As British Columbia grapples with a record-breaking heatwave this week, a disability rights advocate says there hasn’t been significant progress to protect the most vulnerable since a building’s heat dome week long left 619 dead in 2021.
“In terms of what’s happening to people, the same people are still without refrigeration,” said Gabrielle Peters, a disabled writer and policy advocate who was originally on a panel convened by the BC Forensic Service last year before to go. when his own recommendations were rejected.
In its June 2022 Report to the Chief Medical Examiner of BCthe panel recommended measures to mitigate the number of deaths in future heat waves, but, Peters said, “the response from this government has not been sincere. It is not a genuine attempt to create good policy.”
The review panel found that the majority of people who died during the 2021 heat dome were elderly, had a disability, lived in poorer neighborhoods or lived alone. Peters fits all but one of those descriptions.
The panel made three recommendations: create an alert system to inform people of a coming heat wave; identify and support those who are most vulnerable to heat; and introduce long-term plans to build cooler homes.
Those recommendations and the need for measures to protect the public have come to the fore again this year amid a summer of heat waves, drought-like conditions and unprecedented wildfires in the province that started in the spring and show no signs. to decrease.
“We offered three strong recommendations, and I think we’ve got one,” said Dr. Jatinder Baidwan, medical director of the BC Coroner’s Service and one of the death review panelists, in an interview with Breaking:. “It’s the first: You have to have a system by which we can know that a heat event is upon us so that we can do something about it.”
In part, he blamed this early warning system for the province’s lack of mass casualties in 2022, when 16 people died of heat-related causes, and three deaths so far this year. The current August heat wave is also less deadly than the one in late June 2021, Baidwan said, because the nights are longer and cooler.
New measures, but information gaps
Since the death review panel report was made public, BC public health and emergency response groups have announced a new coordinated plan emergency alert systemmapped out where people can find cooling centers across the province and created a new program offering 8,000 free air conditioners to low-income residents if your landlord approves.
According to Peters, the right kind of information about how to protect people during heat waves and the steps to do it has not reached people who are disabled, elderly or vulnerable.
“It doesn’t explain to people that the moment the temperature rises, your heart is working harder to keep your body cool,” he said, referring to information shared by public health and emergency response teams. “[Heat] It can affect your mood, it could affect you cognitively, it can affect your kidneys.”
Peters also said that while cooling centers are important for people who work outdoors or are homeless, they are not useful for disabled and elderly people who need to be indoors and at home. The free air-conditioning program is also fraught with barriers, such as requiring another application process and landlord consent, she said.
He added that some public health messages ring false for those who live in low-income buildings and neighborhoods.
“They tell people to check on their neighbors and then what?” Peters said. “If you put all the elderly and disabled people in one building, who controls whom? You ignore the way housing is organized.”
Public health experts meeting daily
In response to a request for comment from Breaking:, the BC Ministry of Emergency Management and Weather Preparedness said the province takes several measures to reach people during heat waves.
“To prepare for and respond to heat advisories, the government, regional health authorities, provincial health services authorities, and other agencies take the measures outlined in the BC Heat Alert and Response System to keep people safe, including conducting community outreach, wellness checks, and working with community navigators and organizations that target high-risk populations,” the ministry said in a statement.
A statement from the Ministry of Housing said a plan is underway to update the BC Building Code to align it with climate change forecasts. One of these potential changes would require all new homes to design at least one living space no higher than 26C.
As some parts of BC hit record temperatures This week, Baidwan said he has been meeting daily with public health experts and lawmakers to monitor and respond to the heat wave since Aug. 10.
“It’s definitely a big improvement on the way we’ve done business in the past,” he said.
“At that meeting, there are all kinds of people from different parts of the government. This time it’s much more coordinated, and I even think the public messages are getting through to the people.”
The way heat-related deaths are classified and reported varies by province, Baidwan said, but he is hopeful change is just around the corner.
“We’re going to get all the death investigation systems in Canada together next year, we’re going to be able to say that we’re all going to code these deaths the same because we’re not even doing that.” right now,” she said.
The challenge, Baidwan said, has been getting clinicians to reach a consensus on how to measure heat-related deaths in patients who have co-morbidities that limit their life expectancy. The objective is that the heat is taken into account in each investigation.
Rethinking how housing is built
Worldwide, Climate change is expected to bring harsher heatwaves each year to parts of the world that are not used to the heat. Recent unpublished research from the BC Center for Disease Control found that poverty poses the greatest risk of death during heat waves.
That’s why, Peters said, it’s important that low-income people with disabilities take their opinions and recommendations seriously, since they’re the ones navigating the system.
Last year, he said he proposed several ideas to the BC Coroners Service panel: provide free air conditioners to lower-income groups through existing health plans; create a summer employment program where health students share information with low-income groups and help them install air conditioners and shades; and consider ways to transport care attendants to those who need them during a heat wave.
These ideas were not included in the final report, but Baidwan said discussing the details of the policy was not the purpose of the review panel.
“You don’t get into the nitty-gritty of what exactly needs to be done at the operational level, or even at the system level,” he said. “What he’s trying to do is create a direction towards a policy that the government can use to make sure that the right kind of response is being given in the future.”
Peters and Baidwan agree on the need to rethink the way cities and houses are built, as a long-term solution to regular heat waves caused by climate change.
“[In] Canada and British Columbia, our building code is really good at making sure we don’t freeze to death in the winter,” Baidwan said. “There hasn’t been the same level of thought put into not cooking to the point that I’m dying at sun”.