British Columbia responds to the COVID-19 pandemic: Stay home, stay apart, and outsiders stay out!
The rapid response by British Columbia to the coronavirus has been rooted in a variation of the old adage of waking up to a hanging in the morning: There’s nothing like a pandemic next door to focus the mind.
Washington saw an early outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Thirty-seven of the first 50 confirmed deaths came in the Evergreen State. A pandemic superspreader hit choir practice at a Mt. Vernon church in early March, infecting 52 people of whom two died.
The outbreak was initially poo-poohed by President Trump, but it was noticed next door. “Prompt provincial response began in January with surveillance action in early March,” said Dr. Tom Perry, a Vancouver physician and former B.C. cabinet minister.
An old MacLean’s article once described B.C. as a province “surrounded entirely by envy” and Canada’s “lotus land”.
The government of Premier John Horgan took a different interpretation, surrounded entirely by danger. B.C. called for closing the border days before the Canadian federal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau closed crossings to non-essential travelers. A query about wanting to visit Butchart Gardens has elicited a response from B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix: You are welcome to come, but first self-isolate yourself for two weeks.
Recently, Horgan asked Canada’s federal government to crack down on those trying to enter British Columbia with the explanation they were driving through to Alaska. He wants the feds to catch and throw back U.S. boaters venturing north from the San Juan to the Gulf Islands.
Canadian “snowbirds” flying back to B.C. must undergo a two-week self-quarantine.. Nor is B.C. ignoring dangers from another direction. “Alberta averaged over 100 cases per day over the weekend we were 27. Latest numbers from Washington State, 686 – we’ve had 24 from yesterday till noon today,” said Craig McCulloch, a Vancouver radio journalist.
A policy of self-isolation, applied in a province larger than Texas, appears – or appeared – to have been working. British Columbia has experienced just over 3,500 cases of the coronavirus, and 193 deaths in “lotus land.” Major mortality has come almost exclusively in nursing homes. Washington has witnessed 52,635 cases and 1,501 deaths. B.C. has a population of 5.1 million, compared to 7 million for her neighbor to the south.
The province’s COVID-19 response has featured a daily briefing, but not from Horgan. It has featured Health Minister Dix, a policy wonk on top of his portfolio. But the real star has been B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry. She has roots in Canada’s military, but has avoided a “Now hear this!” approach to the pandemic. She has urged, rather than ordered, doing the right thing. Typically, with warm weather forecast for the BC Day weekend, her advice: “Play Outside. Play Safe.”
Words of Dr. Henry from a March news conference have become a mantra: “This is our time to be calm, to be kind and to be safe.”
With an uptick in coronavirus cases in recent weeks, Dr. Henry has cautioned against cheating as the province reopens, warning against pushing tables together in restaurants with the words: “We bend the curve, not the rules. Let’s use these summer days to bend our curve back down.”
The pandemic means British Columbia must forego big gatherings: No packed stadiums for BC Lions football or the NHL Canucks. No packing Robsonstrasse for hockey riots when Canucks play for the Stanley Cup. No jazz festivals. No packed weekend of Pride Festival parades and outdoor fun.
Wreck Beach, renowned for its nude sunbathing and swimming, must forego its international clientele during the summer of 2020. (President Bill Clinton, in town for a Yeltsin summit years ago, teased hosts on removal of signs marking the boundary for appearing in the buff.)
The cruise ship industry is shut down, likely for the year. Ditto with wine tourism in Naramata and other towns at the south end of Lake Okanagan. Non-residents cannot obtain permits to camp in B.C. Provincial Parks.
Unlike Washington, no flareups of a political kind have been experienced. The diversity of British Columbia has been an asset. The province’s large Asian-Canadian population is more accustomed to mask wearing. Immigrants from China drew on the SARS experience of 2003. While he generalizes, McCulloch is accurate in saying: “We don’t see it as a political issue, but a health issue. We let science lead and not politics on medical health issues.”
Or in Dr. Perry’s words, “We still have social cohesion.”
A tradition begun in Spain crossed “the Pond” to Vancouver’s densely populated West End. High rise dwellers emerged in balconies to bang pots and pans at 7 p.m., shift change hour at busy St. Paul’s Hospital.
Staying home is proving popular. The province is requiring advance reservations for day passes to visit a half-dozen popular provincial parks. The list ranges from Alouette Lake at Golden Ears Provincial Park near Vancouver, to the Mt. Robson-Berg Lake trail that circles around the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies.
The province’s rapid, successful response faces a threat familiar to viewers of nightly bad news from “the states.” British Columbians, many of them young have come out of quarantine – too quickly. The average person’s number of contacts has risen to 65-75 percent of normal, which has Dr. Henry worried that the province is no longer “flattening the curve.”
“We are in a place where we could see rapid progression of transmission of this virus if we are not careful,” she said last week. “We still have it in our hands to make a difference . . . We are starting to see an uptick. This is concerning but it is not foregone that we will have a rapid rebound.”
The province faces a major decision – soon. It will deliver a plan on September restart of the province’s schools. A steering committee of principals, vice principals, parent organizations teachers, and support staff have been working out a plan for the “new normal.” The goal is to reopen, but the pandemic has final judgment.
Overall, how has Canada fared in the pandemic? With the clown car response of the Trump Administration, it’s hard not to look good by comparison.
The Canadian federal government did listen too long to World Health Organization on low risk of contagiousness. The government was slow to recommend masks. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was long mask-less emerging from Rideau Cottage in Ottawa (the cottage has 22 rooms) for his daily news briefing.
The COVID-19 pandemic response has helped Trudeau’s Liberal Party stay ahead in polls, despite the outbreak of a scandal involving a charity and payments to members of Trudeau’s family. Trudeau is governing with a minority in parliament.
So is John Horgan. The premier’s New Democratic Party has been kept in power for three-plus years thanks to support from a small band of Green Party members in the B.C. Legislature. The left-leaning New Democrats have prevailed in just four elections over the past 60 years.
But the avuncular Horgan is popular, just like American governors proactive in their response to the pandemic. The Dix-Henry briefings have served as a daily source of accurate information. Mistakes have been accepted. “BC threw fiscal caution to the wind in preparation for our overwhelmed hospitals,” said Dr. Perry. “Never happened. The public is still happy.”
Horgan has shown no indications of shutting down the province due to the recent spike in cases.
“We have tools at our disposal, but where we’ve had success over the past number of months is appealing to BCers to do the right thing,” he said last week. “Other jurisdictions put in place fines early on. That’s not the approach we took.
“I don’t believe in penalizing people. I’m appealing to BCers to use their good sense and don’t get together in large groups with people you don’t know. That’s a recipe for your personal disaster that could spread to your family, to your loved ones, to your grandparents.”
A former British Columbia premier, Mike Harcourt, once joked: “As a people of the north, we know how to keep our cool.”
In a nutshell, that’s been the province’s pandemic response. Horgan has talked about “windows” that would allow him to call and schedule an early election. One big risk. The COVID-19 pandemic sets its own schedule: Its future cannot be forecast.