A much-shortened version of this response by Bill Sundhu was broadcast by the CBC the day after an interview with Peter Milobar. Here it is in full:
Peter Milobar just can’t seem to put aside his over-the-top partisanship in the midst of a global pandemic and worst economic decline since the Great Depression. The BC-NDP Government has wisely followed the advice of Dr. Bonnie Henry and the health experts. We have the among the best record of jurisdictions in the entire western world in flattening the curve and protecting our population. The Government has provided support to renters, the BC Emergency Workers Benefit and financial support to underpaid long-term care and front line health workers. This crisis has exposed the unfairness and vulnerability of underpaid long-term care home and many frontline workers. It was the BC Liberals who refused to raise the minimum wage for 10 years and privatized long-term care homes. Mr. Milobar’s partisanship comes across as nitpicking amidst enormous challenges and complex changes placed on governments and society in a global and rapid crisis.
Conservatives are often concerned about the cost of a national pharmacare system. What they overlook is how expensive it is not to have one. In the first place, Canadians spend at least 50% more on pharmaceuticals than people living in countries, like Britain, with a single-payer pharmacare system. The British use just as much medicine as Canadians do, but the collective purchasing power of a single-payer system yields much lower drug prices. But there are even more serious costs incurred by our current system. “In 2016, higher drug costs made Canadians three times more likely to skip prescriptions than residents of comparable countries (such as Australia and New Zealand) … Thousands of Canadians end up in hospitals every year as a result of their inability to afford the medicines they need… worse yet, hundreds of Canadians die each year because they cannot afford prescriptions to manage otherwise manageable diseases such as diabetes…”
As the current pandemic has made increasingly obvious, our current system of private pharmaceutical coverage increases suffering, increases deaths, and increases costs to the public health-care system. It’s time for a national pharmacare system, as the NDP has long advocated.
You can get further information on national pharmacare in an article by Nav Persaud and Steve Morgan in the Globe and Mail, COVID-19 has intensified our need for national pharmacare (May 26, 2020, page A11).
That’s the headline of an article in today’s Globe and Mail (May 26, 2020, page A6), detailing how “criminal organizations linked to China, Colombia, Mexico and elsewhere had been using Vancouver-area casinos as ‘laundromats’ for illicit money, exploiting gaps left wide open as different agencies responsible for gambling and regulation waged ‘internecine’ turf wars.”
To put it more plainly: Organized crime carried on illegal activities involving billions of dollars during the years that the BC Liberals were government; and the BC Liberals did nothing about it. It’s taken an NDP government to take steps to restore the rule of law.
The prosperity and stability of the post WW II era failed us in many ways, resulting in gross income inequality and insecurity. Middle class and worker incomes have stagnated while more and more wealth is held in the hands of the few – the top 1%. In turn, billionaires buy influence and dominate political and economic decisions — decisions that favor themselves. Governments have lowered taxes and relaxed industrial regulations, resulting in environmental degradation and eroded public health and services. Greater income equality, exploited by authoritarian demagogues like Trump and Bolsonaro, has increased social fears and divisions, anger and extremism. COVID-19 has accentuated these problems. We are at historic crossroads. Which direction will we go? Read Bill Sundhu’s analysis and incisive suggestions at https://billsundhu.ca/blog/
COVID-19 has reached almost every country in the world. Politicians may be tempted to use extraordinary powers. It is necessary for governments to counter the spread of COVID-19, which is itself a human rights responsibility. Governments must protect rights to health and life.
Human rights were designed for hard and exceptional times and to protect the vulnerable and prevent abuses. They are hard fought rights that arose in the aftermath of the ashes of WWII and crimes that shocked the conscience of humanity.
In my country of Canada, already some politicians have been quick to urge invoking the Emergencies Act. Thus far, the Federal government to it’s credit has resisted the temptation, although the opposition parties had to forstall a hidden provision in a financial relief bill that would have given the Liberals unlimited discretion in spending authority to the end of 2021 and enormous unchecked political advantage – usurping a fundamental role of parliament.
To invoke emergency powers, international human rights law puts the onus on a state to demonstrate:
1. existence of compelling circumstances and state interest; 2. necessity, reasonableness, proportionality, and temporary use; 3. having exhausted less restrictive and alternative measures; 4. non-discrimination; 5. ensuring and protecting core minimum rights; 6. participation of individuals and affected groups in the decision-making process.
Limitations on rights must include being “determined by law” and “solely for the purpose of promoting the general welfare in a democratic society.”1
On March 16, 2020, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights urged all states to “avoid overreach of security measures in their response to the coronavirus outbreak and reminded them that emergency powers should not be used to quash dissent.” Authoritarian leaders such as Victor Orban of Hungary and Duterte of the Phillipines have used the pandemic as a cover to further erode human rights and democracy. Kashmir has been under severe lockdown for months preceding coronavirus and at risk of even more severe measures. Democracies die behind closed doors. History tells us that emergencies have been used as a pretext for power grabs by authoritarians.
Canada’s Quarantine Act and provincial emergency measures, which are less restrictive and intrusive on civil liberties appear to be working and with reasonableness. However, this is accompanied by risk and concerns of domestic violence and abuse for women and children. Marginalized persons, Indigenous persons, racialized persons and minorities are at greatest risk of law enforcement abuses or societal injustice. Media reports substantiate incidents of racial discrimination and targeting of persons of Chinese descent.
The politics of Emergencies can be manipulative and tempting. Canadians have memories of then Canadian PM Pierre Trudeau invoking the War Measures of Act in response to two high-profile kidnappings in Quebec in 1970 by FLQ separatist extremists. The measures were popular with the majority of the public. And, they were excessive, infringing on rights and misused by law enforcement and some politicians. NDP Leader Tommy Douglas opposed the use of Emergency powers and paid a price in loss of popular support. History and historians, however, proved Douglas’ principled stand to be right.
At times of crisis, democracies are in need of courageous leaders; our democracies are stronger and the obligations of human rights upheld. In a letter to Thomas Jefferson in 1816, John Adams wrote, “Power must never be trusted without a check.” Public transparency, media coverage, and honest political debate ensure that any restriction on rights meets legal and human rights standards – for legitimate public health goals.
We have a duty to take care of each other, to protect human rights. Let’s keep the human in human rights, while curtailing the spread of COVID-19.
1. International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Art. 4
Bill Sundhu, an NDP activist and well-known human rights lawyer, was recently interviewed on Radio NL on Canada’s human rights record. You can listen to it at https://www.radionl.com/podcasts/?fbclid=IwAR0W6BH7rCAS1wjxJ-LwqwPbXN6t8Mj6qpv97wQr3U5y-hUmqaZIJuudjcU