Vancouver’s downtown eastside is facing unique and unprecedented challenges as a result of the COVID-19 global 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 the already vulnerable community

With many cases confirmed in surrounding areas, frontline workers and community residents are worried about the potentially devastating toll the virus may take on the densely packed streets of the downtown eastside. 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 virus, Dr. Patricia Daly has only said that there are no clusters of COVID-19 in the downtown eastside as of yet, but said 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 SRO’s, consist of private rooms with communal bathrooms and other shared 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 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 lynchpins of a neighborhood that has been hit hard by the opioid crisis, which in itself is a further 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 in order 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 faced 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-quarantine 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 a crisis and nearly impossible to come up with clear and consistent guidelines to help navigate 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, which in turns deepens stigma and social divides. Given the social and biomedical reality of the pandemic, those conclusions could have deeply detrimental, and even deadly, results. 

Once clear, factual information is made available, we can meet the crisis head on. 

But we will need more than information to do so. 

For now, we can anticipate that shelter and housing will need to be increased. Supplies, such as soap and hand sanitizer, should be made readily available, and accessible free of charge, and emergency relief funds should ensure that residents have enough money to purchase at least a weeks’ worth of food and other essential goods. 

As our understanding of this pandemic and the communities that it is affecting increase, and as more information becomes available, we will be able to tailor more appropriate, targeted, and effective responses. 

The unique and challenging nature of this crisis demands openness, transparency, access to information, and temporary support – at the bare 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.