‘Messaging is no longer enough’: B.C. enters most complex phase of pandemic with new orders toughest to enforce

'Messaging is no longer enough': B.C. enters most complex phase of pandemic with new orders toughest to enforce

B.C. is in a new and complex phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, one in which transmission of the virus is primarily in private settings where public health measures are difficult to enforce. In this phase, health officials’ “soft-hands” approach – prioritizing education over enforcement – appears to have little impact.

The province and local governments have so far been focused on public health messaging, rather than fines for breaking the rules. Unfortunately, that messaging is often contradictory and has left people feeling confused, even after hearing from the premier and the provincial health officer. Now, one expert believes that the people who haven’t listened to public health messaging up to this point, never will.

“I think the idea of saturation is helpful here,” said University of Alberta professor and public health sociologist Amy Kaler. “There’s nothing wrong with the message. There’s nothing wrong with letting people know, ‘This is what you can do to reduce your risk,’ and to also be a good citizen and help protect other people. That’s all good stuff, but that has a ceiling on it in terms of the amount of behaviour change that it will produce … Messaging is no longer enough.”

She believes it’s time for European- or Australian-style “circuit breakers”: temporary but strict, fixed-term lockdowns intended to clamp down on virus-spreading opportunities, whether they be at businesses or schools. 

B.C. health officials have found social gatherings at private homes to be a major issue in transmission here, so much so that they’ve ordered people not to have any visitors from outside their households in the Vancouver Coastal Health and Fraser Health authorities.

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“It really is about looking at your household and the connections that you have and reducing those social connections where we have larger groups of people,” said provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry on Nov. 7, urging people to keep to their immediate family only. Her announcement prompted some confusion, and she later had to elaborate and clarify certain details, like allowances for those who live alone.

On Wednesday, the premier didn’t help matters when he referenced months-old advice rather than the latest health orders.

“We need to reduce the interactions we have with people that we don’t know and we need to make sure we keep our bubble tight,” said John Horgan, even though Henry had emphasized that friends and family and other close contacts, rather than strangers, are the primary sources of transmission right now.

That also makes it a challenging situation for bylaw officers and police responding to reports of public health order infractions. In the City of Vancouver, police have issued just two COVID-19-related tickets since August, preferring an educational approach. Despite this, so far this month, the city has received 212 reports of gatherings of more than 50 people or house parties.

“The city asks residents and businesses to report all complaints and concerns via VanConnect or by calling 3-1-1,” said a city spokesperson in an email.

Having a conversation with those who don’t know the rules or are outright ignoring them should have a limit, according to a Surrey city councillor who believes it’s time for a crackdown to send a message — especially for those who think they can hide a big gathering at their home, behind closed doors.

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“I think there’s an opportunity to do more enhanced enforcement and I’m a firm believer that it’s only going to take maybe a few examples of dropping some heavy fines for people to wake up and start getting realistic about what’s going on here,” said Jack Hundial.

A former RCMP officer, Hundial believes messaging and outreach should continue, particularly to the South Asian community, which Henry has said is overrepresented in infections. At the same time, he says, it’s time for people to point the finger at rule-breakers so that police know where to clamp down on potential superspreader events.

“This isn’t about snitching on your neighbours,” Hundial said. “This is about community health and it has been about community health from the beginning.”

Horgan insists a soft-hands approach is best and is keen to try and reach those he believes are simply unaware of the latest recommendations and public health orders.

“We’re accelerating our communications; we need to find different ways to talk to different demographics,” said the premier. “We need to find, always, strategies to embrace and engage with those people who are not hearing this message. We’re always looking at strategies.”

Kaler says it’s too late for that, and it’s time to move on.

“It’s just delaying the inevitable,” she said. “I’m not sure there’s any point in the ‘hearts and minds,’ ‘let’s be reasonable’ approach with (those who ignore or brush aside the pandemic). I think what it is needed is reducing their opportunities to infect other people or to harm other people and unfortunately that means closing restaurants, closing bars, closing gyms, closing libraries — all things that I really like — (they) need to go away for a few weeks so that hopefully we can buy a better future a year from now.” 

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