Bearer of bad news - The Orca

Bearer of bad news

Rob Shaw 2

Rob Shaw: Dr. Bonnie Henry’s Monday briefing went over badly – partly because of exhaustion, partly because of wording, and partly because she’s right.

B.C. hit the one-year anniversary of its first confirmed COVID-19 case with an outpouring of frustration that caught its politicians and public health leaders off guard.

Dr. Bonnie Henry kicked a hornet’s nest Monday, with a warning that the province was “at a precipice, at a brink where we can see rapid takeoff” and a call to arms for everyone to redouble efforts to follow social distancing rules, avoid travel, and curtail their personal bubbles.

“These next two weeks I am asking you to do more,” she said. “Take a step back, stay home, stay away from others, join in our effort to bend our curve.”

The response was quick in coming from across the province: We’re already doing everything you ask, what do you mean do more?

And just like that, the dam holding back almost 12 months of fear, anxiety, loneliness, isolation, and loss collapsed.

The mood was reflected in a spike of angry online chatter, social media posts, radio talk show callers, letters to the editor, and good old fashioned person-to-person venting.

Enough is enough, it went.

Except, well, it isn’t enough. Not by a long shot.

B.C.’s case counts remain high. The daily death count is still in the double digits. And we’re all going to be in this for many months to come, that’s been clear for some time now. Even if you get vaccinated, you’ll still be forced to wear a mask, stay away from others, and avoid travel until the summer at the earliest, and likely into this fall.

But just try telling people that. They’ve had enough of the restrictions and, increasingly, don’t want to hear it anymore.

Enough is enough, it went. Except, well, it isn’t enough. Not by a long shot.

To make matters worse, the vaccine celebrated with such gusto last week when the B.C. government outlined an ambitious eight-month mass vaccination strategy, has already run into major shortages and thrown off the timeline.

This all presents a conundrum for Dr. Henry, Health Minister Adrian Dix and Premier John Horgan: How do you keep communicating the importance of public health rules to the public when the public is exhausted?

Horgan, to his credit, seemed quick to recognize the problem.

By the time he held his weekly media briefing two days later, he’d better gauged the public mood.

He made three shrewd on-the-fly calculations.

The first was to seize upon the case of Great Canadian Gaming CEO Rod Baker and his wife, who allegedly chartered a private plane to the Yukon and lied their way to the front of the line in a remote town to get the COVID vaccine.

You couldn’t construct a better villain. All he was missing was a twirly moustache and a cape.

Horgan used him as a punching bag, redirecting the public’s hostility at a rich big city jerk, and the personification of everything everyone hates.

“There are also those that are well off and believe that the fines, although substantial for regular people, are just not even a rounding error for millionaires who can charter jets to bump indigenous elders off the list,” said Horgan.

“I just don’t know how we can compare people that would think that’s okay with regular people. Because that’s just not how most of us roll.”

Horgan went on to suggest he’d hammer the bejesus out of lawbreakers like Baker in the future.

“You better follow our public health guidelines or we’ll come down on you like a ton of bricks,” he said, without explaining how – even when specifically asked.

The second move was to soften the edges on Dr. Henry’s comments, claiming what she meant to say was that she was only asking those flaunting the rules to do more.

The third was to say, hey, come on people, give Dr. Henry a break.

“I know Dr. Henry — let’s walk a mile in her shoes for a minute,” he said.

“Not only is she regularly available to talk to you and countless others but she’s in touch with health officials not just across Canada, but around the world, keeping up on literature, reading into the night so we are as on top of these issues as we can possibly be.

“I’d cut her some slack if she was a bit grumpy on Monday — she has been an absolute rock for all of us and I think the vast majority of British Columbians feel that way.”

Not many people can call Dr. Henry “grumpy” and get away with it. But such was the chaotic week that barely anyone seemed to notice.

Personally, I did not find Dr. Henry grumpy when I sat down with her for a one-on-one interview for CHEK News on Monday, just an hour and a half before her briefing.

Not many people can call Dr. Henry “grumpy” and get away with it. But such was the chaotic week that barely anyone seemed to notice.

She was actually quite optimistic, telling me she expects us to be able to take off our masks and widen our social bubbles to include family and friends this summer…if we can just follow the rules until then.

How and why her message changed so abruptly in fewer than 90 minutes is a mystery. Much of her concern seems to be centred upon new cases of the highly-contagious South African variant of the virus, which officials have been unable to contract-trace back to its entry point to the province. That means we have no idea how the strain got into B.C., or where to go looking for more cases.

Certainly cause for worry. But how to express that worry in a way that not only registers with a frustrated populace, but also provides the motivation to dig deep and keep adhering to the rules?

That’s the question still facing Dr. Henry. She’s yet to find the answer.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 13 years covering BC politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for The Orca. He is the co-author of the national best-selling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.