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Opinion: Time for economic plan to replace Bonnie Henry in B.C. spotlight

Henry’s principal purpose – to make us pay attention to the threat, to get us to protect ourselves, to keep us more kindly than not – has run its course.
Bonnie Henry - december 2021
Provincial health officer Bonnie Henry was for a long stretch leading public sentiment, she is now lagging behind it, writes Kirk LaPointe.

Is it time, for both her and for the greater good, that Dr. Bonnie Henry step aside?

Not resign, just yield the limelight to a different leader for a different purpose. Is she the wrong fit for today and tomorrow?

I approach this subject without malice toward the provincial health officer. Our province is better protected and less restricted by virtue of her decision-making, her tough calls when she could have been easier or harder on restrictions. The balance she has sought has generally, if not universally, delivered on the goals of weathering a storm few expected would so endure.

Even if some of the directives and guidelines have been head-scratchers, over the course of two years British Columbia and its difficult-to-generalize geography and lifestyles have been managed better than most elsewhere. Everywhere in the world, the pandemic has been one long learning experience involving reconsideration of earlier certainties and doubts alike. It was absurd to expect perfection, correct to accommodate flexibility, and a dose of reality for a public figure to on occasion acknowledge that it was time to tack and admit the wind hadn’t been at her back.

But where Henry was for a long stretch leading public sentiment, she is now lagging behind it. It’s long past time to recognize that her consistent mantra – be kind, be calm, be safe – is engrained and has convinced all that it can. Almost no message from her now will sway any skeptics, so her effectiveness as a public resource has run its course. The repetition no longer resonates.

It is a bit similar to the way most Canucks fans believed in Travis Green as a good coach to advance the team to a particular place. Today we can see that Bruce Boudreau brought new energy and a new set of objectives for the next phase.

No need to criticize Green; he just lost the room at some stage. His system seemed samey and lost its effectiveness with its predictability. Just as Henry’s has. You can discern it in the public opinion surveys that suggest her stock is in steady decline. The public has fatigue, and Henry is paying, arguably, an undue price that will only rise.

The wear and tear of two uncertain years would have taken down the most formidable health leader. Just look at the pressure on Dr. Anthony Fauci below the border, who is on borrowed time, it appears. Henry, as a recreational runner, knows she has pushed the pace in a marathon with no finish line. This is an endless run. She is clearly, outspokenly tired, and the wisest thing for her well-being and for the province is to turn to another public face of the fight.

The reason is that the fight has taken on a different phase, one of a constant presence of the coronavirus but of vaccines and anti-viral medicine – the pandemic’s evolution to the endemic. We are bound to still be surprised by the coronavirus, but less so. We are learning to help ourselves more and to be with it. Canadians want the restrictions lifted and to live their lives now with what they perceive are acceptable risks. While there are economic indices that speak of a rejuvenated business climate, there remain stubborn holes in certain sectors amid a wider-ranging reconsideration of white-collar work arrangements. This is not something a provincial health officer can or should address, but as long as she is on centre stage several days a week, there is no room for the necessary focus on rebuilding.

To repeat: she need not resign, just recuse herself and permit the government itself to more publicly lead the daily grind of regeneration and evolution of the economy. There needs to be her economic equivalent.

The twin challenges of sectoral revival and next-phase growth need to be put in the limelight and the governments of the day put to the test. As long as the focus is on medical messaging, governments will evade thorough accountability for their measures to restore the economy.

As long as Henry is the face of the recovery, disbursing daily data and consuming the airspace, that won’t happen in B.C. Which, of course, might be exactly what the B.C. NDP government wishes – for Henry to be convenient cover. It is time for the premier – or if his health has not recovered sufficiently from his battle with cancer, his senior economic ministers – to talk pretty much daily about how the province will restore what remains wounded by the circumstances of the coronavirus. They need to be redoubling their efforts with industry and labour to determine how to revive certain sectors and to be renewing our confidence in them and in the province’s economy.

What we are finding is that it is far easier to shut down an economy than to restart it, so we need a different form of leadership to emerge as the prime daily driver.

Henry’s principal purpose – to make us pay attention to the threat, to get us to protect ourselves, to keep us more kindly than not – has run its course.

Henry is pointing toward Family Day on February 21 as the start of another possible stage of reducing restrictions. That feels like an appropriate time to yield the job of daily communicating to others. There would be no disgrace in doing so, only the dignity of stepping aside before the public trust further diminishes. She hasn’t been perfect – no one has been – but she doesn’t deserve anything less than a gracious move to the side of the stage. She can dispense the public health advice more sporadically, so it will have more impact, and she can retain our broad gratitude in doing so. 

Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of BIV and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.