Two years after a blistering, week-long heat dome left 619 people dead in British Columbia, a disability rights advocate says the province has made no meaningful progress to protect the most vulnerable during another record-breaking heat wave earlier this month.
More than a year ago, the chief medical officer at B.C.’s Coroners Service made three recommendations, CBC recalls: an alert system to warn people of an upcoming heat wave; identifying and supporting people who are most vulnerable to heat; and building cooler housing over the longer term. “You are never going to live in a society where you eliminate all risk,” Dr. Jatinder Baidwan told media at the time. “But we have to do our utmost to ensure that we absolutely, actively eliminate as much risk as we can.”
After the previous crisis, a review panel convened by the Coroners Service “found that most people who died during the 2021 heat dome were elderly, had a disability, lived in poorer neighbourhoods, or lived alone,” CBC writes. The panel’s recommendations, and the need for public protection, “have again taken on significance this year amid a summer of heat waves, drought-like conditions, and record wildfires in the province that began in the spring and show no signs of abating.”
More than a year later, “we offered three meaty recommendations, and I think we’ve achieved one,” Baidwan told CBC News in mid-August. “It’s the first one: You have to have a system whereby we can actually know that a heat event is upon us so that we can do something about it.”
He said that system, along with night temperatures that were cooler than in 2021, helped limit heat-related deaths across B.C. to 16 in 2022 and three so far this year.
But even so, “the same people are still largely without cooling,” said disabled writer and policy advocate Gabrielle Peters, who CBC says left the review panel when it rejected her own recommendations.
“The response of this government has been insincere,” Peters said. “It’s not a genuine attempt to create good policy.”
She added that disabled, elderly, and vulnerable populations aren’t getting the public health and emergency response information they need to protect themselves during a heatwave. “It doesn’t explain to people that the second the temperature goes up, your heart is working harder to keep your body cool,” she said. Heat “can affect your mood, it could affect you cognitively, it can affect your kidneys.”
Cooling centres are helpful people who work outside or are unhoused, but not so much for disabled and elderly people who are staying indoors, Peters added. She also cited barriers in the province’s program to supply free air conditioners to households in greatest need.
The B.C. government talked to CBC about the steps it’s taking to reach people during the heatwave, and Baidwan said public health experts and policy experts have been meeting daily to review their response. “It’s definitely a huge improvement on the way we were doing business in the past,” he said. “This time around is much more coordinated—and even the public messaging, I think, is getting to people.”