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Human Rights Watch slams B.C. government's response to heat wave

Report focuses on how the summer's prolonged extreme high temperatures affected vulnerable British Columbians.
B.C. Premier John Horgan. | B.C. government photo
Human Rights Watch has released a critical report on the BC NDP government’s handling of a record-setting heat wave last June that highlighted how climate change disproportionately affects the disabled and poor.

The heat wave resulted in what is likely the largest mass death event in modern B.C. history.

“Inadequate government support compounded risks for people with disabilities and older people during the recent extreme and foreseeable heat wave that killed hundreds of people in the Canadian province of British Columbia,” stated the long-established non-governmental organization Tuesday.

Compounding the problem, the provincial government did not have a heat action plan, said the organization. And a “lack of access to cooling and targeted support for at-risk populations contributed to unnecessary suffering and possibly deaths,” added the group.

“In the absence of an effective and timely provincial response, regional health authorities, municipalities, First Nations, and individual British Columbians were left to cope with the record-breaking heat,” concluded Human Rights Watch.

The 11-page report focuses on how the heat wave affected vulnerable British Columbians. The organization says it interviewed 31 residents to draw upon its conclusions. Those socially isolated, in poverty and/or living in subsidized housing were particularly impacted, especially if they were seniors.

“Most of those interviewed said that their economic situation exacerbated the impact of the heat dome, with many living in subsidized housing or low-income areas in small units with bad airflow and poor ventilation. One person was unhoused,” stated the report. “Lower income areas often have less green space and tree cover. All but three people with disabilities interviewed relied on government assistance for disability as their only source of income, with one woman working part-time in sex work to pay for her medication.”

The heat wave, the organization determined, was a logistical disaster from the outset.

“Local municipal governments and First Nations operated public cooling centers, but those interviewed said that going to another location to cool down was not a viable option, as it would require them to face extreme outdoor temperatures and they had no practical transportation options. Some said cooling centers could expose them to COVID-19 or environmental irritants that could trigger adverse symptoms,” stated the report.

Furthermore, “BC Emergency Health Services did not activate their emergency operations center to coordinate their response until after the heat dome began to subside. One person said that her 88-year-old aunt who used a wheelchair died on June 28 as a result of the heat dome and had been unable to get through to 911.”

The report noted the BC Coroners Service identified 569 heat-related deaths from June 20 to July 29, 445 of which occurred during the so-called “heat dome” of June 25-28, when temperatures in the Lower Mainland reached into the mid-30s.

Another problem identified by Human Rights Watch is a lack of data from the province to allow an understanding of what exactly happened.

“Of those who died, 79 percent were 65 years of age or older.” However, “the provincial government told Human Rights Watch that it did not currently have data on how many of those who died had a disability. The government also does not have data on other heat impacts, such as hospital admissions and social impacts.”

Because it wasn’t just deaths that should be considered, notes the report, citing Dr. Melissa Lem of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment.

“For every person who died from the heat dome, ten or more may have suffered heat stroke, dehydration or other complications, including permanent, life-altering injuries,” said Lem in a July statement.

Human Rights Watch noted that Premier John Horgan, who conceded days after the mass deaths that government was distracted by COVID-19, had been in a celebratory mood days prior when he lifted pandemic restrictions for the summer.

Provincial government officials told the media that their response “was not sufficient to reach everybody” and that they were not able to keep pace with spiking levels of demand for emergency services, the report stated.

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix was asked Tuesday to respond to the report. Dix said he made his officials available to Human Rights Watch and acknowledged the detrimental effects of the heat dome.

“All the stuff we've taken to address inequality in our province, to address climate change in our province, to address social isolation or province in the last number of years… But with what occurred in our communities, in the heat, they weren't sufficient to deal with. It was a very serious issue,” said Dix.

“We've already gone through the largest hiring of full-time ambulance paramedics in history in B.C. That's how you respond. We’re responding on the capital side in long-term care. We're seeing the addition of more cooling capacity in our long-term care sector, which is long-needed and very significant investments, keeping them safer. And we're going to work with everyone because these issues, in this time of climate change, have to be dealt with.”

Dix, noted the heat dome occurred during COVID-19 restrictions coupled with wildfires in the Interior.

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