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Do No Harm: Protecting Vulnerable Lives


A young person with a short fair hair and a black respirator mask holds a green sign reading, "Vulnerable lives are still worth protecting"

British Columbians are rallying for safer public health measures


BC Disability

September 6th, 2023


On Monday, August 28th, British Columbians gathered outside the MLA office of Health Minister Adrian Dix to demand the restoration of universal masking in healthcare settings, alongside other key safety measures.


Event organizers, DoNoHarm BC, are a non-partisan action group advocating for a safer British Columbia. Along with Dr. Karina Zeidler, a family physician and co-founder of the independent public health group Protect Our Province BC. they spoke to us about the event and their cause.


Why did you organize this rally?


DoNoHarm BC: Our rally was an extension of #Postcards4PublicHealth, a campaign encouraging British Columbians to write to policy makers about how they’ve been impacted by a lack of Covid safety and healthcare access.


Over the past month, the public has been flooding the Ministry of Health, MLA offices and more with thousands of postcards. We wanted to punctuate this by hand-delivering four giant symbolic postcards to Minister Dix’s office sharing our primary demands. The rally also included a reading of personal stories from people across BC, highlighting the suffering so many have experienced - particularly since the loss of universal mask protections in healthcare.



How do you perceive the current level of concern the public has about COVID? Has this changed over the past few years?


DoNoHarm BC: We hesitate to generalize, because “the public” includes so many different people: disabled and non-disabled, immunocompromised and immunocompetent, employers and workers, youth and elders.


Right now there’s less government messaging around the seriousness of Covid, and virtually no public health protections. Understandably, this means some people are giving far less thought to Covid, or assume the threat has passed. Yet for others, the loss of all safety measures means this is the worst point in the pandemic by far.


Surveys have repeatedly shown that 85-91% of vulnerable families and individuals must delay medical care due to lack of Covid safety. One social media survey showed that for 93% of disabled and chronically ill people, lack of masking in essential spaces limits their ability to "work, shop, live".


Our perception is that we’ve witnessed a growing disparity in levels of concern. Back in 2020 the message was that we’re all in this together; the burden of both risk and protection was shared more equally across society. As public health measures have been stripped away, this burden has been transferred onto the shoulders of individuals - and disproportionately, onto the most marginalized and vulnerable amongst us.


We should also note that level of concern isn’t the same thing as level of actual risk. The numbers don’t lie - right now nearly 1 in 50 British Columbians has Covid-19, hospitalizations are 7 times higher and deaths are 4 times higher than the lowest point of the pandemic to date.



At this point how is BC doing in dealing with COVID?


Dr. Karina Zeidler: It depends what metric you use, but if you boil it down to how well BC is currently protecting people from Covid-19, I’d say, quite badly.


Right now many people don’t know basic information about Covid transmission, like the fact that it’s airborne, or that up to 60% of people transmit it without symptoms. Public health has never held any kind of education campaign on the risks of Long Covid, which are substantial and devastating: recent research found persistent symptoms in 1 in 6 children and adolescents after infection.


The well-established benefits of proper masking and clean indoor air aren’t being utilized. Vaccination rates, especially among young children, are disgraceful. No one even knows any more what it means to be “fully vaccinated” against Covid-19.


There’s little disease surveillance or data transparency around the impact of Covid on the public. However, research from Dr. Tara Moriarty (a well known infectious-disease researcher and co-founder of COVID-19 Resources Canada) shows nearly 90,500 excess deaths in Canada, from pandemic onset until June of this year. This number excludes any deaths from drug poisonings, suicide, mass homicide, and the heat wave.


The BC government needs to be doing far more to protect the people who live here.


What measures are you calling for?


DoNoHarm BC: Our primary demand is to restore universal masking in medical settings to ensure safer, more accessible healthcare. This is currently recommended by the World Health Organization and many doctors, researchers and public health advocates. It is also strongly supported by BC’s independent Human Rights Commissioner.


We also call on BC decision makers to restore or implement other vital public health measures, particularly:

  • clean air in healthcare, schools, workplaces, and other public settings

  • public education about how Covid is airborne, and the risks of Long Covid and repeated infections

  • improved Paxlovid access in line with other provinces like Ontario

  • resuming availability of Covid data and PCR testing

  • a timely, accessible vaccine rollout to get ahead of the next tripledemic this fall



Are there any provinces setting a good example?


DoNoHarm BC: There’s no question BC could look to other provinces on a number of issues. For example, many British Columbians are ineligible for Paxlovid but could easily access it if they lived in Ontario - where it can also be prescribed by a pharmacist. Pharmacist prescribing is also available in Quebec, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Newfoundland and Labrador - BC is a bit of a holdout in that respect.


Other provinces are also leading the way in addressing clean air. In June, New Brunswick unanimously passed a motion to improve air quality; Ontario tabled a private member’s bill for that, and Nova Scotia is set to table similar legislation this fall.


Meanwhile, multiple medical settings in Ontario have just restored mask protections; we should note that they’ve already been restored in many hospitals across the US, both due to outbreaks and as a proactive measure.


These are concrete, actionable steps that could (and should) also be taken here in BC.


Do any personal stories stand out?


DoNoHarm BC: There are too many to name. We’ve heard from British Columbians infected with Covid in medical settings, as well as people with upcoming surgeries and ongoing care who understandably fear they’ll be next. One person needs weekly cancer treatments at a clinic where nobody is masking; they told us, “I shouldn’t have to risk my life to stay alive”.


There have been so many lives utterly changed by Long Covid. Young people wrote to tell us that they’re now unable to work or make ends meet - that they’ve lost so much capacity, they don’t even recognize themselves.


It’s overwhelming to hear just how many people continue to be impacted by the pandemic - and by lack of safety measures from institutions that have a duty of care. Every single story is important, and they’re all going to stay with us.


Two oversized postcards affixed to the window of Adrian Dix's MLA office. In colourful hand-lettered scripts, One reads, "Minister Dix: You've known about Long Covid since 2020. Why the Silence? DoNoHarm BC." The other reads, "Minister Dix: We need clean air! Stop spreading airborne illnesses! DoNoHarm BC." In place of postage stamps are headshots of Health Minister Adrian Dix, and of Doctor Bonnie Henry holding up a mask.

Anything else to add?


Dr. Karina Zeidler: I’d like to emphasize that people and organizations don’t need to wait for the government to step in, to protect themselves using tools that we know work: masking, regular testing with rapid tests, ventilation and air purification, and staying home when sick.


DoNoHarm BC: If people want to learn more and take action, we encourage them to join us at https://linktree.com/donoharmbc and @DoNoHarmBC across socials. Our #Postcards4PublicHealth campaign is ongoing - and sending mail to the government is free!


Learn more about DoNoHarm BC and Protect Our Province BC

 

Spencer van Vloten is the editor of BC Disability. To get in touch, send an email to spencer@bcdisability.com!

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