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Assessing the Pallister government's response to the pandemic - and responding to the Throne Speech

On Tuesday October 13, I responded to the Pallister government's Throne Speech.  My comments were an assessment of the government's response to the pandemic.  Also included were comments on the need to address lead poisoning of children in Manitoba. 

Hon. Jon Gerrard (River Heights): Mr. Speaker, we're in the middle of a pandemic. I want to thank all those who are on the front lines and contributing to the effort to prevent spread of the COVID-19 infections, who are contributing to test and treat individuals who've developed infections with this coronavirus.

      I also want to thank the residents of River Heights, who are continually raising concerns with me and keeping me abreast of what's happening in our community.

      I want to emphasize that we're now in the middle of the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Throne Speech should be first and foremost measured in terms of how it deals with this pandemic.

      It's important when facing a crisis that the message from the leader of our province be factual. It's important when facing a crisis that there's an element of how we are working together to address the crisis.

      Instead, this Throne Speech tries to sugar-coat the present situation we're in. The Premier (Mr. Pallister) paints a world in which, in his rhetoric, he is protecting Manitobans. But sadly, the Premier has failed badly in preparing for the second wave of this pandemic.

      We have this past week, even as the Premier speaks to dismiss concerns, seen extraordinarily long wait times for tests–often five, six, or seven hours. Coupled to this, we're seeing extraordinarily long wait times for the results of tests.

      This last week, during the week when the Throne Speech was read, my daughter waited seven days for the results of her COVID-19 test. Fortunately, it was negative. But the wait was frustrating, excruciating and difficult. But the anguish and the frustration of my daughter must be seen also in the context of what this means for our attempts to control the COVID-19 pandemic in Manitoba.

      When Manitobans have to wait seven days for test results for a disease with an incubation period of up to two weeks, this adds an extra week before public health officials can start the contract tracing, which is so critical to bringing the epidemic under control.

      That extra week means the memory of exactly where she went, exactly who she met is 'dimmered.' That extra week means an extra week at least before her contacts can be traced, and in that time they have likely become infectious and spread the disease because no one has alerted them to the fact that they were close contacts to a person with COVID-19 infection.

      The chance of effectively using contact tracing to stop the spread is drastically reduced when results of testing taste–take this long. The chance of spread is so much greater. This is a very dangerous situation that the Premier has put us in.

      We are seeing, every day, the results of the Premier's lack of preparedness. In the last few days, with 97 new cases on Saturday and 124 new cases today, on a per capita basis we're similar to Ontario, Quebec and Alberta, with very high levels of infections.

      We were lucky in the first wave of the pandemic. Manitoba was affected later than other provinces and we were able to escape with relatively few cases. Now, in the second wave, we have one of the highest per capita number of new cases of any province.

      It is not just in the testing and quick contact tracing that we're falling short. Inspectors visiting bars should have been better trained and more effective in stopping the spread at these locations and in personal-care homes.

      There was plenty of time to prepare for a second wave, and yet it has not been handled this–very well. There have been far too many cases in personal-care homes, and outbreaks have not been as well-controlled and as quickly controlled as they should have been.

      We have more than 74 cases–17 in staff and 57 in residents–and seven deaths in the outbreak at Parkview Place personal-care home, and these numbers may yet go higher. Conditions at Parkview have been described as very poor. The COVID pandemic has exposed existing problems. Further, there's been no sign of the needed rapid response team that we called for months ago, an essential need for this second wave.

      Instead, the government has loosened the one-site rule, potentially increasing spread of the virus at a time when we need to control it. This outbreak has got out of control in part because of the poor support by the government for personal-care homes.

      Jan Legeros, executive director of the Long Term and Continuing Care Association of Manitoba, has spoken of the dire situation of funding for personal-care homes in Manitoba. She says major additional funding needs to address the COVID-19 pandemic have come on top of 15 years of funding freezes–no funding for increased supplies around infection prevention and zero annual inflationary operation increases.

      As well, she continues, for the last two years, direct funding reductions were implemented along with other regional cost-saving measures, which many times directly and negatively impacted our members–people running personal-care homes.

      The government was also very slow to confirm it will support expenses in personal-care homes directly related to the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in months and months of uncertainty. It's no wonder, given the government's lack of attention to the operating needs of personal-care homes, that we're having outbreaks. Manitobans are not impressed, and they should not be impressed.

      In addition to the changes I've mentioned, there have been sharp cutbacks in home-care services during the COVID-19 pandemic, at the very time when more care is needed, not less. This speaks once more to the lack of advance planning and the lack of the needed surge capacity in health care.

      A close friend whose father was receiving critical home care that he needed before the pandemic arrived, he talks of the collapse of home-care services in the last few months and the fact that he has had no alternative, because of the lack of home care, but to have his father moved to a personal-care home, where is–he is likely in greater danger of getting the COVID‑19 virus infection.

      In short, the government seems to have a lack of understanding of the crucial role of home care, and have drastically cut back, even though funding from the federal government for home care has increased.

      It is not just COVID planning in personal-care homes, in home care where there are shortfalls. In emergency response in northern Manitoba we've moved from an excellent system to a mediocre one. It  is as if the Premier (Mr. Pallister) never really learned to know the North, and never really learned what was in place through the Lifeflight Air Ambulance system.

* (15:50)

      He has replaced a highly functional system with one that takes twice as long to reach many northern communities. This is coming even though we know that, in emergency medicine, time is life and, at first stroke, time is brain. We know it's important to have an ambulance, whether a ground ambulance or an air ambulance, arrive quickly. 

      While the Premier wants cannabis available within a half hour of any Manitoban, it now takes two hours, 39 minutes to get an air ambulance to Tadoule Lake. This is more than an hour longer than it was previously. This 67 per cent increase in emergency response time is simply unacceptable.

      The Premier has made a bad mistake and he even used an untendered contract to achieve this bad mistake. Those who were angry at the NDP for using untendered contracts are now shaking their head at the puzzling antics of the current Premier.

      For preventive health care, the Premier has not fully understood the critical need for a major effort in  prevention and the urgent need to improve preventative services. The Premier has not understood the need to separate the operational oversight and funding of prevention services separate from clinical services.

      If you do not separate them, clinical care always grabs the lion's share of the budget, leaving little prevention, which becomes an afterthought instead of part of an upfront plan. This is happening now, even when some of the biggest gains are to be found in prevention. Indeed, as we are finding during the pandemic, keeping Manitobans healthy is absolutely critical.

      The current diabetes epidemic continues. The  current government has yet to present a comprehensive plan with goals and specific targets to reduce diabetes and to address the epidemic. Why has the Premier (Mr. Pallister) not even fully endorsed the  Diabetes Canada 360 initiative and provided a  detailed plan and funding to achieve the four main goals?

      The well-being of children is fundamental. This is especially true of children in the care of Child and Family Services and yet the previous government took the children's special allowances away from children in the care of Child and Family Services, putting their well-being in jeopardy. The present government continued this for three years and is now moving in the BITSA bill to prevent any legal challenges to this theft of money from children.

      At the same time, the present government removed children from 800 Adele in the middle of the night and has blocked further use of this facility to help children. It's an odd way for a government to act when one of the critical roles of government is to look after our most vulnerable citizens.

      Instead of providing the challenge and taking the challenge of providing the option for all children to have online learning, the government has been slow to develop a service for all Manitobans; has been slow to develop adequate broadband Internet access for all Manitobans; and has proceeded without trying to ensure the very best education for all Manitoba children.

      We need to ensure and to help Manitobans learn and to help Manitobans continue to learn throughout their lives. Put simply, the government was not adequately ready for the education of our children this  fall, particularly in relation to children with disabilities who need special attention.

      Sadly, when it comes to supporting the environment, this government has come up short. A  project to mine silica sand near Vivian, Manitoba is raising major 'concherns' for the future of the Sandilands aquifer and yet the government has been silent.

      There is a need to eco-certify the whitefish fishery in Lake Winnipeg in order to improve the ability to market whitefish, and yet the current government has not acted. In spite of having promised to act during the election of 2016, the government missed the deadline it set of 2019 to have the North End treatment plant up and functioning. It is good that the government has finally realized it will take some provincial funding to achieve this and as I will note shortly, there are concerns about the safety of our drinking water in Winnipeg which the government is not addressing.

      And as I've previously raised, the government's approach to Crown lands has problems for the environment and the future of those lands.

      It is very clear that jurisdictions which have done the best in controlling the spread of the COVID-19 virus are ones in which the economy is doing well and which employment is doing well. The primary need to improve Manitoba's economy is to get the COVID pandemic better under control and, as my colleague, the MLA for St. Boniface, has emphasized, we need a strong recovery and it needs investment in our future instead of the government's austerity approach.

      Currently, during the COVID-19 pandemic, we are seeing increased concerns with addiction and substance abuse, increased concerns with mental illness and increased concerns with our children's learning. Direct action is needed.

      But I want to discuss, in this context, the need as well for attention to lead pollution and lead poisoning in Manitoba. Let me begin by mentioning the finding that 20 per cent of homes in Winnipeg which have lead pipes which supply their drinking water have higher than acceptable levels of lead in their drinking water. The Premier talks of protecting our water. The minister of municipal affairs talks of protecting our water. Why are they not even mentioning the lead contamination of drinking water in Manitoba?

      Indeed, lead pollution and lead poisoning are an important issue which was completely missing from the Throne Speech, as it has been missing too often from this government's agenda. During the COVID pandemic, when we are seeing more issues with addictions and substance abuse, we need to recognize that lead exposure is a contributing factor to substance abuse.

      During the COVID pandemic, when we're very concerned about the mental health of Manitobans, we need to recognize that lead is a contributing factor in mental illness.

      Lead, as we know–or should know–is poisonous to children in very low concentrations. In children, it  affects the developing brain and causes learning disabilities associated with difficulties in reading and in math. It also causes behavioural problems, including ADHD, impulsivity, aggressiveness and lack of self-control. These contribute to children affected by lead doing poorly in school, often dropping out of school, having mental illnesses and getting involved in substance abuse, in juvenile delinquency, in homelessness and in crime. With lead exposure in Manitoba from industrial sources, from lead pipes to bring drinking water, from lead paint, we need to do more to prevent lead poisoning.

      As Gerald Markowitz and David Rozner wrote in their book, the Lead Wars, the scientific community and many political leaders now recognize that lead poisoning has been among the most important epidemics affecting children in the last hundred years. Sadly, this appreciation has been lacking among consecutive governments in Manitoba, who've largely attempted to cover up information about lead.

      The lack of awareness of the multitude effects of lead by the current provincial government has been striking. For example, when the former minister of Sustainable Development claimed, in March 2019, that lead poisoning does not lead to mental illness. It is important to understand that lead has no essential role in human physiology.

      As shown in ice cores from Greenland, there were, before the industrial revolution, only trivial amounts of lead in the atmosphere. The concentration increased 400 per cent from the mid-18th century to the early 20th century; increased another 300 per cent from 1950 to 1975.

      Some of the toxic effects of lead were known in the 1800s. By the mid-1950s, it was well established and well-known that lead exposure causes permanent neurological damage to children. In 1975, the CDC in the United States recommended that all children ages one through five years who live in or frequently visit sites of potential lead exposure should be screened once a year. By the 1980s, about 50 per cent of children in New York City, in Rhode Island, in Massachusetts were already being screened for lead poisoning. In 1991, the CDC in the United States included in its strategic plan: (1) universal screening of children between the ages of one and five years, and (2) comprehensive lead abatement.

      And yet, here we are in Manitoba, 30 years later, and we still are not doing the screening and the lead abatement which needs to be done.

      It's now clear that lead exposure is a major contributing factor to crime, particularly violent crime. In Manitoba, we have the highest rate of violent crime in all provinces. Could this be because consecutive governments have not paid attention to reducing lead pollution and lead poisoning?

      In an elegant study in North Carolina, it was shown that interventions for children found to have high lead levels were effective in reducing school suspensions, juvenile delinquency and crime, particularly violent crime. The intervention, including full removal of lead exposure, attention to behavioural and learning problems and nutritional intervention–poor nutrition increases lead absorption–were effective in reducing violent crime to the extent that they'd been applied to all children with blood lead levels at five micrograms per decilitre and above, and if they'd been so applied, they would've reduced violent crime by about half.

      It's not a small effect, and considering that Manitoba has the highest level of violent crime of all provinces and that Manitoba's done so little to address lead poisoning, the issue needs the urgent attention of the provincial government.

      The government needs to be screening children in all areas where there's concern over lead exposure. The government also needs a comprehensive plan to remove the sources of lead from children's lives and, indeed, from adults' lives as well.

      We still don't have a screening program in Manitoba in spite of decades of evidence of high lead exposure. And we still don't have a well co-ordinated public-health approach to address children with high lead levels, which involves remediation of homes and removal of lead from homes where children are shown to have high lead levels.

      The lack of mention of lead in the Throne Speech is a severe shortcoming of the government, but it's only one of many. In conclusion, I remind MLAs that the world we have built and the world we build today will determine our future, the future of our province and the future of the people in our province.

      We badly need improvements in addressing the COVID-19 pandemic. We badly need a much better approach to preventive health care. And when it comes to lead pollution and lead poisoning, it's important to remember that the worth of the human brain is incalculable. The value we assign to it will be defined by the intensity with which we pursue or avoid the protection of its optimum development.

      While the current government prevaricates, the scientific community itself has no doubt about lead's terrible effects. Lead blunts children's cognition and is the silent thief of their futures. Those who have watched a century of children sacrificed on the altar of lead poisoning are aghast that we as a wealthy industrial society would continue to knowingly allow future generations of children to be exposed to lead.

      The 'covent'–current government of Manitoba and the several before it have fallen far short of where we need to be in protecting children's brains by eliminating lead toxicity and lead poisoning in our province. Action is urgent. Action is needed.

      The central question is this: Does this government have the political will to do what is necessary and to do what is right?

      Thank you, Mr. Speaker, merci, miigwech.

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