The upside of Human Rights Commissioner Kasari Govender's letter to Dr. Bonnie Henry on mask mandates

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      This week, B.C.'s human rights commissioner, Kasari Govender, spoke out publicly against the discriminatory aspects of the B.C. government's decision to lift provincewide mask mandates.

      "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," Govender wrote in a March 16 letter to Dr. Bonnie Henry.

      The letter was released on March 28, the day that the lifting of the provincewide mask mandate in schools took effect in many districts.

      It's a positive step that someone in an official capacity has finally stepped forward to state the obvious.

      But let's get real: Govender's letter by itself is not going to save a single life.

      It didn't sway the government because provincewide indoor mask mandates on schools, transit, and ferries have not been reinstated.

      After Govender's letter was released, Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside still framed the decision to wear a mask in schools as a "personal choice" rather than a human-rights issue for people with compromised immunity.

      Whiteside is maintaining this talking point even though a National Institutes of Health–financed study reported that mandatory mask mandates resulted in 72 percent fewer transmissions of the Delta variant of COVID-19 in schools than voluntary mask mandates.

      Govender might be surprised that Henry ignored her recommendation and didn't reimpose a provincewide mask mandate in schools. But it won't come as a shock to some of those with immunocompromised children and other relatives who fill my Twitter notifications every day.

      Since late last summer, Safe Schools Coalition B.C. has been trying as hard as it can to get anyone—including MLAs, media, trustees, principals, superintendents, and union officials—to wake up to the discriminatory aspects of B.C.'s public-health policies.

      "Public schools are supposed to be equitable and safe for all," the coalition stated in a March 21 open letter calling for a reinstatement of universal masking in K-12 schools. "If rules can be set for peanut-free schools, so that those with severe peanut allergies can avoid exposure, then the same needs to be done for students who themselves or whose families face higher risk from catching this virus." 

      It's such an eloquent, clear-eyed statement.

      Yet until Govender released her letter, it's been beyond the grasp of people in positions of power with the notable exceptions of Green MLAs Sonia Furstenau and Adam Olsen.

      What's more remarkable is that Premier John Horgan's mandate letters to his ministers emphasize the importance of tackling systemic discrimination in all its forms.

      "Our efforts to address systemic discrimination must also inform policy and budget decisions by reviewing all decisions through a Gender-Based Analysis Plus (GBA+) lens," Horgan wrote to Whiteside, Attorney General David Eby, Social Development and Poverty Reduction Minister Nicholas Simons, and Health Minister Adrian Dix, among others.

      Fine words, Mr. Premier.

      But when the human rights commissioner concludes that the end of mandatory provincewide mask mandates discriminates against marginalized people and those with compromised immunity, what happens? Nothing. That's what.

      Looking at things through a GBA+ lens entails evaluating the effect on those with a mental or physical disability as well as racialized groups.

      Is Horgan going to fire his minister of health or the provincial health officer in light of the human rights commissioner's conclusions? Or can Dix and the rest of the cabinet prove that a GBA+ lens was applied to the decision to scrap mandatory provincewide mask mandates? 

      We're waiting for an answer on that, Mr. Premier.

      Human Rights Commissioner Kasari Govender spoke up about a discriminatory public-health policy when so many others kept their mouths shut.

      What next, Commissioner?

      Now, the ball is in the human rights commissioner's court. She has a few options, including:

      1. doing nothing;

      2. assisting someone who files a human-rights complaint over the end of school mask mandates to the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal;

      3. writing a report to the legislature, which employs her, laying out in clear legal reasons, with legal references, why the end of mandatory mask mandates is discriminatory.

      4. recommending in such a report that the B.C. cabinet seek a reference on its mask-optional provincial policy in the B.C. Court of Appeal. This is permissible under B.C.'s Constitutional Question Act. "The Court of Appeal or the Supreme Court may direct that a person interested, or, if there is a class of persons interested, any one or more persons as representatives of that class, must be notified of the hearing, and those persons are entitled to be heard," the law states.

      5. ordering a public inquiry under section 47.15 of the Human Rights Code. 

      If Govender chooses options 2 through 5, there is no shortage of academic, educational, and medical experts who could be called upon to offer assistance.

      Dr. Bonnie Henry is not on Twitter, so she isn't following the experts listed below on that platform.

      Govender, on the other hand, has a Twitter feed, so she might want to consider doing this, starting today.

      Here are 15 accounts that may interest her if she's curious to learn more in advance of taking further action in response to the provincial government's obstinacy.

      Dr. Lyne Filiatrault

      Professor Colin Furness

      Professor David Fisman

      Professor Jose-Luis Jimenez

      Professor Trisha Greenhalgh

      Dr. Deepti Gurdasani

      Eric Feigl-Ding

      Andrew Longhurst

      Dr. Brenda Hardie

      Safe Schools Coalition B.C.

      Protect Our Province B.C.

      Professor Steve Morgan 

      Professor Kimberly Prather

      Professor Damien Contandriopoulos

      Professor Tara Moriarty

      One of the most challenging aspects of wrapping one's mind around this issue concerns the topic of aerosols. It's at the centre of everything. So to assist the commissioner, I will close this article with two slides that Professor Jimenez presented during a recent webinar with Protect Our Province B.C.

      Jose-Luis Jimenez
      Jose-Luis Jimenez