Sarah Leamon: Downtown Eastside residents deserve transparency on pandemic's impact in their neighbourhood

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      Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside is facing unique challenges as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

      Marginalization, misinformation, and a lack of resources to prevent and monitor the spread of the potentially deadly illness are just some of the barriers facing an already vulnerable community. 

      With one confirmed case of COVID-19 in the Downtown Eastside already reported, many frontline workers and community residents are worried about the potentially devastating toll that the novel coronavirus may take. They are demanding better access to information in order to deal with the crisis before it gets out of hand. 

      However, government officials have remained frustratingly silent about the exact number of cases in the community and who—exactly—may be affected. 

      Refusing to identify people who have been confirmed positive for the coronavirus, Dr. Patricia Daly has only said that there are no clusters of COVID-19 in the Downtown Eastside as of yet, but noted that people need to be aware of the fact that it is spreading in all communities throughout our province. 

      The messaging is the same across the board: be aware and be vigilant.  

      But taking precautions against the spread of a viral infection is easier said than done when basic standards of living—such as safe, secure housing and adequate food supplies—are hard to come by. 

      Residents of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside often struggle against the odds to secure basic necessities that others may take for granted, including consistent housing and shelter. Where housing is available, it often comes in the form of single-resident occupancy units.

      These residences, also known as SROs, consist of private rooms with communal bathrooms and other common spaces. 

      Shared facilities, and particularly shared bathroom facilities, present a major challenge in the management and prevention of a contagious virus. After all, studies have confirmed that COVID-19 can live on surfaces for a few hours, or even several days, depending on conditions. 

      This means that the virus can spread to a new host, long after an infected person has left the immediate area. 

      But bathrooms aren’t the only thing that residents of the Downtown Eastside share. Residents often share food, utensils, cigarettes, pipes, and other personal items.

      A strong sense of community, togetherness, and shared resources are linchpins of a neighborhood that has been hit hard by the opioid crisis, which in itself is a complicating factor.

      Messaging around overdose prevention has largely focused on harm-reduction techniques, such as never using drugs alone and making use of a buddy system to ensure health and safety. The golden rule “don’t use alone” is encouraged throughout the community at a grassroots level and even appears on official government websites, including Vancouver Coastal Health. 

      The difficulty is that this messaging is now inconsistent with and diametrically opposed to messaging around COVID-19 prevention, which calls for strict social distancing and self-isolating measures. 

      Attempting to alter health and safety guidelines presents a major challenge for those who live and work in the Downtown Eastside—and confusion around what is happening in the community and how many people may already be affected is only making things worse. 

      Without clear information, it is difficult to manage this crisis and nearly impossible to come up with clear and consistent guidelines to help navigate through it.

      So long as members of the public, including those who call the Downtown Eastside home, are kept in the dark about how COVID-19 is affecting their immediate community, people will make assumptions and jump to conclusions.  Given the social and biomedical reality of the pandemic, those conclusions could have deeply detrimental and even deadly results. 

      After all, silence and misinformation create fear, which in turn creates stigmatization. Stigmatization widens disparities and can compromise the health and safety of some of our most vulnerable populations. 

      Residents of the Downtown Eastside are already subject to significant degrees of stigmatization due to wide variety of intersectional issues, including race and class. Deepening this stigma through silence, in the face of a global pandemic, will come at a devastating cost to the community.

      The unique and challenging nature of this crisis demands openness, transparency and access to information—at the very minimum—to all people in all communities. 

      However, the unique and challenging nature of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside calls out for increased sensitivity.

      Now more than ever, we should remember that the true measure of a society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.