Ableism, the Great Barrington Declaration, and the B.C. NDP government's response to COVID-19

The province lifted almost all mask mandates on the second anniversary of the World Health Organization's declaration that COVID-19 is a pandemic

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      I was reminded of the Great Barrington Declaration when reviewing the latest announcement from the B.C. government on mask mandates.

      The provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, and Health Minister Adrian Dix avoided the politically loaded phrase "focused protection", which was at the core of this controversial 2020 statement.

      But the B.C. government's decision to eliminate indoor mask mandates effective today in most circumstances—including on public transit and B.C. Ferries—sure looks like focused protection.

      Masks will also no longer be required in K-12 schools when students return after spring break.

      The Great Barrington Declaration was written by three academics—Oxford University epidemiologist Sunetra Gupta, Stanford University professor of medicine Jay Bhattacharya, and then Harvard Medical School biostatistician Martin Kulldorff.

      Drafted at the free-market-oriented American Institute for Economic Research, it argued that people at much lower risk of dying from COVID-19 should be allowed to return to their normal lives. The authors maintained that this would promote "herd immunity" in the population. Plus, it would yield economic benefits, according to its supporters.

      Essentially, it was a let 'er rip approach, prompting intense criticism from those who felt it was unethical to put those at higher risk of COVID-19 complications in greater jeopardy. 

      Many health experts viewed the Great Barrington Declaration as ableist—i.e., discriminatory against those with cancer, asthma, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, heart disease, and other medical conditions, as well as those who were born premature and older people.

      University of Toronto health researcher Colin Furness showed this slide in a January webinar with Protect Our Province B.C.

      Critics also noted that the Great Barrington Declaration did not acknowledge the reality of long COVID. In these cases, people demonstrate symptoms long after they were infected.

      Henry and Dix emphasized that people were free to continue wearing masks if they wanted to do this. That message is being advanced by other provincial governments as well. But it has not gone down well with supporters of mandatory masks in indoor public spaces.

      In 2021, former Harvard University epidemiologist Eric Feigl-Ding described public-health officials as "Great Barrington–adjacent" and "pro-infection" when they say there's no need to mask kids. This week, Feigl-Ding tweeted on the value of keeping kids masked in school.

      Feigl-Ding has previously condemned B.C. public-health officials' reluctance to acknowledge the degree to which COVID-19 is spread through the air, particularly in indoor spaces.

      That's also a key concern of two B.C. groups, Protect Our Province B.C. and Safe Schools Coalition B.C., which have been calling for HEPA filters in classrooms.

      Aerosol scientists, such as Prof. Jose-Luis Jimenez at the University of Colorado Boulder, have made similar arguments. In a recent webinar hosted by Protect Our Province B.C., he cited five myths and facts about aerosols that are still being debated by B.C. public-health officers.

      Prof. Jose-Luis Jimenez showed this slide in a recent webinar with Protect Our Province B.C.

      He pointed out that aerosols can be up to 100 microns in size. The COVID-19 virus essentially hitchhikes on exhaled aerosols larger than 0.1 microns and travels around a room, much like cigarette smoke. (A micron [μm] is equal to 0.001 millimetres and is used to measure the thickness or diameter of microscopic objects.)

      If you want to get rid of cigarette smoke, you open windows and filter the air. And that's what needs to be done to reduce the risk of indoor COVID-19 transmission, according to aerosol scientists, in addition to wearing properly fitting respirators like N95s or C99s.

      This was another of the slides shown by Prof. Jimenez.

      COVID-19 is more than a respiratory disease

      Public-health officials, including Henry, have cited respiratory infections such as influenza when referring to government responses to COVID-19. But some medical experts, such as University of Toronto researcher Colin Furness, say this is a false analogy, because COVID-19 has more in common with diseases like polio than the flu.

      They draw this conclusion because they see COVID-19 as an illness that presents first as a respiratory infection. But in a fair number of cases, it manifests as a vascular disease, leading  to organ failure, blood clots, heart attacks, and neurological problems ranging from strokes to dementia to neuromuscular disorders.

      Henry and Dix decided to lift the mask mandate—describing this as a "balanced plan"—on the second anniversary of the World Health Organization's declaration that COVID-19 is a pandemic.

      Some British Columbians reacted with tremendous alarm. Below, you can read some of their comments now being passed around over social media.