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They Said the Virus Does Not Discriminate. They Were Wrong

VIRAL SURPRISE: One of many ways the pandemic made us rethink our assumptions. A Tyee series.

Moira Wyton 1 Jan

Moira Wyton is The Tyee’s health reporter. Follow her @moirawyton or reach her here. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

[Editor’s note: As we look back on a year of living with COVID-19 in our midst, Tyee writers each day share ways in which the coronavirus defied their expectations about science, politics and human nature.]

The pandemic caused many to yearn for a return to “normal.” But a lot of British Columbians already know a return to normal isn’t what we need.

In my reporting for The Tyee these last nine months, people marginalized by drug policy, racism, ableism and ageism in B.C. have been clear that normal was what was killing them.

People who use drugs have been living in a public health emergency since 2016. They saw deaths due to illicit drug overdoses rise to historical levels as services shuttered and people used alone out of fear of the virus. In a dual health emergency, they lobbied for more services in Vancouver and around the province. Officials took some heed, and rolled out some of the most expansive, albeit so far unrealized, safer supply measures in North America.

And for disabled people and those on income assistance, poverty and isolation are daily realities. Bumps to provincial assistance rates brought benefits up the closest they’ve been to the poverty line in B.C. but hasn’t crossed it yet.

The pandemic brought its own accessibility challenges as restaurants subsumed public space in outdoor patios. And a problem for many disabled and chronically ill people became a reality for many more: can I get to where I need to right now, and will it be safe?

These problems were most visible in long-term care and assisted living facilities, where the vast majority of people who have died of COVID-19 in B.C. have lived.

Those residences had long been understaffed. For-profit care providers in particular had cut pay and benefits for care aides who often worked at multiple facilities.

In a pandemic, that precarity was fatal. And residents already not receiving as many care hours as a decade before were put on lockdown, unable to see their families who are an essential part of their physical and emotional health.

Intersecting with all these facets of public health, the sheer breadth of anti-Indigenous racism in health care came to the forefront, spurring an investigation that condemned health leaders for inaction, and government for its blind eye turned.

As my colleague Andrew MacLeod writes, government can do a lot in a crisis when it treats it like a crisis.

The pandemic has brought small wins for life-saving drug policy, hints at a permanent increase to assistance rates, and public acknowledgement of the problems in our long-term care system, though they pale in comparison to the people and futures lost.

When the pandemic recedes, what will be our new normal? Will it acknowledge that the coronavirus did in fact discriminate, killing the most vulnerable and revealing the human cost of inequality?

Imagining what else could be has never been more important. And I can’t wait to continue reporting on the people who have been leading the way.

Monday: Culture faced the screen test.

Dear Tyee readers: comments are closed until Jan. 4 to give our moderators a much-needed holiday break. Best wishes to you and yours.  [Tyee]

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