In the first few months of 2020, Dr. Bonnie Henry became a provincial icon with her regular updates on COVID-19.
Because B.C.'s rate of infection and death remained lower than those in Quebec, Ontario, and New York, the provincial health officer was celebrated in the media, including in a glowing New York Times article.
Early in the pandemic, CBC journalist Justin McElroy created a chart showing how B.C. was doing better than all other jurisdictions with more than five million residents in Canada, the United States, and Europe.
The Georgia Straight cited McElroy's chart in a May 1, 2020 story entitled "Dr. Bonnie Henry has become B.C.'s Great Communicator".
But now a former diplomat and senior civil servant—and one of the architects of an austerity program in B.C. in the early 1980s—has stepped forward to challenge that narrative.
This week, Norman Spector acknowledged to podcaster Bill Amos that B.C. indeed had a lower death rate than Quebec in the early part of the pandemic.
But Spector declared that this was because B.C. had a different and less contagious strain of the virus than the one ripping through Montreal in early 2020.
"It's ironic with all the talk about China—even racism towards China—we were lucky to get the original strain from Wuhan—that we started to get in January," Spector explained on Amos's Now the News program on YouTube. "[It] was the dominant strain here until the Vancouver dental conference here in March ."
Premier exploited "big lie", according to Spector
After leaving the B.C. government in 1986, Spector worked for the Conservative government under Brian Mulroney, eventually becoming his chief of staff. After that, Spector served as Canada's ambassador to Israel before becoming a publisher and a media commentator.
On the podcast with Amos, Spector pointed out that the Vancouver dental conference on March 7 and 8 of 2020 brought the European lineage of the virus to B.C. that had already seeded the pandemic in Quebec, Ontario, New York, and Boston. According to Spector, it was one-and-a-half times more transmissible than the variant from Wuhan.
"When you look at the first wave overall, the disparity between deaths in B.C. and deaths in Quebec was huge, but that disparity has continued right through the pandemic," Spector said. "Quebec closed the gap but we’re still relatively well off. But as each wave took place, the comparison between British Columbia and Quebec got much less favourable to British Columbia."
Spector also told Amos that because the B.C. media never examined the differential impact of virus lineages from Europe and China, it left the public with the impression that the B.C. NDP government had handled the pandemic better than other provinces.
He added that Premier John Horgan exploited this perception to cruise to victory in an "unnecessary" election in 2020 after he had broken a confidence and supply agreement with the Greens.
Spector noted that in the last poll he saw, Horgan was tied with Nova Scotia's recently elected premier as the most popular premier in the country.
"But if you look at the numbers, he was in the 30s through the first wave and then as we came out of the first wave, he soared by about 30 points to the 60s, where he is today," Spector told Amos. "That was all on the basis that we had done so much better than the rest of the country."
On June 5, 2020, Henry released one chart revealing the progression of different strains in the province.
On Amos's show, Spector pointed out that the number of cases from original virus from China remained low. But he said that after the Vancouver dental conference, the strain from Europe rose at a 45-degree angle.
Vietnam and Taiwan had early successes
Spector added that nobody in the media followed up on this startling information in any serious way.
"Not only that, you then had journalists, in fact, contributing to the misunderstanding by comparing us to other jurisdictions and never comparing us to jurisdictions that were doing better," Spector told Amos. "In fact, if you look at McElroy’s data, the sample he was drawing excluded all kinds of jurisdictions that were doing better than British Columbia.
"And one of the big reasons they were doing better than British Columbia is that they faced Asia, they faced the Pacific," he continued. "So we're talking about Vietnam or Japan or Korea or Australia or New Zealand. All those countries were doing better and all their states were doing better than British Columbia."
On May 14, 2020, the Straight reported that Vietnam was the world's most populous country without any COVID-19 deaths, despite having a 1,144-kilometre land border with China. In 2020, Taiwan had a 255-day streak with no COVID-19 infections.
"We were comparing ourselves to Quebec and Ontario and places that we were doing better than," Spector said. "So not only did journalists not ask why this had happened, they contributed to...what I call the 'big lie' that John Horgan then exploited in a very shrewd manner—I mean, that’s what politicians do—to sail to a majority government.”
Spector said that media outlets are continuing to repeat the story line that B.C. has done better than everyone else in managing the pandemic.
"That take on the pandemic has become endemic in British Columbia political analysis and I think it’s one of the factors that makes Bonnie Henry impregnable to criticism today," Spector told Amos.
However, Spector said that there have been mistakes. One of the most notable, according to him, came when B.C. went along with the federal government's opposition to travel restrictions immediately after a case of COVID-19 from Iran was detected in this province on February 20, 2020.
Spector told Amos that the Globe and Mail was the only publication to highlight the significance of this. It came in a June 25, 2020 investigative piece called "Canada's lost months: When COVID-19's first wave hit, governments and health officials were scattered and slow to act".
Experts said that this case from Iran was a sign that we were in a pandemic and that borders should have been sealed, which is exactly what happened in Australia, according to Spector.
"In British Columbia, by contrast, you had the provincial government until March 11, supporting the federal government saying that border measures were useless, if not racist, and only on March 11, after the Vancouver dental conference, did Horgan stamp his feet and demand that Trudeau protect the borders," Spector said. "So while the virus was inundating Quebec and Ontario from Europe, we were largely immune from it until the dental conference."
In the podcast, Spector did not criticize the B.C. Liberal opposition for failing to draw attention to the role of different strains in cementing the reputations of Henry, Horgan, and Health Minister Adrian Dix with the public.
Spector acknowledged that some journalists have become more critical of the B.C. government's handling of the pandemic but he noted that "it came late in the day."
As a result, he suggested that the majority of B.C. residents still believe that the provincial government managed the pandemic better in the first wave than anywhere else. And that, he added, makes it difficult to hold decision makers accountable.
"So I would say that even the curious reporters—most of the curious reporters—came to their criticism too late to burst the myth bubble that had been established in this province,” Spector told Amos.