Helping make gov’t decisions about COVID ‘sobering’

MLA Duncan speaks to Weyburn Rotary Club

Weyburn-Big Muddy MLA Dustin Duncan, who serves as the province’s Environment minister, has been in on the government’s subcommittee making decisions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, and he admits it’s been a very “sobering” experience to make some of those decisions.

The MLA spoke to members of the Weyburn Rotary Club via their Zoom meeting on Thursday, and shared information on a wide variety of topics, including modular nuclear generators, and Weyburn’s new hospital.

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Noting that the Legislature was in session that day, he pointed out the session had actually started at the beginning of March, but the original budget day of March 18, the government declared the state of emergency for COVID-19.

“We transitioned to going internal government meetings by Webex, so I spent March, April and into May from my basement on Webex, which is interesting with three little ones at home, and they were not always cooperative, but we managed through it,” he explained.

Shortly after the start of the emergency, Premier Scott Moe convened a cabinet subcommittee to make the decisions to deal with COVID-19, and Duncan was made a member of that group which met daily.

“How do you start to close down society and the economy in as much of an organized fashion as you can, to limit the spread of COVID-19? The intent was essentially to limit the exposure of COVID-19 to the general population,” he explained, to help allow the health care system prepare for the possible influx of people infected with COVID-19.

They looked at what businesses and sector of the economy would have to stop operating, including cancelling elective surgeries and limiting doctors visits.

“I think for the most part most of the statistics show Saskatchewan’s economy was closed to least extent in Canada,” he said, noting about 66 per cent of small to medium businesses were able to remain open, “and that’s the highest number in the country.”

The province has also had the second-lowest unemployment numbers in the country, and the decisions were made to keep the economy open to the greatest extent possible under the circumstances.

The business response team was formed through the ministry of trade export and development, and the team has dealt with 4,500 emails and nearly 10,000 phone calls from businesses relating to COVID-19, said Duncan.

With the implementation of Phase 4 in two parts, the next stage will be Phase 5, he added.

“Ultimately Phase 5 will be going back to ‘normal’, and we don’t have a date for that,” said Duncan, noting some of the factors will include “what the fall will look like, what do the COVID numbers look like?”

The province has two field hospitals at the ready in case there is a resurgence, one in Saskatoon at the U of S, and at Evraz Place in Regina.

“It’s not that hard to shut down the economy, getting it back up is the hard part of all of this. The daily meetings that we’ve had, especially in the early days — it’s pretty sobering to be in the room where the premier is announcing the suspension of the legislative session, just after coming off a call with the prime minister and the other premiers,” said Duncan.

“Frankly knowing that not everybody’s reopening, not all businesses will necessarily make it through this, knowing you’re part of those decisions is a pretty sobering experience being a part of that,” he added.

More recently, the province just introduced the first post-COVID budget in Canada, he pointed out, which will have a $2.4 billion deficit due mostly to the pandemic.

The government felt the deficit would fall between $1.1 and $3.5 billion, “so we did land in that middle range.”

With that said, the MLA noted that a lot of this was hard to forecast, because nobody knew what the impact of the pandemic was going to be, such as on the Canadian dollar or the price of oil, both of which factor into the budget.

The capital spending in this budget is to help with the restarting of the economy, he pointed out, with $2.6 billion set for this year and $2.7 billion next year, and another $2 billion added to that to encourage municipalities to spend on upgrading their infrastructure.

The City of Weyburn is receiving $1.4 million out of this funding, and at their last council meeting put it towards a $4.7 million project to replace the fleet storage building.

A positive aspect also has been that the province has avoided the heavy toll of COVID-19 in long-term care centres, as it has hit in Ontario and Quebec, and Saskatchewan residents’ response to the restrictions has helped keep the numbers low here for the most part.

Surgeries and procedures have begin to be scheduled again, he said, with the capacity now at about 80 per cent of normal, plus schools will be preparing to resume in September.

“As a parent of a kindergartener, soon to be in Grade 1, we’re very appreciative of that. It’s been quite the last couple of months, but we’re working with school boards for going back into place in the fall,” he said.

Asked why the United States seems to be having more trouble right now with their COVID-19 numbers, Duncan said one possible explanation is that the public health and health care sectors are more aligned in Canada than in the U.S., so when an order goes out here, it’s followed, but this isn’t always the case down south.

“As a former registered nurse, I would like to compliment you on listening to your chief medical officer and following what he’s recommended. I think that really helped, because if you have someone who is that educated and smart and you listen to them, that’s probably saved some lives in Saskatchewan,” said Nancy Styles, who was chairing her final meeting as the club president.

“We’ve been very well-served by Dr. Shahab, and he’s been very receptive to our questions and recommendations,” said Duncan, noting that he has been receptive to discussing ideas and alternatives “in trying to find that right balance. He’s been very good to work with.”