Advocates worry about spread of COVID-19 in the Downtown Eastside as cheque day brings out crowds

Advocates worry about spread of COVID-19 in the Downtown Eastside as cheque day brings out crowds

Advocates fear a COVID-19 outbreak could devastate the Downtown Eastside community in Vancouver as crowds lined up Wednesday to cash social assistance cheques.

Locals are frustrated that more isn't being done to curb the spread of the virus in a neighbourhood where many are homeless and more vulnerable to illness.

Constance Barnes, executive director of the Four Directions Trading Post, says there's a desperate need for protective medical gear.

"It's up to us to come down here and put ourselves at risk every day to make sure that these people are taken care of."

Ben Nelms/CBC

From the window of her car, she's been handing out packages of gloves and masks that she paid for out of her own pocket.

Today, the last Wednesday of the month, saw long lineups of people in close contact waiting to cash their social assistance cheques.

Residents like Edgar-Allen Rossetti have a bleak outlook on how an outbreak could affect the neighbourhood.

"It's gonna hit down here hard, hard and heavy," he said. "It's gonna wipe out half these people, me included."

Ben Nelms/CBC

Some measures are already in place, such as police surveillance and outdoor hand-washing stations, but many essential services have also shut down, leaving residents desperate.

Ben Nelms/CBC

Wendy Pedersen, an organizer with the SRO Collaborative, which works to improve single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels, suspects there are already cases of COVID-19 in the Downtown Eastside. She has already isolated herself out of concern she may have crossed paths with an infected individual.

"I know that the government is trying to get cleaning supplies to the tenants and get the SROs cleaned," she said. "It can't happen fast enough. It's already starting to spread."

The City of Vancouver has called on the province and federal government for more funding to curb infections.

Provincial health officer Bonnie Henry says plans are in place to house people in the Downtown Eastside should they become ill and need to isolate.

"There is a very specific working group that has developed plans for how we would support and manage issues in the Downtown Eastside."

Meanwhile, Barnes says she hasn't seen evidence of a planned response so far.

"I don't see a plan. I see lineups of people trying to get their welfare cheques," she said. "I see lineups of people, once they get their cheques, trying to get food or whatever. I don't see anybody trying to keep them separated."

Ben Nelms/CBC

Rosetti also worries that people haven't realized the gravity of the situation.

"It hasn't sunk in yet. People are oblivious to what's going on here."

Advocates have started a virus response team to feed and support people as the outbreak widens. It's looking for donations to secure food, as well as masks and gloves for residents.