.
The rhetoric and sentiments fueling these actions have surfaced in various forms over the course of the COVID-19 outbreak. At worst, they go against scientific advisories mandated by Health Canada that protect the most vulnerable. At their core, they act as a foundation to build upon arguments in the name of the free market, even if it promotes actions that may put people at risk.
Around the time that Canada began implementing COVID-19 lockdown measures, right-wing think tanks like the Frontier Centre for Public Policy (FCPP) began to vehemently oppose them. In one article, the FCPP called the measures “draconian” under a headline stating that the “COVID-19 panic (is) worse than (the) disease.”
In late April, these sentiments began to take shape in the provincial legislature. “We are fighting against a federal program that is actually paying people to stay out of the workforce right now,” Pallister said of the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). In a province that has given little direct support to workers, CERB has been vital for laid-off workers to stay home and flatten the curve. From think tanks to provincial governments, this kind of commentary is not only irresponsible, but it is also a disturbing reflection of a government that increasingly values profit over people.
These austerity measures are an example of “disaster capitalism.” In The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein coined the term to describe how neoliberal governments use crises as a “blank slate” to push free-market ideals as a sort of “shock therapy” to its citizens. It means austerity cuts to essential services, weakening academic institutions and leaving those who need support most without aid. It makes it apparent that these measures speak beyond cuts to essential services. They are fueled by a looming ideological undertone.
The “shocks” that Klein speaks of paint a grim portrait of what is happening in Manitoba: ignoring demands from unions, protesters and those they represent to harness uncertainty into a clean slate for an ideological agenda. While Manitobans are forced into “survival mode,” Pallister’s austerity measures take advantage of collective uncertainty, with quick Band-Aid solutions that threaten the strength of public services. They are a direct reflection of how late-capitalism has tainted the way Manitoba’s provincial government works amid a crisis.
This type of neoliberal rhetoric that has now informed policy decisions has left Manitobans as individuals in a battle against a virus. It has shown the ineffectiveness of the “pull up your bootstraps” approach that has been mercilessly reinforced, even in the time of a global pandemic. Overcoming a pandemic requires the collective effort of communities to help protect their vulnerable neighbours and healthcare systems, next door and far away. Austerity will only hinder these efforts.
Cierra Bettens is entering her third year of studies toward an honours degree in political science at the University of Winnipeg. She’s coping with the changing times by writing about them, sending postcards and trying to keep her houseplants alive, too.