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No silver bullet

Suzanne Anton
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Suzanne Anton: The government has reversed course and introduced a mandatory mask order – but it’s still much more important to maintain other, more effective measures.

Keeping the public trust is essential in this time of COVID. After all, we’re talking about the most significant impingements on personal freedoms in any of our lifetimes; it only makes sense to ensure people are buying in.

Lose the trust and you lose the public.

We have been fortunate in BC in that the government never ordered a full lockdown. Other parts of Canada have more restrictions, and there are calls for BC to follow. We should not. As others have noted before me, the bigger lockdown enthusiasts seem to be those with the least to lose.

Governments will keep public confidence when their orders are evidence-based, seem fair, and have an impact. If governments lose that confidence, they are in trouble.

In Ontario, Premier Doug Ford has imposed a general shutdown. There are exceptions, such as grocery and liquor, but the impact is that in this pre-Christmas period, it’s the small shops that are forced to close. People are upset, seeing their neighbours’ businesses shut while Amazon thrives.

The poster person for the anti-lockdowners is a BBQ restaurant owner who was arrested when he tried to open his location on a strip mall in Etobicoke. (I mention the strip mall because so much of the commentariat finds that relevant.) Whatever you think of his actions, he and his vocal supporters are making things extremely uncomfortable for the Ford government.

In Alberta, Premier Jason Kenney is receiving harsh criticism because infection numbers are high, and he’s trying to keep as much open as possible. But it is refreshing to hear a Premier even mention Charter rights and recognize how much small businesses and individuals suffered in the initial lockdown.

Which brings me to BC and in particular, the order requiring masking.

BC had been a masking holdout. Dr. Bonnie Henry was quoted in mid-November explaining why she believed mandatory masking was unnecessary. Two days later she and the government reversed course.

Had the epidemiology changed? No. But an overwhelming majority of British Columbians were in favour of making masking mandatory, and so overnight the order was changed. It had the appearance of giving in to public pressure.

Introducing such a substantial, wide-ranging order (and yes, restriction of personal freedoms) without providing any additional evidence in support was wrong, in my view, and risks undermining public confidence. Surely it would have been easy to say something to the effect that many current cases would or could have been prevented by a general masking order. (Of course, that would essentially be conceding the order should have come earlier.)

All the evidence seems to suggest masks are secondary to all the other actions we should be taking. The BC Centre for Disease Control says: “Using only a mask is not enough to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

Masks are no silver bullet, because there’s no one silver bullet.

“In the hierarchy of measures to prevent COVID transmission, non-medical mask wearing is one of the lowest, and should not replace more effective measures (i.e. staying home if feeling unwell, limiting social contacts, especially outside your own family or close friends/co-workers, and keeping physically distanced when interacting with strangers)” says Dr. Patricia Daly, Vancouver Coastal Health’s chief medical health officer.

This is important, because people are getting restless.

Anti-mask protesters are making noise around the province.

A church in Langley has been fined for conducting an in-person service. They believe they are within their Charter rights to do so.

Outdoor venues such as lights at Van Dusen and Butchart Gardens, both of whom were confident in their safety plans, were polite but unhappy about having at losing two crucial weeks of revenues (and likely more.)

These incidents are relatively minor and probably don’t move the needle on public support. But they should remind the government to remain transparent, and keep the public involved in decision making.

We are all tired of COVID, and the necessary restrictions. The unintended consequences have been enormous – increases in overdose deaths, domestic violence, and suffering of children. The numbers remain high, but are hopefully beginning to level off.

Interestingly, the trend seems to be similar in many jurisdictions around the world, no matter what measures they have taken. Epidemiologists will study COVID-19 and the various countermeasures for decades to come.

At home in BC, the messaging needs to stay the course: Keep your distance, keep your social contacts minimal, and meet people outdoors, if at all. Follow your workplace plans. Your mask can help, but the other actions are more important, including and especially vigilance on hygiene and handwashing.

I wish Dr. Henry, the government, and all of us well. Evidence based decision making, consistency, and transparency will help get us through this pandemic intact.

Hon. Suzanne Anton QC is a former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of British Columbia and a former Vancouver City Councillor

SWIM ON:

SWIM ON