“Do Something”

COVID cases in BC have shown an alarming upswing. There are reports of people refusing to abide by the guidelines about gatherings. There are indications that the nasty Brazilian variant is on the rise. And, as always, hospitals are under tremendous pressure. Add to that a shortage of vaccines and the provincial government felt it had to act.

It announced a “non-essential” travel ban. The details are sketchy but in the first instance the police would be empowered to conduct random checks to ensure that no one left their Health Authority for non-essential purposes. (This was walked back a bit, now police will set up roadblocks to check on motorists.) And BC Ferries is cancelling the reservations of RVs. Constitutional niceties be damned, this time we’re serious.

There is simply no way that this “order” will work. Begin with the fact that Health Authority boundaries are principally administrative and that the average citizen is entirely unaware of where Coastal ends and Fraser begins. Worse, in the Lower Mainland, there are literally thousands of people who commute to work across the Fraser Coastal HA divide. Then there is the question of what is essential travel. (Probably best defined negatively as “travel whose purpose is not primarily recreational – take that you RVers.)

The entire scheme reeks of panic. Not panic at the relentless course of the virus, rather panic at the inability of the government to “do something” to stop that virus. A ban on ill defined non-essential travel between bureaucratic fiefs pretty much defines “half measure.”

There is a happy battalion of lefties who want nothing less than “COVID Zero” and who want that by way of a very strict, Australian style lockdown. Mandatory stay at home orders with only the most limited exemptions for food shopping. These people tend to refer to Dr. Bonnie Henry as a “libertarian” which they don’t mean in a nice way. It is certainly an option.

Counter poised to the “COVID Zero” types are people who don’t think lockdowns, masks and the various other non-pharmaceutical interventions are worthwhile – either because they don’t work or don’t work well enough to justify their significant economic, social and medical cost.

The great difficulty the current provincial government faces is that for any of the potential measures to work there has to be a level of public trust and agreement. It is becoming clear that the Canadian Courts take a dim view of fines and orders which are in direct violation of the Charter of Rights. All the provincial governments know this and it explains why so very few cases have been taken to Court. The last thing a government wants is for a Court to rule that its orders are unconstitutional.

Just as the COVID Zero people point at Australia and New Zealand, the anti-lock down people point at Florida and Texas. The COVID Zero folks point at case rates, the no lockdowners are more interested in deaths and hospitalizations. Both sides seem to agree that vaccination offers the best hope of beating the virus although there is some skepticism about whether “beating the virus” means eradicating it or reducing it to manageable levels.

Where people fall in this argument is largely a matter of their view as to the effectiveness of the state itself. Which is precisely where the travel ban fell apart. The one thing left and right will agree on is that a half hearted, unenforceable, unconstitutional set of restrictions will not work. That these restrictions were proposed at all undermines people’s confidence that the state can be effective. “Do something” is not the basis for policy which will have widespread support.

Right now, the government of British Columbia is faced with a set of unpleasant options. My own sense is that a really hard lockdown for a set period might still be possible; but that window is rapidly closing absent some truly horrible COVID outcomes. Which means that the default option of piecemeal activity, masking, closed restaurants and the hope that the vaccine and warmer weather work their magic is our most likely outcome.

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