BC’s Green Party finally did this week what it has been dancing around for several months: Directly criticised the judgement and decision-making of Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry.
It came shortly after Dr. Henry announced Tuesday she was dropping the proof-of-vaccination card requirement for restaurants and other businesses on April 8. She also said she would not reconsider her decision last month to drop the mandatory mask requirement, and emphasized BC is transitioning into a stage of personal responsibility in making decisions about masks, vaccines and risk that will vary from person to person.
Furstenau let loose her response in a press release.
“Once again, the Provincial Health Officer and the BC NDP have failed to educate British Columbians on the risks of long COVID, of the airborne spread of this virus, and of the benefits of well-fitting and high-quality masks,” she said.
“This is a failure to provide essential information to the public, at a time when this government has transferred all responsibility to individuals to try to keep themselves and others safe from COVID infection.”
It’s a noteworthy moment because it’s the first time a provincial politician in BC has challenged Dr. Henry directly by suggesting she’s made wrong decisions.
No other MLAs, not from the BC Liberals and most especially not from the BC NDP, have come close, for fear of public backlash at appearing to attack a very popular and widely-respected public health official.
But you could see Furstenau working up the nerve to make this move for several months now. She’s been a vocal critic of Dr. Henry’s explanations and decisions, but has mostly hid it by levelling her attacks directly against “the government” instead.
In particular, Furstenau has been unhappy with BC’s lack of emphasis on the aerosol nature of COVID-19, its refusal to provide N95 masks for kids and teachers in schools, its gaps in publicly-available data, and its decision last month to remove the mandatory mask requirement for indoor public spaces.
Still though, it’s hard to figure out what audience the BC Greens are targeting with their messaging and framing on the issue against Dr. Henry.
Repeated polls have shown high public satisfaction with Dr. Henry. BC has the highest approval rate in the country for its handling of the pandemic, according to a March 31 survey by the Angus Reid Institute. The BC Greens, by comparison, have lost support since the start of 2020, according to the poll.
It would appear mainstream, middle-of-the-road voters aren’t entirely aligned with the BC Green position. They’ve watched Dr. Henry hold more than 250 press conferences during the past two years, where she answered more than 5,000 questions, and instead of finding she “failed to educate British Columbians,” as Furstenau charges, they responded relatively positively to her explanations and decisions.
Privately, BC Greens point to the social media response to Furstenau’s complaints about BC’s COVID management, including the number of comments, likes, and retweets on Twitter.
But as almost everyone in politics knows (or should know) – Twitter is a toxic playground of the angry, obsessed, imbalanced, partisan, and disgruntled. It does not reflect the real world.
The Greens have no doubt picked up support in some sectors, due to the party’s stance on COVID. It’s just a question of whether those sectors are the right ones. An entire contingent of people who demanded immediate and severe lockdowns when the virus appeared – in a strategy called “COVID-zero” – find themselves backing the BC Green position, while spending inordinate amounts of time personally attacking Dr. Henry online.
It’s not immediately clear whether those COVID-zero fanatics are actually BC Greens, intend to stay with the party, support its positions or vote for it in the next election.
Nor is it clear if the BC Greens have completely thought through the ramifications of turning away from mainstream British Columbia, to appeal to smaller fringe elements with particular axes to grind on COVID policy.
More likely, the BC Greens aren’t thinking about any of that at all. Furstenau is simply unhappy with Dr. Henry’s answers. She’s done her own research, read her own studies, and come to the conclusion that she thinks the provincial health officer is wrong.
That’s fine – though, it should be noted, Furstenau is still widely unqualified to make that assessment against a doctor who has spent more than 20 years in the field of public health.
But putting that aside, what should worry BC Greens more is the path they are on – not only out of touch with the sentiment of most of British Columbia voters, but deliberately turning against the tide, and blindly hoping it won’t damage the party’s future.
Rob Shaw has spent more than 13 years covering BC politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for The Orca. He is the co-author of the national best-selling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.