COVID-19 in B.C.: Why the politics of the pandemic could catch up to the NDP

To paraphrase Alfred E. Neuman, "What, me worry about airborne COVID?"

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      This morning, the Angus Reid Institute released a poll with some good news for the B.C. NDP.

      It shows that 44 percent of respondents would vote for the party if an election were held.

      That's down from the 47.69 percent of the vote in the 2020 election, which delivered a record 57 seats to the B.C. NDP led by John Horgan. But with the B.C. Liberals trailing in the new poll by 13 percentage points, things still look pretty rosy for the New Democrats.

      The B.C. Greens are quite far back at 16 percent.

      Yet cracks are beginning to appear for the B.C. NDP. Its percentage of support was the lowest in one of these Angus Reid Institute provincial polls since the pandemic began.

      But here's where I think the problem lies—and it wasn't identified in this poll.

      Judging from my email inbox and notifications showing up in my Twitter feed, I'm sensing that some traditional NDP voters are increasingly frustrated with ruling party's response to the pandemic.

      In the words of one health-care worker, the provincial government's pandemic strategy "prioritizes the economy above all else and ignores public-health measures whenever expedient".

      Daily records for hospital stays due to COVID-19 are being set with the Omicron variant. As this sad situation is unfolding, the B.C. NDP government, its allies in the community, and health authorities are discouraging the use of N95 respirators.

      The World Health Organization, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, and the Public Health Agency of Canada have all come around to the view that COVID-19 is an airborne disease.

      Yet the Horgan government still refuses to categorically and unequivocally acknowledge this. The Ministry of Health has sidestepped the Straight's questions on this matter, preferring last year to issue a statement peddling its droplet dogma.

      In some public communications, health authorities are also clinging to the droplet dogma for which they've been roundly criticized by international experts.

      One researcher who's had papers published in peer-reviewed journals such as the Lancet and Science declared that Vancouver Coastal Health belonged in the COVID Hall of Shame. He issued an equally scathing comment about Fraser Health's ban on N95 respirators for those visiting hospitals.

      Yet droplet dogma provides a convenient foil for justifying the re-opening of gyms, with certain controls in place, in the face of political pressure. Droplet dogma facilitates the continuation of casino operations and public events, such as Vancouver Canucks home games, at 50 percent capacity.

      If you don't categorically acknowledge that COVID-19 is an airborne disease, it's easier to approve church services and church choirs with no capacity limits if everyone is immunized, as the B.C. NDP government has done. It imposed 50 percent capacity limits on church services if there's no screening for vaccination. That's helpful politically to new NDP MLAs in the Fraser Valley Bible belt. 

      Without a full recognition of airborne COVID-19 underscored by a public-education campaign, it's easier for the Ministry of Advanced Education to say it's okay for unvaccinated students to attend postsecondary classrooms. It also becomes simpler to spurn public demands for HEPA filters in all K-12 classrooms.

      In addition, droplet dogma provides a convenient excuse for refusing to monitor carbon-dioxide levels in classrooms. You don't have to let on that this gas is easily tested and serves as a useful proxy for measuring the concentration of COVID-19 viruses in the air.

      With the droplet-dogma mindset, surgical masks are just as good, if not better, than N95s.

      This week, B.C. Green Leader Sonia Furstenau has ramped up criticism of the NDP government's response to the pandemic.

      Watch out for the B.C. Greens 

      But this can become a political problem for the B.C. NDP over the longer term. If a sufficient number of educators, health workers, college and university instructors, and journalists start believing that B.C. NDP government policies are a principal driver of the pandemic, the ruling party could find itself in serious trouble. Especially if the B.C. Greens grab onto this issue.

      Already, there are signs of that happening.

      On The Early Edition on CBC Radio One this week, B.C. Green MLA Adam Olsen questioned why the province has not invested more heavily in N95 respirators and portable HEPA filters in schools.

      "We know that there are measures we can be taking to further limit the spread of the COVID-19 virus," Olsen said on the show, "and it makes me wonder why we haven't taken those steps in the lead-up to it."

      Olsen also questioned whether the provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, spoke too soon by claiming that B.C. had passed the peak at the start of January in community transmission of the Omicron virus. Olsen's comment proved prescient when the independent B.C. COVID-19 Modelling Group more or less said the same thing on January 19.

      Also this week, B.C. Green Leader Sonia Furstenau challenged the B.C. NDP government's handling of the pandemic in a series of tweets.

      Her final message in this thread called for an "independent science table". The mere suggestion of this underscores the growing lack of confidence that the B.C. NDP government and the health authorities are willing to embrace the findings of scientific experts.

      Some doctors, health workers, and researchers have formed a group called Protect Our Province B.C. There's another group of educators and parents called Safe Schools Coalition B.C.

      Both organizations are arguing that the B.C. NDP government has dropped the ball in its handling of the pandemic.

      They're demanding policies that explicitly recognize firstly, that COVID-19 is airborne, and secondly, that COVID-19 is far more than a respiratory infection and that it sometimes attacks the cardiovascular system, brain, and internal organs.

      There still hasn't been research on the effect of COVID-19 on children's brains. However, it's already become abundantly clear that so-called Long COVID has been creating problems for some adults' brains.

      If the B.C. Green MLAs pursue this issue vigorously in the future, they may find it easier to recruit some star candidates in the scientific, educational, and medical communities in advance of the next election.

      This, in turn, has the potential to drain a whole lot of votes away from the B.C. NDP.

      Backbench MLAs in the NDP caucus, as well as members of the B.C. Legislative Press Gallery, might want to think about this the next time they watch a briefing by Health Minister Adrian Dix and Dr. Henry.

      Correction: An earlier version of this story had photos of unmasked press gallery members attending a briefing. The photo was from March 11, 2020 (the day the World Health Organization declared a pandemic) and not recently, so they've been removed.