British Columbia’s human rights watchdog wants public health officials to reinstate the provincial mask mandate to protect the most vulnerable from severe COVID-19 outcomes.
The “hasty” end of the mask mandate is placing elderly, disabled, immunocompromised and racialized people, as well as children too young to be vaccinated, at elevated risk, said human rights commissioner Kasari Govender.
“Lifting the mask mandate will do disproportionate harm to those who are already marginalized, forcing many to withdraw from activities of daily life in an effort to protect their health, and reducing the capacity to enjoy their human right to their full extent,” Govender wrote in a March 16 letter to provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry released Monday.
“While many of us have the good fortune to simply move on with life, thousands of British Columbians will be left behind because of their age, disability, or other protected characteristic under B.C.’s Human Rights Code.”
The letter was written just days after Henry lifted the indoor mask mandate on March 11.
Henry cited high vaccine coverage and declining hospitalizations as reasons the mask mandate could be lifted in B.C. She also plans to lift the vaccine passport requirements for restaurants and other public spaces on April 8.
Henry said the government wants to manage the pandemic with the least restrictive means possible, but that masks could be required once again if the situation changes. The last time the provincial mask mandate was lifted, on July 1, 2021, it was reinstated less than eight weeks later as the Delta variant exploded in the province.
While B.C.’s initial Omicron wave has faded, just under 300 patients remain in hospital with the virus, including 48 in critical care. That number has begun to show early signs of rising, and experts warn of a second Omicron wave fuelled by the now-dominant BA2 sub-variant and waning booster shot protection among those most at risk.
Since the mask mandate was lifted, 50 more people have died due to COVID-19, nearly three per day.
Govender said masks are at most a small inconvenience for the public, and provide huge protection for those at high risk of severe illness, long-term health impacts and death due to COVID-19.
That includes seniors and immunocompromised people of all ages, as well as Indigenous, racialized and low-income people who are disproportionately impacted by chronic conditions and employed in high-transmission sectors like manufacturing, retail, service and hospitality.
Govender also noted children five and under attend school and daycare but are too young to be vaccinated right now. Parents of vulnerable school-aged children, particularly those who are high-risk themselves, must choose between keeping their families safe or sending their kids to school, Govender noted.
“As an effective and minimally invasive intervention, the mask mandate is justified long after other more intrusive public health measures have been lifted,” wrote Govender. “That people dislike wearing masks is not a compelling argument when weighed against the rights of others to life, security of the person, and equal participation in social and economic life.”
The Tyee reached out to Henry’s office for comment and was directed to comments Health Minister Adrian Dix made in Victoria today.
Dix said the decision to end the mask mandate was made after careful consideration of the evidence, and that concern for high-risk and vulnerable populations has been at the forefront of the vaccination strategy and public health response.
“It is always a balance between the need for measures in place, and the understanding of the impact they can have on everyone in the community, including those who are uniquely vulnerable,” he said to media at the legislature.
Dix added that while the mandate is over, the province’s advice is still to wear a mask in public indoor spaces and he does that himself.
BC Green Leader Sonia Furstenau also grilled Dix and Premier John Horgan about the concerns raised in the letter during today’s question period.
“In a pandemic, what does [your] government owe to the people — and those who live with them — who are medically vulnerable or immunocompromised?” she asked the premier.
Responding on Horgan’s behalf, Dix reiterated that the move was made with vulnerable people and scientific evidence in mind.
“I very much appreciate the letter from the human rights commissioner,” Dix said. “Obviously, there's some disagreement there between one position and the other, but I can assure her that the focus on the clinically vulnerable will continue to be the principal focus of this government as we continue to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Govender said leaving masking to individual choice puts the burden of the pandemic on those at the greatest risk.
“At this late stage in the pandemic, we must not turn our backs on our mutual responsibility to keep each other safe,” read her letter.
“There will be a day when the mask mandate may be lifted, but that day is not yet here.”