Updated: April 12, 2023
Vancouver B.C. – On April 12, 2023, B.C.’s Human Rights Commissioner Kasari Govender released the following statement on the recent announcement that universal mask mandates in healthcare settings would be eliminated.
“As mask restrictions have been lifted in B.C., I have repeatedly expressed concerns about the human rights implications of these policy decisions: that the removal of mask mandates has a disproportionate impact on marginalized people, seniors, and those who are clinically extremely vulnerable. This represents a violation of their rights to equal participation in our communities. Masks minimally impair those who wear them, but the impacts of COVID-19 on vulnerable people are well known and they vary from the mild to the deadly. If there is one space that all vulnerable people should be able to rely on to prioritize their safety, it is in healthcare settings, including long term care facilities.
For three years now, my Office has been engaged in ongoing work providing a human rights perspective on COVID policy decisions, including policy guidance on mask wearing, vaccination status policies, and a public inquiry into experiences of hate during the pandemic. Our work has also included direct advocacy with B.C.’s public health officials about the need to prioritize the human rights of marginalized people, and I continue to call on our public health officials to employ a human rights analysis when making public health decisions. My role is not to make public health decisions; it is to shine a light on how those decisions may disproportionately impact certain marginalized communities. This week’s removal of universal masking directives in healthcare settings does not uphold a human rights centered approach to public health.
As I wrote in my second letter to B.C.’s Public Health Officer in April 2022, “while it is encouraging that the population-level threat of serious outcomes from COVID-19 is reduced, it is not the proportion of people at risk but the rights of the marginalized that are relevant to a human rights analysis.” This remains true today. Marginalized people, including those seniors and medically vulnerable people who are fully vaccinated, continue to die and face significant illness. While I believe that we should be taking public health measures to protect marginalized and vulnerable people in all settings, healthcare settings, of all places, should prioritize the health of medically vulnerable people.
While the social and psychological harms that can come from some public health measures like isolation must absolutely be considered and minimized, masking should be seen as a protection rather than a restriction. As acknowledged by public health guidance, masks continue to play a role in protecting against the spread of COVID-19. All of those present in health care settings – from patients to visitors to staff – are only there to promote the health of patients. In this setting in particular, the minor inconvenience masks cause for some must be balanced against the more profound harms to the rights of marginalized people to participate in society and, in this case, to access healthcare.
I have no doubt that B.C.’s public health officials have sought to serve the public good during an incredibly challenging period. The hate and threats of violence that they have been met with while trying to exercise their duties is unacceptable and appalling. I share in the ongoing call for kindness and collective care, but that must include respect for and action to protect marginalized people. I reiterate my statements to our public health officials from my earlier letters: ‘those who are most vulnerable among us shouldn’t have to depend on the kindness of others to respect their fundamental rights. For this, they should be able to depend on the responsible exercise of governmental power.’”
- See the Commissioner’s previous statements and letters to the Public Health Officer
- See our work on COVID-19
Please contact Charlotte Kingston, Director, Communications, at email@example.com or 1-250-216-4534.
Unfortunately, the Commissioner is not available for follow-up interviews at this time due to personal illness, however BCOHRC will do our best to respond to any follow-up questions you may have or to accommodate any requests for when the Commissioner is well enough to speak further.
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BC’s Office of the Human Rights Commissioner exists to address the root causes of inequality, discrimination and injustice in B.C. by shifting laws, policies, practices and cultures. We do this work through education, research, advocacy, inquiry and monitoring. Learn more at: bchumanrights.ca
About the Commissioner
B.C.’s Human Rights Commissioner, Kasari Govender, started her five-year term on Sept. 3, 2019. Since then, our Office has been working swiftly to build a strong team, to listen deeply to the concerns of British Columbians, to deliver education materials on our rights and responsibilities, to issue policy guidance to protect marginalized communities and to lay a human rights-based foundation for our work. As an independent officer of the Legislature, the Commissioner is uniquely positioned to ensure human rights in B.C. are protected, respected and advanced on a systemic level throughout our society.
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