“Okay, Houston, I believe we’ve had a problem here."
- astronaut Jim Lovell on the Apollo 13 spacecraft
Some very intelligent people in B.C. know that we have a problem of a different sort here in our province when it comes to COVID-19.
Whereas the astronauts onboard Apollo 13 lost their oxygen tanks, our predicament revolves around government health officials who want to drop virtually all defences, save vaccinations and a few free rapid-test kits, in the face of a sixth wave of infections.
This is despite evidence that the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which can cause death and long-term disability, can circumvent vaccines and has the capacity to reinfect people multiple times each year.
According to University of Toronto mortality researcher Dr. Tara Moriarty, the Omicron variant can be expected to cause more than eight times as many deaths as influenza in Canada.
The B.C. government health establishment has argued—in the face of a tremendous amount of research evidence to the contrary—that because they believe masks harm children's mental health and lead to substance use(!), these mouth and nose coverings should not be required in schools.
This same government health establishment has maintained that there's a "debate" over whether COVID-19 is airborne, like the measles and tuberculosis. This comment came after a couple of researchers at B.C. Children's Hospital wrote a letter to the Lancet questioning a landmark paper, which was promptly rebutted by the authors.
"The idea that close proximity transmission is droplet transmission is a basic error of logic that is widely propagated in the scientific literature," the authors of the original piece wrote. "We exhort editors and reviewers to be alert to this bibliographic virus (ie, a claim that gets reproduced from one publication to the next without being independently verified) and take steps to help to stop its transmission."
Meanwhile, we have reporters in Canada who spend most of their time covering COVID-19 who steadfastly refuse to challenge these very same health officials on the research that's sitting in front of them.
For example, they won't demand an explanation why the provincial health officer announced that school mask mandates were being dropped in B.C. on the same day that an NIH-funded study of districts with 1.1. million students showed 72 percent fewer in-school COVID-19 transmissions where there were mandatory mask mandates. The study took place during the Delta wave of COVID-19.
This presents a formidable intellectual challenge for B.C. Green Leader Sonia Furstenau, the only provincial politician who appears to have read any of this research.
How do you fix a health system that has placed so much power in the hands of unelected, arm's-length authorities that can choose to ignore scientific evidence with impunity?
Before I answer that question, I'm going to share a Twitter thread by UVic nursing prof Damien Contrandriopoulos. It speaks to the shortcomings of relying on health bureaucracies for accurate scientific information.
Contrandriopoulos concluded this thread with the claim that the premier's communications director, George Smith, had a "tantrum" because the B.C. government's COVID-19 response is based on hubris, awful consultant advice, and arrogance—and not science.
History of health authorities
Now, let's get back to the health authorities.
In the 1990s, a former NDP government created more than 50 regional health boards. That came as a result of a 1991 royal commission that proposed transferring authority over health care "closer to home".
These boards included a wide range of community representatives and held meetings in public, much like city councils and school boards do.
They were sometimes raucous affairs and probably wasted a great deal of time for the health professionals who had to line up to speak to the board about their various reports. But they helped put harm-reduction higher up on the public agenda.
After the B.C. Liberal government was elected in 2001, it collapsed these entities into five much larger health authorities covering huge regions. Their boards of directors stopped holding regular public meetings.
It enabled the then deputy health minister, Dr. Penny Ballem, to meet with all of the health authority CEOs in one small boardroom. That wasn't possible in the old days.
This saved a hell of a lot of time but these organizations were not exactly paragons of democracy.
“You’ve got 60 handpicked [Gordon] Campbell appointees, most of them business tycoons, making decisions about how to spend a quarter of the provincial budget,” then HEU communications director Stephen Howard told the Straight in 2003. “They’re doing it behind closed doors without any kind of public scrutiny, and that can’t continue to happen.”
Well, it did continue to happen—and continues to happen to this very day under the B.C. NDP government.
There's also a Provincial Health Services Authority, which oversees health agencies of provincial concern, such as the B.C. Centre for Disease Control and B.C. Children's Hospital.
This structure shields the health minister from criticism in the legislature if there are problems in the delivery of health services. Adrian Dix can rightly say that it's the health authorities' job to do this; he merely sets policies.
As the bilingual Dix might say, "Comme c'est pratique (How convenient)."
It was working okay for many years but the spread of COVID-19 has exposed its holes.
Health authority staff can thumb their noses at a growing body of scientific research about how COVID-19 is transmitted and offer advice willy-nilly about masks to school boards without any consequences.
A pandemic that has claimed more than 3,000 B.C. lives is being overseen in a haphazard, highly decentralized manner devoid of any real political or scientific accountability. In many cases, those who suffer the greatest consequences—families with immunocompromised members—don't even know where they can file complaints.
And even if they did, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of B.C. isn't going to take away anyone's medical licence for misleading the public in health-authority communications about how COVID-19 is being transmitted.
Where to go from here?
Furstenau has a few options to consider in advance of presenting her party's platform before the next election. They include:
1. Consult with Protect Our Province B.C., which has dedicated itself to providing evidence-based information to reduce the spread of COVID-19, to hear how it thinks this enormously challenging public-policy issue should be addressed.
2. Hold public meetings in each of the health regions asking a simple question: how can we make the delivery of health services more democratic and accountable? You never know what you might hear until you ask people for their opinions.
3. Consult with the College of Physicians and Surgeons of B.C. to determine what's legally possible, whether it's practice directives to physicians or even requirements for continuing education for government epidemiologists.
4. Invite academic experts on governance to share their ideas on how to address the issue of unaccountable health authorities acting with impunity.
What we've witnessed in B.C. is a system failure rooted in part in governance—and there are no signs that this won't continue to create problems in the future.
While we might get lucky and avoid the worst onslaught of the pandemic this summer because of high vaccination rates and more people spending time outdoors, it's quite possible that we'll be back in COVID-19 hell by the fall.
Don't kid yourself. As long as there's a refusal by government health officials to respond to airborne transmission in a serious way, this issue will never go away.
That's why it's incumbent on all of us to devote just as much attention to finding solutions as we have done to highlighting what's gone so terribly wrong.