Human rights commissioner expresses concerns about unequal effects of "hasty end" to provincial mask mandate

Kasari Govender released a letter today that was written to the provincial health officer on March 16

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      B.C. Human Rights Commissioner Kasari Govender's March 16 letter to Dr. Bonnie Henry opens with a positive salutation.

      "Thank you as always for your thoughtful leadership throughout the pandemic," Govender wrote.

      In the third paragraph, however, Govender expresses concern that "the hasty end to the provincial mask mandate will have profoundly unequal effects across society".

      "While many of us have the good fortune to simply move on with life, thousands of British Columbians will be left behind because of their age, disability, or other protected characteristic under B.C.'s Human Rights Code."

      Govender also wrote: "Given the benefits of the mask mandate for thousands of marginalized people and the minimal impact on those being asked to wear one, the balance at this time favours continuing the mask mandate."

      To reinforce that point, Govender declared that people disliking wearing masks "is not a compelling argument when weighed against the rights of others to life, security of the person, and equal participation in social and economic life".

      The human rights commissioner did not explicitly tell Henry that the dropping of mask mandates is illegal under human rights law. Nor did she use the legal phrase "adverse-effects discrimination".

      Govender also did not raise the issues of COVID-19 being a vascular disease or the effects of Long COVID on children in the letter.

      The letter is not binding on Henry, who is the provincial health officer.

      In her letter, the human rights commissioner pointed out that, as Henry has noted, "mask wearing is a simple and effective means for members of our society to protect one another from transmission of the virus".

      Govender also stated that some are more vulnerable than others to the SARS-CoV-2 virus—and "public health policy must consider these disproportionate impacts".

      "In the case of the pandemic, marginalized groups include immuno-compromised people, older people, Indigenous and racialized peoples, people with disabilities, and low-income communities," Govender wrote.

      And without an assurance that those they encounter will be masked in public spaces, Govender contended that "many seniors and people with disabilities will feel they must isolate themselves from society or risk their health".

      The letter was copied to Health Minister Adrian Dix and deputy provincial health officers Dr. Brian Emerson and Dr. Daniele Benh Smith.

      Under section 47.15 of the Human Rights Code, Govender has authority to launch a public inquiry into a matter that would promote or protect human rights. She chose not to do this now. 

      In a January 6 Protect Our Province B.C. webinar, Dr. Brenda Hardie interviewed University of Toronto epidemiologist Colin Furness about COVID-19 and immunocompromised children.

      News release comments on media

      In her news release, Govender stated that her office has received media requests relating to the lifting of the mask mandate.

      She noted "media were advised that a letter had been issued to the Public Health Officer and that we would be prepared to speak publicly about the contents of that letter in the week of March 28, 2022."

      The Straight is one of those media that submitted a request and was told that Govender had written to the public health officer. But there was no mention that it was in the form of a formal letter of this nature.

      In fact, it was taken by the Straight to be a letter of inquiry to Henry rather than a letter setting out the commissioner's views. That led the Straight to post an article on March 25 with the headline "Who is going to stand up for B.C.'s immunocompromised K-12 students?".

      The Straight requested its interview with Govender on March 13. On March 14, her office responded and stated that it would have something later in the week.

      On March 18, the office followed up with an email saying that the commissioner was away from March 21 to 25 but would comment upon her return.

      In the past, the Safe Schools Coalition B.C. and Protect Our Province B.C. have repeatedly voiced concerns about the impact of provincial public-health policies on people who are immunocompromised.

      In January, for example, University of Toronto health researcher Colin Furness spelled out the dangers for immunocompromised kids in a Protect Our Province B.C. webinar.

      He pointed out that children and youths with diabetes are 6.6 times as likely to suffer serious COVID complications as those without compromised immunity.

      Furness also reported that those born prematurely have a 3.7-times higher chance of enduring serious COVID, while those with compromised immune systems are 3.5 times as likely. 

      Anyone with asthma is twice as likely to develop serious COVID, according to Furness.