Distinguishing between the have- and have-not provinces is a Canadian tradition as old as Confederation.
The separation was made official more than half a century ago with the introduction of federal equalization payments, to ensure residents of all 10 provinces had the same access to public services like education, health, and social assistance, regardless of per-capita tax revenue.
But the gap between the so-called haves and have-nots has taken an unexpected twist with recent access (or lack thereof) to rapid tests for COVID-19.
Demand for rapid antigen tests (RATs) has spiked across the globe, thanks to the highly contagious Omicron variant, and Alberta, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan all offer the test kits to the general public for free.
Even in Ontario, where Premier Doug Ford could be the poster child for poor pandemic planning, RATs are being handed out in places like libraries and liquor stores, in a desperate scramble to flatten the latest curve.
In British Columbia, however, a vast stockpile of kits delivered by the federal Liberal government is apparently gathering dust in a warehouse somewhere, like the Ark of the Covenant at the end of the first Indiana Jones movie, with no apparent urgency to put them in the hands (and up the noses) of citizens anytime soon.
At last count, B.C. had received nearly 3.4 million RATs, but had distributed only 1.2 million. In comparison, Ontario — which has roughly three times B.C.’s population — has received nearly 32 million from the feds, and handed out 34 million, according to Health Canada.
The easy-to-use tests, which use a shallow nasal swab, are said to be less reliable than the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, whose results are verified in a laboratory. But the former have the advantage of delivering results in a matter of minutes rather than days, not unlike a home pregnancy test.
When Global B.C. reporter Richard Zussman asked Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry during a year-end interview why Canada’s westernmost province isn’t making RATs as available as they are in other jurisdictions, she chuckled, then said: “We will not be doing that here.”
It’s difficult to comprehend why the province isn’t using all the tools at its disposal to manage the latest wave, and an online petition urging B.C.’s NDP government to offer free RATs to every household in the province gathered nearly 15,000 signatures in just eight days.
Henry defended the policy by saying RATs are being distributed according to need.
“This is a strategy that is based on where we best use a scarce resource,” she said. “We are looking at how we can use the rapid test, the lateral-flow at-home tests, to support back-to-school for children and keeping children in school.
“That was the focus of our strategy for a lot of these tests that we were expecting to come at the end of October and November. They’ve now been delayed into January, so we’ve had to rethink how we’re doing that, and what we’ve done has been try to expand access to the spit-and-gargle tests, the PCR tests, and that’s helped a lot.”
On Dec. 21, the province announced it had ordered another large shipment of RATs, with roughly 2.6 million expected to be distributed this month. But the notion that there’s currently easy access to PCR tests is a tough pill to swallow, given that many testing sites were irrationally closed across the province for the holidays, and, in any case, tests are only given to people who have symptoms of the disease. Making sick people line up in the cold for several hours for a diagnosis isn’t ideal, nor is people faking symptoms and clogging the system in order to get tested.
Like a lot of British Columbians, I’d hoped to get a RAT before visiting extended family for Christmas. The calculated decision to join them wasn’t an easy one, given public health authorities’ recommendations to once again stay home this year. But everyone in the family is double-vaxxed and has kept his or her bubble small. My mother also has mid-stage Alzheimer’s, and I simply wasn’t prepared to miss what will likely be her final Christmas while still in possession of her faculties. Omicron wasn’t a gift I wanted to accidentally deliver, and I’ve been dreading a phone call every day since returning home more than a week ago that a loved one has fallen ill due to my visit.
The lack of access to RATs has also created a de facto two-tier health-care system in which those with the means can take one at private clinics or buy kits online. Canadians like to look down on our neighbours to the south for their expensive and dysfunctional health-care system, yet U.S. President Joe Biden has promised to deliver 500 million free RATs to citizens in the coming months. In B.C. — for now, at least — access to RATs is mostly limited to the haves.
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