Once upon a time a pandemic loomed, threatening all the citizens of the land.
Incredibly, the government of the day chose that time to declare war on its doctors—the very professionals critical to containing the threat.
What sort of administration, one might ask, could be so harebrained, so idiotic, so dangerously clueless?
The Communist Party of China, for one.
The United Conservative Party of Alberta, for another.
The UCP ripped a chapter from the totalitarian playbook of the thugs who run the People’s Republic of China, actively engaging in battle with Alberta’s doctors just as COVID-19 invaded the province.
The Chinese dictators, at least, had the sense to do an about-face. Once they grasped the magnitude of the coronavirus threat, they pivoted to backing their doctors with the the full force of the state.
Not so Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro and the UCP: they have continued their assault on physicians, even as COVID-19 sickens and kills Albertans.
Thankfully, the province’s doctors have continued to put Albertans first.
Despite the dictatorial and profoundly disrespectful actions of this government;
Despite the shredding of their contract;
Despite drastic cuts to monetary support;
Despite the gloomy outlook for practice viability;
Despite the decimation of rural family medicine;
Despite being shat upon again and again and again from ministerial heights;
Despite all that—the doctors of Alberta have stepped up bravely and boldly for their patients during the COVID-19 crisis.
Thanks to the efforts and sacrifices of those doctors—and thanks to their partnership with resilient and resourceful Albertans—our province is extraordinarily well-prepared for what lies ahead. Compared with much of the rest of the world, we are in an enviable position.
Thus far, the number of people sick and dying in Alberta from COVID-19 is tracking well below even the most optimistic scenario presented to Albertans by Premier Kenney on April 7th.
Josef Stalin once said, “One death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic.” Each death in Alberta has been a tragedy; we have reason to hope that each death will remain a tragedy, that the numbers will not skyrocket, that we will not become numbed to the dying by the enormity of the death toll.
But doctors are becoming numb to the incessant lying of Minister Shandro.
One blatant lie from a Minister of the Crown would be tragedy enough; but the rate at which the Minister has piled them up has quickly rendered them a statistic.
Mr.Shandro has layered lies upon damned lies in the process of erecting a sulphurous mountain of deception. If he were Pinocchio, his nose would stretch thrice the distance to the moon.
The crown jewel to his falsehoods—the glittering cap to his mendacity—can be found on Alberta Health’s website in a document entitled “Physician Funding Framework”: three short paragraphs packed from stem to stern with deceit.
A sample sentence:
“Alberta will maintain government’s current level of spending on physicians at $5.4 billion.”
Yet almost all physicians I know—and I know many—were staring at a 20-40% reduction in gross income once all of the Minister’s cuts and claw-backs were factored in: even before the pandemic upset the apple cart in Alberta.
The pandemic has decimated the incomes of most fee-for-service physicians (which is most of us)—even those working in front-line environments like the emergency departments. Because people are cloistered at home, there is less trauma and less spread of infectious disease—hence less demand for urgent medical services. Additionally, all elective surgeries and nonessential clinics have been cancelled in preparation for the potential wave of COVID patients.
Yet most doctors must still go to work—at vastly increased risk to themselves— to attend to patients who still get sick or injured, to pregnant patients, to those with cancer or requiring dialysis, to the COVID victims. Many doctors are operating at a loss. How’s that for hazard pay?
Let me frame it in a different way: The government is saving money off the backs of doctors who are putting their necks on the line to care for patients during a pandemic.
A second sampling from Minister Shandro’s document: “The AMA, physicians, and other providers were consulted on these proposals. They were also brought to the AMA negotiations table.”
So effective were these consultations—so congenial, so collaborative, so productive—that the Alberta Medical Association, the representative body for physicians in Alberta, was finally reduced, after months of pleading and begging for actual consultation and negotiation, to suing the province of Alberta.
That’s right. In the teeth of a pandemic, while serving Albertans, while risking their own necks, the doctors of Alberta have been forced to sue the government in a desperate attempt to remain financially viable, and to protest the violations of their charter rights.
As far as propaganda goes, the communists of China (now congratulating themselves on their astute and expert handling of the COVID crisis and busily planting doubt as to where the virus originated) have absolutely nothing on Minister Shandro.
He’s an ardent disciple, it seems, of Joseph Goebbels’ golden rule of disinformation: “Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth.”
Together, doctors and Albertans have successfully flattened the curve of COVID infections in Alberta—to the point that there are hopeful, tentative discussions about how and when we can lift lockdown restrictions.
Meanwhile, Alberta’s Minister of Health is busy flattening our medical system. One wonders, when the pandemic dust settles, whether there will be a functioning health care system left in Alberta.
It’s important to emphasize that it will be months—possibly years—before we can put this pandemic in our rear-view mirror. Barring a game-changing vaccine or treatment, we will emerge from the initial lockdown phase into a perpetual dance with the COVID-19: like a Texas two-step, but six feet apart.
For doctors, the dance will be necessarily be more intimate—akin to a toxic tango. Social distancing and attending to patients mix about as well as oil and water.
During that time, and despite our best efforts, doctors will get infected; some will die. To date, ten percent of those killed in other jurisdictions by COVID-19 have been health care workers.
One would think, given this grim reality, that Mr. Shandro would cease attacking doctors, that he would desist from flattening Alberta’s health care system. One would think he would be treating doctors with some respect—that he would support us.
One would be wrong.
Consider, as latest emblem of the Minister’s attitude toward doctors, his dismissive response to legitimate concerns raised in recent days about new surgical masks supplied to doctors and nurses.
Sourced from China, the “VANCH” masks are smelly, irritating to the skin, and—most alarmingly—ill-fitting. They provide inadequate protection and require constant readjustment, significantly increasing the risk of COVID infection in health care workers.
Minister Shandro, in yesterday’s daily briefing, took us to task for “complaining”. His press secretary, Steve Buick, declared a couple of days ago that “all PPE procured by AHS is safe and will protect staff and patients.”
Excuse me, sirs, but WE are caring for patients. NOT YOU. If WE say the masks are inadequate—THEN THEY ARE. WE are the ones at risk—NOT YOU.
I appreciated the comments yesterday by AHS head of procurement Jitendra Prasad with respect to the mask issue; his department will require the Chinese manufacturer to make corrections to the nosepiece, along with other adjustments to achieve better fit and wear-ability in the future.
But we’re seeing COVID patients NOW. We need protection NOW.
As it stands, if Alberta’s doctors are infected in the line of duty, they’re removed from the front lines and sent home to isolate—without pay. Should they die from COVID-19—no death benefit paid to their survivors.
That, more than anything else, puts the lie to the Minister’s repeated portrayal of us as greedy graspers with our hands in the province’s till, interested only in lining our pockets.
Rural doctors are making the painful decision to pull out of hospitals all across this province. The National Post reported yesterday that 44 rural communities across Alberta will be negatively impacted by Minister Shandro’s wrecking ball.
These talented, dedicated doctors are not abandoning their patients and their communities. They remain, for now, to offer care and support via their clinics for the duration of this pandemic. But it is untenable for them to continue to deliver care in hospitals at great financial cost to themselves.
The Minister assures Albertans that the government will replace those doctors, that rural Albertans will see no interruption in care. From whence shall they come, one wonders? From the Magical Department of Doctor Acquisition?
Perhaps he imagines that the virtual doctors of Saudi-backed Babylon—the new privacy-trampling government-backed app that makes walk-in clinics seem like the Mayo Clinic by comparison—will suffice to care for rural Albertans. Perhaps he thinks that they can “virtually” deliver babies and “virtually” attend to patients in Alberta’s rural hospitals.
He behaves as if actual doctors that provide medical homes for patients are entirely expendable.
His behaviour is on par with totalitarian regimes like China, which always treat people as expendable.
Minister Shandro’s treatment of doctors is foolish. It is shameful. And it is very, very dangerous.
To be clear, once again: the doctors of Alberta are not complaining about money. These are desperate times. Many Albertans are suffering; many are earning nothing. But most are not being asked to serve in the most dangerous positions on the front lines—and for nickels and dimes, or at a loss, to boot.
This fight with the minister is not about money; it’s about respect, about transparency, about fairness, about honesty, about trust.
But above all—first and foremost and always—it is about our patients.
We knew, when this government was elected, that cuts were coming. More than that: we were in agreement that they are needed—but they must happen in consultation with doctors, in a way that is thoughtful, in a way that does not leave our patients at risk.
We thought this government would behave honourably in its dealings with the Alberta Medical Association, the venerable body that has represented Alberta’s doctors for one hundred and fourteen years.
We were wrong.
In the early days of the pandemic the world was fooled by the Communist Party of China—taken in by their lies and caught off guard by their deception. We are now paying the price.
As an acquaintance put it on social media: “Chinese deception x wishful thinking = humbling underestimation. What a lesson.”
(To be clear, that’s not a shot at the Chinese people; it is very much a shot at the Chinese government.)
We’ve been fooled by Minister Shandro—taken in by his lies and caught off guard by his deception. We, and all Albertans, are now paying the price.
Tyler Shandro’s deception x wishful thinking = humbling underestimation. What a lesson, indeed.
Minister Shandro prattles on about “alternate relationship plans” for paying doctors despite making little attempt to provide any workable plans before canceling our contract, and all the while actively destroying all semblances of actual “relationship” with us.
Allow me to suggest an “alternate relationship plan” to the Minister:
Cease and desist.
Call off your dogs.
Cancel your ruinous, unilateral, dictatorial changes to the “Physician Funding Framework”.
Reinstate our contract, for now.
Then sit down with doctors to chart a sensible course forward.
Give us the support we need. We’re going to need it for the marathon that lies ahead.
Sadly, I don’t think any of that will happen. I think the relationship between doctors and this Minister is beyond repair.
It’s time for a new Minister of Health—one who recognizes the value of physicians, one who will treat us and Albertans with respect.
We’re not out of the woods, by a long shot, in our fight against COVID-19. In the words of Winston Churchill: “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
But this should be the end of Tyler Shandro’s troubled tenure as Minister of Health.
This should be the end of Alberta’s fight with doctors.
Doctors will always have the backs of Albertans.
We’d appreciate it greatly if the government would stop sinking its knife into ours.