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B.C. Human Rights Commissioner calls on Dr. Henry to restore mask mandate

"There will be a day where the mask mandate may be lifted, but that day is not here yet," says Kasari Govender in a letter addressed to the province's top doctor
Dr. Bonnie Henry ended the province's requirement of wearing a mask on March 11, 2022 | Photo: Pollyana Ventura / Brazil / Getty Images

B.C.’s human rights commissioner has written Dr. Bonnie Henry, suggesting it was too soon to lift the province’s mask mandate.

“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 rights to their full extent,” wrote Kasari Govender.

Henry ended the public health order requiring masks on March 11.

Govender is urging the Public Health Officer to ensure that all actions respect the human rights of all people, including those who are more vulnerable to COVID-19, such are Indigenous, racialized people, older people and those with disabilities, including those who are immunocompromised.

“It is understandable that after two years of the global pandemic, many people are tired of wearing masks. But the requirement to wear a mask in indoor public spaces is a comparatively minor infringement on an individual’s autonomy and an inconvenience in exercising one’s rights.

“I also agree that we can never eliminate all risks and that we will need to learn to live with an endemic virus,” but the commissioner argues that the mask mandate is not about eliminating risk, it is about sharing the risk burden across society instead of transferring to the marginalized or medically vulnerable minority.

She adds that though some people dislike wearing masks it is not a compelling argument when weighed against the rights of others, and at this stage of the pandemic we must not turn our backs on our mutual responsibility to keep each other safe.

Govender points out that children under the age of five are not yet eligible for vaccination but will be attending schools without masks.

Today was the first day back to classes in some parts of B.C. after spring break, and since Henry announced the mandate would be ending.

Govender concludes her letter by saying, “there will be a day when the mask mandate may be lifted, but that day is not yet here.”

B.C.’s Office of the Human Rights Commissioner exists to address the root causes of inequality, discrimination and injustice in the province by shifting laws, policies, practices and cultures through education, research, advocacy, inquiry and monitoring. It is not the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal, the organization that receives complaints from people opposed to public health orders, like those requiring face coverings.

On its website the tribunal notes that the Human Rights Code does not protect people who object to mask rules because of their personal beliefs, but does protect those who cannot wear a mask because of a protected characteristic, like disability.

In most cases, it has dismissed mask-related complaints during the pandemic. The tribunal gave notice to the public last year that anyone considering filing a complaint because they were told to wear a face covering in a public place, like a store, would have to prove they have a disability that prevents them from doing so.