“Make sure you’re holding a drink so you don’t have to wear a mask.”
With that half-joke, an event emcee in December captured the cognitive dissonance we’re all wrestling with.
Of course, COVID-19 doesn’t care if you’re sitting or standing or holding a beverage, but his wry joke was an effective metaphor for the loopholes and arbitrary contradictions permeating the BC NDP Government’s pandemic response.
For example, millions of federally-funded rapid tests have been gathering dust in warehouses since January 2020. Instead of making them available before the holidays or a year ago - say at neighbourhood pharmacies - the BC NDP government wilfully deprived British Columbians of a tool to make informed choices. Many families cancelled Christmas gatherings - some needlessly.
Others went ahead, only for someone to show COVID-19 symptoms in the following days. When testing centres became overwhelmed, take-home rapid tests were finally available - in order to clear backlogs of worried people who had lined up for hours to be tested.
In addition to depriving people of convenient access to rapid tests that their tax dollars paid for, the BC NDP has more broadly resisted oversight, delayed disclosure, refused to “show their work” on decisions, and forced the media to chase down information that should have been available proactively. Again and again, they have shown they think they know best, and they don’t trust everyday people enough to treat them as adults and provide them with full and timely information on a timely basis.
No wonder public approval of the BC NDP’s handling of the pandemic has fallen dramatically in recent months.
Two years into this pandemic, the reality is that it is individual British Columbians who are ultimately responsible for making informed choices every day about how to manage risk for themselves and the people they care about. They’re deciding how much they trust the people around them at a given moment to do the same. They’re deciding whether to comply.
We all know this. Now let’s start talking about it openly and honestly.
I’m running to lead the BC Liberal Party forward. If I win, one of my first priorities as Leader of the Opposition will be to hit the reset button so we can have common sense, evidence-driven conversations about pandemic response and recovery.
As grownups, we all know we are making daily tradeoffs between individual freedom and collective safety; between keeping people safe and keeping them employed; between encouraging people to make smart decisions and compelling them to comply.
Two parallel and dissonant narratives have emerged.
There are the cautious and compliant outward conversations. We all want to do our part and be seen to do our part. Nobody - least of all risk-averse politicians - wants to be “cancelled” for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time or asking the wrong question about a complex and ever-changing public health issue that few of us, including political leaders, actually understand at a scientific level.
And then there are the private conversations. Let’s be honest, we’re all having them with family, friends, and colleagues. People are talking about what the rules really are and to what degree they should follow them in letter or in spirit. This government has made that harder by constantly moving the goalposts and refusing to show their work. There is a collective exhaustion with ever-changing rules that at times feel arbitrary, performative, or even punitive.
Some recent examples:
- Why close gyms that have shown they can operate safely and contribute to mental health in a stressful time - but not restaurants and bars?
- If we know N-95 masks best protect people, why are frontline workers at vaccination sites forbidden to bring and use them?
- If we know that families are not the ones bringing COVID-19 into long-term care homes - data shows it's been almost entirely staff - why did the government just bar most family visits to residents?
Maybe there’s a good, data-driven answer to each of those questions. But the BC NDP government isn’t telling us, and that’s undermining trust with the public, with businesses, and with healthcare workers.
We should respect frontline health workers and listen to experts, yes, but it’s time to stop letting “trust the science” mean blindly trust the government; don’t ask tough questions; don’t expect transparency on decisions where there is in fact no scientific answer - or where economic expediency or political calculations are actually driving the agenda.
We should not throw caution to the wind. COVID-19 is real, it is dangerous, and it is taking the lives of people all over British Columbia.
But we need to acknowledge that the Government has shifted much of the responsibility for personal safety to people and families. And if that's the case, people deserve all the information and all the freedom to make informed decisions. It’s time to have a more open and coherent conversation about health policy, and stop with the sanctimony and self-censorship that drives legitimate and important debates underground because people fear being mischaracterized, “cancelled” or lumped in with extremists.
Proper oversight and accountability is overdue. Transparency is essential. And respectful and real grownup dialogue is required.
Here are the first four things I’d do within my first week as BC Liberal leader, to reset the terms of engagement and demand accountability from the BC NDP:
Firstly, as soon as the legislature reconvenes on February 8th, a provincial opposition under my leadership will demand that the BC NDP convene the Select Standing Committee on Health - a committee of the Legislature that should already be up and running, providing ongoing oversight of the COVID-19 response.
The BC NDP haven’t convened the Select Standing Committee on Health in more than two years. Not to deal with the pandemic. Not to deal with overdose deaths. Not to deal with the fragile and collapsing state of our health care system, as was on display during the heat dome. That’s unacceptable and it has to change.
Secondly, we will demand a much higher level of proactive COVID-19 data disclosure in order to allow transparency, analysis and reporting, and to let British Columbians see the data for themselves. The government must “show its work” if it expects public trust.
Thirdly, two years is a long time to manage a constant crisis - too long. The politicians and civil servants leading the provincial pandemic response are exhausted and perhaps too entrenched to realize they are losing the confidence of stakeholders and the general public. We will call on the Premier to appoint a new Minister of Health for a fresh approach for the next phases to come.
Fourthly, we will demand a public inquiry into the handling of the pandemic, as is already well underway in jurisdictions like the UK. We need a constructive review to get to the bottom of what has happened, make adjustments to our crisis management approach, and carry forward the lessons learned. This is something I was the first and only BC Liberal leadership candidate to call for, 9 long months ago.
We need to have the courage to ask tough questions. We can’t give the BC NDP a free ride on their muddled, inconsistent, and haphazard response to the pandemic. We tried that for most of 2020, and look where it got us. For too long, British Columbia was lulled into a false sense of exceptionalism by a narrative that our response was better than every other province. Well, it wasn’t. The numbers are clear. And public confidence and trust have been severely diminished by overconfident assertions later proven incorrect.
Let me be clear. I am not asking for less science. I'm asking for more. More evidence-driven dialogue on the pros and cons of different approaches. More data on the status of the disease. Skipping releases of information due to the holidays is not acceptable. Closing testing centres because of a few inches of snow is not acceptable.
This BC NDP government is too beholden to defending past decisions and contradictions that have aged poorly. They’re too focused on propping up the early myth of BC exceptionalism that won them a snap election but led to arrogant overconfidence. We should expect Premier John Horgan and Minister of Health Adrian Dix to stand by their political decisions, not try to mask them as medical or scientific decisions or continually trot out unelected spokespeople to take the heat.
We need to turn the corner with a change in public discourse that gives people and families fuller information. Even if the Omicron variant shows COVID-19 becoming more transmissible and less severe, it is only people who can choose to stop living in fear and uncertainty and start navigating a safe and practical path back to normalcy. That has to include more transparency and a choice to treat British Columbians as adults and include them in conversations about the right way to move forward together.
Let’s start now.