Rob Shaw: John Horgan has decided to wait for his COVID-19 vaccine, to avoid controversy and resentment. But the person in charge of government during a crisis should have been jabbed weeks ago.
Teachers, dentists, and essential service food distributors are just a few of the groups who think they should be near the front of the line for a COVID-19 vaccine, after B.C. changed its vaccination plan to prioritize age rather than occupation.
They have pretty good arguments. Everyone, it seems, wants special treatment.
Except for one person: Premier John Horgan.
When I sat down with the premier for an interview with CHEK News, I asked if he’d been vaccinated. Horgan said he’d prefer not to jump the queue because of his position, and will instead wait in line for the vaccine as an ordinary British Columbian.
“I’m a cancer survivor, but that doesn’t matter,” he said. “I’m 61 and I’ll wait until the 61-year-olds get called, and then I’ll put my hand up.”
Given his age, he’ll be due around June or July.
It’s a safe political response. But is it the right one?
Can we not also make the argument that if anyone should get a vaccine early, it’s the person leading the government?
I’ll be the first to admit, that’s an unpopular question to ask.
Many will have a visceral snap response, depending on their place in the queue, their like or dislike of the current party in power, and their personal feelings about politicians.
As of January 29, B.C. had vaccinated 87,346 people with a first shot, and 4,262 people with a second dose. All long-term care residents and the staff in those facilities had been offered a vaccine in all health authorities across the province, according to Dr. Bonnie Henry.
Let’s start there and look for some common ground. It makes sense to first vaccinate the hundreds of thousands of front-line workers who are performing health care procedures and dispensing medicine.
Plus all the residents and staff in long-term care homes.
Plus the oldest seniors.
Plus remote First Nations communities, Indigenous elders, seniors over 80, and staff delivering home care and nursing services for seniors.
Plus our beloved Dr. Henry (she actually already got her shot December 22).
That should all be done by late March, according to the province’s mass immunization strategy, give or take a few more vaccine delays.
And then, once we reach that point, how about then we vaccinate the head of government?
Even then, sadly, it would still be controversial.
Teachers, dentists, firefighters, grocery store clerks, and others won’t have been vaccinated by late March.
They’ll blanch at the idea of the premier cutting in line. Their unions in particular will take to social media to ask: What makes him so special?
Well, for one, he’s in charge of more than $70 billion in spending on programs and services during this crisis. He’s setting the policies for our entire health care response and economic recovery.
Is that not special enough to justify setting aside one vaccine?
I put that idea to Horgan directly: Aren’t he and his 21-person cabinet important enough to get the vaccine, so we can have stable leadership during this crisis?
“I think, and I believe this to be an absolute Canadian value, that there are people who need it more than me, they should have their turn before I get mine,” he replied.
“I think that’s what most people would do, and that’s exactly what I’m going to do.”
But the premier is not most people.
Here too, there will be people who say: No. He’s just a public official. Treat him like an ordinary member of the public.
Except we already don’t.
We pay hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for an RCMP detail to protect his physical safety. It’s a tacit acknowledgement that as the leader of our government, his life is special and needs protecting – so why then make him wait at the end of the line for a life-saving vaccine as if there’s nothing important about him at all?
We elect a guy to lead our province in the middle of a crisis, but can’t fathom allowing him a vaccine early, out of pure spite that another group might not yet have it?
The electorate is fickle and contradictory. But woe is the politician who crosses it, especially now with the social media mobs.
Much of this boils down to a basic public dislike of politicians. Next to journalists and used car salesmen, they are consistently among the most unpopular professions.
There’s a bigger problem there.
Over the past few decades we’ve devalued the job of holding public office so much that, in a crisis, we can’t even make a cogent argument about why our premier’s life is worth saving.
So here’s a few.
As premier, Horgan is actually in charge of our response to COVID-19. He defers to Dr. Henry on many matters, and he considers her advice on others. But we sometimes forget he’s the final decision-maker, not Dr. Henry.
She has the power in a public health emergency to issue orders on gathering sizes, cleaning protocols, quarantines, vaccinations, and what stores should be open or closed.
But almost everything else is a function of the government Horgan leads: Securing the supply chain, setting fines and infractions, purchasing protective equipment for health-care staff, travel restrictions and opening or closing schools.
The $10-billion COVID recovery plan, with grants, tax deferrals and $1,000 recovery cheques, is Horgan.
The $24 billion dollars funding health care right now, with extra pay, overtime and a massive hiring campaign for contact tracers, is Horgan.
The clearing of the surgical waitlist so you can get your knee, hip and other procedures completed during the crisis, is Horgan.
The extra funding for income assistance and disability clients (including an unwelcome clawback), is Horgan.
The purchase of hotels for the homeless, and the requisition of stadiums and other shelters for temporary housing, is Horgan.
And on it goes.
The sad truth of the matter is Horgan has undoubtedly already been offered a shot, and turned it down.
He and his political strategists have calculated the optics of the premier getting the vaccine before others is not worth the risk. His health is not worth the backlash that would come from days of questioning about favourable treatment. It’s not worth the political headache that would come from every media outlet scrambling to find a frail senior or someone else who’d yet to get the shot so they could breathlessly ask whether that person’s life is worth less than the premier’s.
His strategists are probably right. That’s exactly what would happen.
That doesn’t say much about our society’s collective intelligence.
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.
- Rob Shaw last wrote about Dr. Bonnie Henry’s poorly-received Monday briefing, which went over like a lead balloon for three reasons: bad wording, exhaustion, and because she’s right.
- Rob also focused on the Premier’s insistence on staying the course with a bill that would allow for involuntary hospitalization of youth who have suffered overdoses – despite overwhelming opposition.
- In December, Premier Horgan sat down (virtually, over the phone) with Maclean Kay to wrap up the year that was 2020.