COVID-19 in B.C.: Forget about Adrian Dix and Dr. Bonnie Henry and focus on the bystanders

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      Every day, a small group of British Columbians, including some health-care workers, go on Twitter to warn of the consequences of the B.C. government’s let ’er rip approach to COVID-19.

      There is no shortage of issues that they raise. They include but are not limited to:

      Health-care workers who raise these concerns can be seen as whistleblowers, even when doing so anonymously over Twitter.

      This is because they’re informing the public that their organizations are widely missing the mark with their response to the virus. But these whistleblowers are having virtually no impact on public policies around COVID-19 in B.C.

      There are a bunch of reasons for this, including politics, corporate lobbying, a poor appreciation for science in the media, a weak B.C. Liberal opposition, and the public’s collective desire to wish COVID away.

      But there’s another factor that some whistleblowers might not fully appreciate. More on that in a moment.

      Video: Watch the trailer for The Insider.

      Bystanders remain silent

      More than 20 years ago I wrote an article about whistleblowing following the release of a Hollywood movie called The Insider. This film, directed by Michael Mann, focused on a fired tobacco company executive, Jeffrey Wigand (played by Russell Crowe), who released information to a 60 Minutes producer played by Al Pacino.

      At the time, I interviewed a Simon Fraser University business-ethics professor, Mark Wexler, who had just written a textbook called Confronting Moral Worlds: Understanding Business Ethics. It includes an illuminating chapter on whistleblowers, who are usually not authority figures.

      According to this chapter, there are five participants in these situations. There’s the whistleblower, the outlet for the complaint (in this case, Twitter), the target (often Dr. Bonnie Henry or Health Minister Adrian Dix or Premier John Horgan), the general public, and “bystanders” who might catch the whistleblower’s attention.

      Bystanders can be professional organizations, which have a direct interest in the issue.

      In Confronting Moral Worlds, the author notes that they often determine whether the whistleblower succeeds or fails.

      “When bystanders remain indifferent, the whistle-blowing incident usually has a short life in the public’s attention,” Wexler writes. “When bystanders rise in moral indignation, there is a good chance that the whistle-blowing process will generate an in-depth look at the organization and its activities.”

      One of those bystanders is Human Rights Commissioner Kasari Govender, who wrote a letter to Henry on March 16 expressing concerns about the unequal effects of a “hasty” end to a provincial mask mandate.

      The letter had no discernible effect on Henry or Dix.

      Govender has not followed up by ordering a public inquiry under the B.C. Human Rights Code, nor has she elaborated on her concerns in a major report to the legislature including scientific and legal references.

      It means that the B.C. government has dodged this bystander—at least for now.

      There’s another officer of the legislature who has been a silent bystander: Representative for Children and Youth Jennifer Charlesworth. She has a mandate to review, investigate, and report on children “receiving reviewable services from public bodies”.

      Under provincial regulation, this includes services or programs under the Youth Criminal Justice Act (including detention centres) and services or programs with special needs provided or funded by the minister responsible for the Child, Family and Community Services Act.

      I suspect that there’s sufficient latitude here for Charlesworth to investigate how immunocompromised children in care are being protected in public schools from COVID-19. Those findings could then be released to the public in a report. But that hasn't happened.

      A third bystander, B.C. Seniors Advocate Isobel Mackenzie, wrote a review of COVID-19 outbreaks in care homes. It shed light on factors that were more common in larger outbreaks, such as the amount of paid sick leave, levels of registered nurses, and likelihood of trouble when more people shared rooms.

      But Mackenzie has not addressed one of the fundamental concerns: the failure of health authorities to communicate how COVID-19 is spread through the air.

      Another bystander is the College of Physicians and Surgeons of B.C. It licenses doctors, including the provincial health officer and chief medical officers of health with the various health authorities.

      The college has not taken any action in response to concerns expressed by online whistleblowers about how these physicians have allegedly failed to respond to new science emerging around the transmission of COVID-19.

      Another bystander is the B.C. Ferry Authority, which is "responsible for overseeing the strategic direction of B.C. Ferries in support of the public interest".

      The same can be said of the independent B.C. Ferry Commission, which is also supposed to take the public interest into account.

      It’s clearly in the public interest that ferry service be maintained along B.C.’s coast. Nobody can argue with that.

      But that’s not possible if too many crew members come down with COVID-19.

      B.C. Ferries is having trouble finding enough crews to staff all of its vessels.
      B.C. Ferries

      To date, the B.C. Ferry Authority and the B.C. Ferry Commission have not challenged B.C. Ferries management on their decision, as an employer, to end a mask mandate on their vessels, likely  furthering the spread of the disease among passengers and crews.

      Another bystander is the TransLink Mayor’s Council on Regional Transportation. It describes itself as “the collective voice of Metro Vancouver residents on transit and transportation”.

      The mayors’ council has remained silent as TransLink executives allow hordes of unmasked passengers to gather in crowded transit vehicles, often with the windows closed, for extended periods of times.

      Another bystander is the Law Society of B.C., which has a statutory duty to uphold and protect the public interest in the administration of justice by “preserving and protecting the rights and freedoms of all persons”. (Italics added.)

      The attorney general is the official legal adviser to the cabinet, which the whistleblowers claim is undermining the human rights of the immunocompromised with its COVID-19 policies.

      The Law Society of B.C. has not exactly rushed to the ramparts to preserve and protect the rights of the immunocompromised by trying to hold the attorney general accountable for any advice he might be giving the provincial cabinet in connection with its COVID-19 policies.

      And on it goes.

      All of this is to suggest that anyone with concerns about the impact of COVID-19 on the immunocompromised needs to think about how to mobilize some of these bystanders.

      We already know that Premier John Horgan, Health Minister Adrian Dix, Attorney General David Eby, and Dr. Bonnie Henry are comfortable with the status quo, which is resulting in mass infection.

      The same goes for Jobs Minister Ravi Kahlon, who’s expected to seek the B.C. NDP leadership. If Eby or Kahlon, for example, had a problem with this, they would have resigned their cabinet posts many months ago.

      So for the COVID Aware, one way to try to reverse government policies—to save  more lives—is to pile some pressure on the bystanders. There’s certainly no shortage of them.