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Alberta’s Secret Pandemic Study Is Led by COVID Restrictions Critic

Danielle Smith wanted a doctor with ‘a little bit of a contrarian perspective.’

David Climenhaga 24 Apr 2024Alberta Politics

David J. Climenhaga is an award-winning journalist, author, post-secondary teacher, poet and trade union communicator. He blogs at Follow him on X @djclimenhaga.

When Alberta Premier Danielle Smith mused in the midst of the debate over her government’s new funding turf war with Ottawa that “we could also establish our own research programs” to ensure ideological balance in academic research, many Albertans suspected they understood precisely what she had in mind.

They thought the United Conservative Party’s Bill 18 is about more than just keeping the Trudeau government from getting credit for helping Alberta municipalities, starved for cash by her government’s policies, and Alberta students and researchers who qualify for federal grants. The so-called Provincial Priorities Act, many also thought, was intended to ensure that what research gets done in Alberta reinforces the UCP’s ideological preferences for unbridled markets and climate change denialism and against vaccines and effective public health measures.

The Toronto Star’s Alberta columnist, former Calgary Herald managing editor Gillian Steward, even accused Smith of adopting the strategy of Hungary’s authoritarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban “to quell any ideas that he disagreed with.”

And it’s not like this hasn’t happened before, the CBC’s Jason Markusoff reminded his readers. Former UCP premier Jason Kenney’s notorious Alberta energy war room and Smith’s more recently announced recovery war room are examples of “research” offices intended to produce only propaganda to support government policies.

Now, thanks to the Globe and Mail, we have learned of another, more troubling example.

On Tuesday the Globe reported that soon after Smith became premier she set up “a little known task force” to review how Alberta’s health-care system had handled the COVID-19 pandemic and hired a physician known for his discredited claims about the province manipulating infection statistics to lead it.

In 2021, Alberta Health Services condemned Dr. Gary Davidson, a Red Deer emergency medicine physician, for his “completely false” claims made during COVID’s deadly fourth wave.

Now we learn that last year the premier put the same Davidson in charge of figuring out if “the right data” was collected by AHS and public health authorities as they struggled to cope with the pandemic.

Davidson, Globe journalists Alanna Smith and Carrie Tait reported, was allowed to pick the other members of his “task force,” which was given a $2-million budget. Unsurprisingly, its membership includes other physicians who challenged the consensus on public health during the COVID crisis.

This is, of course, entirely on brand for Smith, who as a right-wing talk radio host before her return to politics enthusiastically boosted COVID conspiracy theories and advocated quack cures like the now notorious veterinary deworming drug known as Ivermectin.

Smith’s Q-adjacent views and desire for revenge for public health restrictions during the pandemic are undoubtedly among the principal motivations for the UCP’s policy of breaking up Alberta Health Services into four bureaucratically top-heavy “pillars.”

Busted Tuesday by the Globe’s report, Smith doubled down.

“I needed somebody who was going to look at everything that happened with some fresh eyes and maybe with a little bit of a contrarian perspective because we’ve only ever been given one perspective,” she told reporters during a scrum at the Alberta legislature in Edmonton.

She also defended the government’s effort to ensure the Davidson group’s efforts were not publicized, saying “we wanted them to do their work,” the Canadian Press reported.

Arguably, this is a more serious effort to gin up research supporting conclusions the government has already reached, since the report is clearly intended to appear to be a legitimate study. Then again, this kind of thing happens all the time with research by economic “think tanks,” so really all that’s new is it’s being extended to medical research.

This may not bode well for patients, but it’s par for the course for right-wing governments that put ideology ahead of evidence.

“I believe the Earth is round, and I don’t think that the people of Alberta should be paying for people who believe it’s flat to be engaging in the conversation,” NDP Opposition Leader Rachel Notley commented.

To be fair, we don’t know yet what Davidson’s panel will come up with, but we do have the results of Smith’s other $2-million COVID panel — the one run by Preston Manning, the superannuated godfather of the Canadian right.

Last November, Manning’s Public Health Emergencies Governance Review Panel called for more attention to be paid to “alternative scientific narratives,” the government to be “expressly forbidden” from halting in-person school classes during a public emergency and amendments to the Employment Standards Code and Health Professions Act to make it easier for anti-vaccine health-care workers to endanger their patients and co-workers in health-care facilities.

We’ll have to wait until next month to see what Davidson says.  [Tyee]

Read more: Coronavirus, Alberta

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