Skip to content

Wrong message, worst time

Rob Shaw: Yes, case numbers are on the rise in younger demographics. But that’s also who has suffered most in the pandemic, and blaming them was astonishing.
If it helps, it’s your own damn fault. Apparently.

B.C.’s new three-week closure of restaurants and gyms was always going to provoke a negative reaction from British Columbians scared and frustrated one-year into the pandemic. But it’s hard to escape the feeling that Premier John Horgan’s contributions to the dialogue on Monday simply made it worse.

The premier opened the presser by tearing a strip off people aged 20 to 39, who he said have not been following the rules and are contributing to the rising COVID-19 case counts.

“I'm asking, I'm appealing to young people to curtail your social activity,” he said.

“The directions will be quite clear from Dr Henry, but my appeal to you is do not blow this for the rest of us. Do not blow this for your parents and your neighbours and others who have been working really, really hard, making significant sacrifices so we can get good outcomes for everybody.”

The message landed with a thud.

First off, Horgan is not necessarily factually wrong. Case counts have been rising rapidly from younger demographics, and Dr. Bonnie Henry has been warning for at least the past two weeks about the worsening number of cases of young patients in hospital and intensive care units fighting COVID-19. On a different day, with a different tone, and different wording, the premier might have landed his critique.

But Horgan chose to deliver the dressing-down at a press conference in which he also simultaneously put many of the 180,000 people employed in the restaurant sector out of work with new restrictions. Those just happen to be mainly younger servers, cooks and bartenders, who suffered the indignity of a one-two punch by a premier that told them they were the problem and then also unemployed, all in the span of a few minutes.

"The cohort from 20 to 39 are … quite frankly, putting the rest of us in a challenging position,” he said.

The comments showed a stunning lack of recognition about something Dr. Henry has said repeatedly over the past year (often with Horgan at her side): The pandemic has disproportionately affected youth. It has robbed them of their high-school graduations, first year of university, post-secondary academic achievements, social lives, first loves, sports, mental health and, in many cases, and especially now, their jobs.

It is the 20 to 39-year-olds who have been hardest hit financially. Often they have low-paying jobs that require them to be physically present - stocking grocery store shelves, waiting tables and staffing check-out counters. They suffer extraordinary verbal abuse by customers upset at wearing masks, and take on the herculean task of trying to enforce Dr. Henry’s orders on social distancing to often ungrateful patrons.

The premier knows this. His finance minister and others have pointed it out repeatedly, as have financial experts that have warned of the growing gap between the haves and have-nots in our province, worsened by the pandemic.

Those who have fared the best during the restrictions are the middle-to-upper-class 40 to 60 year-olds, who often have professional jobs that allow them to work from home, who saved money this year by not taking a family vacation and whose house or condo they own has skyrocketed in value during the pandemic’s real estate rush. Many are cashing in multimillion dollar real estate holdings and buying up mega-homes in the distant suburbs to get more backyard and office space.

In many cases, they’ve actually come out ahead.

Then there’s the other side. The poor, the elderly, the disabled, and yes, the youth, who’ve watched as home ownership and even the cost of a comfortable life continues to get further and further away from meagre government assistance or minimum wage. They are more likely to be alone. And they are undeniably worse off now than before the pandemic.

The 61-year-old premier telling youngsters “don’t blow this for the rest of us” and then mentioning the sacrifices their parents have made is like kicking sand in the faces of young British Columbians. He might as well call them lazy while he’s at it.

There are those who will chalk up Horgan’s comments to some sort of crafty political machinations by his top strategists. But in reality, he probably just misspoke and went off on a tangent that he should have gotten out of his system earlier behind closed doors.

There are few other ways the attack makes any sense - even politically, that demographic of under 40 voters are much more likely to be New Democrats (or Greens) than BC Liberals; why take such a needlessly hard shot at your own base?

Horgan is known to adlib on the fly under the guise of Premier Dad, where he believes he has immunity to crack cringe-worthy jokes. Mostly, he does. But the danger in freelancing your message is that it can go sour at the worst possible moment. Like this.

In the end, Horgan can expect to eat at least a day or two of totally avoidable bad press. He’ll also turn into the supervillain of the news cycle, the big bad premier and his heartless treatment of young workers.

But that will fade relatively quickly. There’s no long-term damage done, politically.

What won’t fade as easily is the lasting effects this pandemic has had on the younger population. As a province, we asked them to step up and keep working during the crisis. We took for granted that they did it in person. We ignored them struggling financially, socially and mentally. And now we are blaming them for spreading the virus and ruining it for everyone else.

Ideally, they’ve earned an apology from the premier for his insult. But by Monday night it was clear the NDP intends to backstop, rather than backpedal, Horgan’s criticism.

The party began deploying younger members of its caucus on social media, like North Vancouver’s Bowinn Ma, to deliver a watered-down version of Horgan’s argument, urging young people to stop partying indoors and take this whole virus thing seriously before it hurts the rest of us.

The message didn’t work when Horgan said it. And Ma couldn’t salvage it either. Maybe that’s because it’s just flat out the wrong thing to say at the wrong time.

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.

[email protected]