B.C. Premier John Horgan remembers the moment it hit him. When he first suspected that a mysterious virus beginning to make news in China might be something he needed to begin worrying about in his own province.
He was attending the beginning of Lunar New Year celebrations in Richmond last January when the only questions members of the local Chinese media had for him were about the coronavirus, as it was mostly known then.
“They were asking me about PPE [personal protective equipment] and how much we had and other questions about masks, and it just seemed so discordant,” Mr. Horgan recalled in an interview this week. “Normally, there would be hundreds of thousands taking part in Lunar New Year celebrations there. And I remember there was a fraction of that number. And everyone was wearing masks.”
When he returned to Victoria, he called Health Minister Adrian Dix to relay his experience. “What the heck is going on?” Soon, they were meeting with the Provincial Health Officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, who told them what she knew about the disease and its possible impact on B.C. and Canada. A couple of days later, the province would record its first known case – a man who had returned from Wuhan, the epicentre of the virus in China.
It would be the beginning of a remarkable and often troubling odyssey that continues to this day.
Mr. Horgan was in a reflective mood this week as he looked back on the 12 months that followed news of that first case in B.C. The initial weeks following the pandemic’s arrival were marked by a frenetic pace, with politicians, bureaucrats, business leaders and public-health officials desperately trying to adapt to an ever-evolving situation. “Truthfully, we were making it up as we went along,” the Premier confided this week. “I’d like to think we got a lot of things right in the early going.”
For the most part, B.C. has received good marks for its response. After the initial lockdown last spring, the province has pretty much been open for business, albeit with COVID-19 protocols. Other jurisdictions in Canada that have tried to replicate B.C.’s plan have suffered setbacks that have necessitated additional lockdown measures.
That is not to suggest everything has been perfect. Mr. Horgan came under fire for calling an election in the fall when the second wave was on its way. The campaign was blamed for a delay in getting financial relief out the door to small businesses. It was blamed as well for impeding action on a report into the horribly depressing situation in long-term care homes.
Mr. Horgan doesn’t agree with either criticism but accepts not everyone will share his view of why an election was necessary a year ahead of schedule. (The Premier has posited it was because his governing agreement with the Greens was failing. Most say that excuse is nonsense.)
Hope that vaccines will soon deliver B.C. (and the world) from its COVID-19 misery has been tempered by the arrival of new, deadlier variants of the disease. This has necessitated the call for people to be even more vigilant, which, in turn, has unleashed a simmering rage among many who feel they have been doing their part to slow the spread of the virus. They are upset the government hasn’t done enough to punish COVID-19 scofflaws or protect them from others bringing the variant into the province from elsewhere.
Mr. Horgan called the wealthy Vancouver couple who have been charged with scamming their way into getting the first dose of the vaccine at an Indigenous community in the Yukon “cretins.” But “cretins” like them have yet to pay a heavy price for their crime. The fines B.C. hands out for non-compliance for COVID-19 rules – $230 for individuals, $2,300 for businesses – seem grossly insufficient to act as a true deterrent.
The Premier talks about “bringing the hammer down” on those who are endangering others with reckless behaviour, but some British Columbians wonder where this mythical hammer is.
“We have stepped up the frequency of the fines, and we are monitoring the situation constantly to see if more enforcement is necessary,” the Premier told me. “I think the question we’re always asking is: how aggressive do we need to be to maintain the outcomes we desire?”
When I asked Mr. Horgan if he believed the pandemic had changed B.C. in some fundamental way, he said yes. He said he thought it had made people more appreciative of one another.
Perhaps, but the longer the pandemic drags on, the greater the risk that much of that goodwill may be lost. “People are angry and tired of all this, I get it,” said Mr. Horgan. “We just need people to hang on for a bit longer. We’ve come too far to let our frustrations get in the way of doing the right thing now.”
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