B.C. response to summer heat dome put people with disabilities, elderly at risk, Human Rights Watch finds

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'Many disabled people during the heat dome, because of poverty and because of depending on others to survive, were presented with this impossible choice ... damned if you do and damned if you don't,' said Paul Caune, who found himself isolated during the summer's extreme heat. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
'Many disabled people during the heat dome, because of poverty and because of depending on others to survive, were presented with this impossible choice ... damned if you do and damned if you don't,' said Paul Caune, who found himself isolated during the summer's extreme heat. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

A report from Human Rights Watch has found a lack of government support during a period of extreme heat in B.C. this summer left the elderly population and people living with disabilities at risk — and that a lack of a provincial heat response plan and targeted support for at-risk populations contributed to "unnecessary suffering and possibly deaths."

The "heat dome" that blanketed B.C. between June 25 and July 1 shattered temperature records across the province. Temperatures reached above 40 C in many areas with little relief at night, testing the province's medical system.

At the height of the heat, the wait time for an ambulance stretched to 90 minutes in some cases.

The B.C. Coroners Service identified 569 heat-related deaths from June 20 to July 29, 445 of which occurred during the heat dome. Of those who died, 79 per cent were 65 years of age or older. It's not known how many of those who died had a disability.

The overall number of sudden deaths during the heat dome represented a nearly 300 per cent increase from the average number of deaths recorded over the same week every year since 2016.

Rachel LaFortune with Human Rights Watch said the lack of government support led to severe physical and mental duress for many people, with some saying they feared for their life.

"The absence of a broader provincial strategy to respond to the heat was very much felt — people were not prepared for the heat and particularly when it came to providing targeted supports, those supports were not in place," LaFortune said, adding that people felt particularly isolated because they feared the government could not support them if they were in crisis.

"Those who we spoke to spoke about really feeling alone during the heat dome and not having resources that they could turn to for support and assistance."

The report also found that some people are still coping with trauma, anxiety, or depression because of their experiences and the uncertainty of how they will survive future heat waves.

Asked about the report during an unrelated briefing, Health Minister Adrian Dix said the province has since hired paramedics across the province, and that a review of the province's response from the B.C. Coroner and the B.C. Centre for Disease Control will be released.

"We know that health authorities responded in advance of the event with heat warnings. We know our ambulance service responded and was challenged, with not just more calls than they'd ever received before — but dramatically more calls." he said.

"People acted appropriately, but we need to learn the lessons of this."

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

Ahead of the heat dome, local municipal governments and First Nations operated public cooling centres, and people were advised to go there if they began to feel dangerously overheated.

But that wasn't an option for Paul Caune, who has muscular dystrophy and uses a mechanical wheelchair and a ventilator.

"By the second day of the heat dome my feet swelled up almost like balloons, my legs started hurting a lot, as did my lower back. It became unbearable. The hallways in the building were like the proverbial oven," he said.

Caune said that even if he had wanted to go to a cooling centre, he worried that he could have exposed himself to COVID-19, which he is uniquely vulnerable to.

"Many disabled people during the heat dome, because of poverty and because of depending on others to survive, were presented with this impossible choice ... damned if you do and damned if you don't," he said.

Gabrielle Peters, a policy analyst who uses a wheelchair, said the poor air quality and extreme heat in her Vancouver social housing unit led her to feel extremely ill.

"I developed a very bad headache, nausea and at one point I felt confused, tired and realized I was struggling to think clearly ... I wasn't strong enough at that point to transfer so I just ran the cold shower over me while in my wheelchair," she wrote in an email to CBC News, adding that the option of going to a cooling centre was out of the question.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

"For myself, it would mean me going outside and wheeling to a cooling centre — exerting myself at a time when medical advice is don't go outside and don't exert yourself for someone with chronic lung conditions such as mine."

Peters was a co-author of a motion put forward by the Vancouver City Planning Commission and passed by Vancouver city council in July, after the city was accused of a "lack of communication and urgency."

She said the government response showed a "void of leadership" and ignored the reality of people living in poverty, writing that current policy "assumes we have a house with a yard and a car and a credit card. It assumes we are non-disabled."

"I knew at that moment people were dying preventable deaths. I knew people were dead before a single news report said so," she wrote.

LaFortune said that climate change makes future weat haves more likely — and that marginalized voices need to be included in future policy discussions.

"Hopefully it is a wake-up call for government that the voices and experiences of people particularly at risk really need to be at the centre of policies so we can avoid future deaths and further catastrophe."

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