The pandemic hits East Van: it didn’t have to be this way

So far during the COVID-19 pandemic, I’m one of the relatively fortunate ones. My family lives in an affordable and well-run housing co-op with an amazing view of the mountains from our roof deck. My office is just a few blocks from home. I have plenty of books to read and quiet streets to walk for my daily exercise. Once a week I put on a mask (purchased online from a local steam-punk shop) and head out to buy groceries.

But our view these days has more ominous aspects. Contrary to the popular mass media trope, COVID-19 does not affect everyone equally.

Looking to the west, the gleaming corporate offices and condo towers loom over one of the poorest urban neighbourhoods in Canada.

Vancouver’s Downtown East Side neighbourhood has a very high proportion of people in deep poverty. Hundreds or even thousands are homeless, with no easy way to wash their hands with clean water and soap, or to practice physical distancing. Many residents of the crowded, run-down buildings are elders, or people with compromised immune systems, or are suddenly unable to access their street drugs. Survival sex workers are among the many categories of people in this area without access to federal and provincial emergency income supports.

Just a dozen blocks from my housing co-op, hundreds live at the tent city in Oppenheimer Park on East Cordova – less than a hundred meters from an outbreak of COVID-19 which has infected dozens of workers at the United Poultry processing plant. Facing low wages and poor conditions, these are the essential workers who keep the rest of us fed. Many are from immigrant families, trying to build a better life here in Vancouver.

Looking in another direction, we see Grouse Mountain and North Vancouver, where virus outbreaks in early March killed many nursing home residents and infected dozens of caregivers. The same pattern has been seen in other provinces, driving home the point that poor people face far greater health risks during old age than others. Almost everywhere across Canada, nursing home employees are suddenly recognized as essential, after being treated badly for years, especially those who work in private-profit facilities.

To the southeast from Vancouver, one of the first penitentiaries going through a COVID-19 outbreak is at Mission. Like many others who live here, members of my own family have done time at Mission or one of the other prisons in the Fraser Valley. As of April 23, 65 inmates and 12 staff at Mission have been infected, and everyone at the facility will be tested.

Fortunately, East Vancouver is also a community with long traditions of labour and social solidarity. People in our housing co-ops and anti-poverty organizations and other groups are engaged in a daily struggle to hold back the virus, helping our neighbours to survive – because they are our friends, our relatives, our co-workers, the people who keep our local shops and services going. We need each other, just as residents in every other working class neighbourhood across Turtle Island need each other in this moment of deepening crisis.

There is even a solidarity caravan going to Mission, to show that people care about prisoners facing desperate circumstances behind bars.

The situation didn’t have to be this desperate in British Columbia, where corporations and a small number of wealthy people have reaped huge benefits while federal and provincial tax cuts slashed government revenues.

The greed of billionaires and the pursuit of higher corporate profits have driven the political agenda for decades, forcing a steady trickle of cutbacks to public education, universal health care, social housing. From time to time, fightback movements have forced a shift back towards funding human needs, but not yet enough to regain lost ground.

And so here we are today, in a panicked race to find enough ventilators, masks, ICU beds, trained medical personnel and everything else needed to help people live through a pandemic. Governments are suddenly trying to address the simultaneous crises of homelessness, poverty, unemployment.

But the resources needed to prepare for this situation have been squandered, for example by military spending approaching a trillion dollars annually on a global scale, including some $25 billion per year in Canada.

This militarism, we have been told repeatedly, was necessary to “defend” ourselves against outside threats, as though Russia or China had any possible interest in going to war against Canada. Meanwhile, the real dangers – environmental crisis, vast economic inequalities, outbreaks of disease – have been almost completely ignored. Why? Because none of these real enemies were seen as the source of potential profits for the corporate sector.

No, things didn’t have to be this way, in east Vancouver or any other part of Canada. We shouldn’t be wondering if our parents will survive another week in a seniors’ home, or if a virus outbreak will spread from the packing plant or the tent city down the street, or if dozens of prisoners will die behind bars. We shouldn’t have to fight every step of the way for better housing and higher wages and proper funding for schools and hospitals. We shouldn’t have to point out the absurdity of spending tens of billions on fighter jets while Indigenous communities across Canada lack clean drinking water.

Maybe after the pandemic, we can achieve real, fundamental change in this country. From the roof deck of my co-op, I can see communities stretching in every direction, where people are demanding such change. It won’t be easy, but this may be the opportunity we need to turn this society around, in the direction of socialism which puts the needs of people and the environment ahead of the drive for private profits.

(The author has lived in east Vancouver for 27 years, most of that time working as the former People’s Voice editor. He has been the Communist candidate in Vancouver Kingsway in recent federal elections.)

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