We shouldn’t wait until an emergency to spare a thought for our marginalized communities

Eleventh-hour efforts to reduce vulnerability won’t fix ongoing oppression and inequality

Emergency COVID-19 shelters prove vulnerability is a matter of government choice, not lack of resources. Photo courtesy of the City of Edmonton

By: Madeleine Chan, Staff Writer

When I heard about the new COVID-19 support for Indigenous communities from the BC government I was, frankly, shocked. Legitimate help for Indigenous people during a pandemic was the last thing I expected, considering the colonial history of catastrophic neglect. Of course increased actions around healthcare, transportation, and accomodation are great, but it begs the question: why hadn’t they been taken already? 

Indigenous communities had been struggling under the inequities of colonial rule centuries before the arrival of coronavirus. For example, many of them are vulnerable to food insecurity, and some don’t even have clean drinking water. Meanwhile, groups like the Wet’suwet’en nation are still being invaded by the state with the continued construction of multiple unsanctioned pipelines — at the same time that the government is supposedly recognizing their legal land rights.

Why does there have to be a full-blown global emergency for the government to support marginalized people? The government has the means to carry out this assistance, as is made apparent by their other recent charitable act of giving smartphones to the homeless. While giving people the ability to connect to services, resources, friends, family, and more through these phones is definitely positive, this action feels very much like an afterthought rather than a priority.

In a similar vein, under the Emergency Program Act, and with the help of nonprofits and local municipalities, Vancouver has recently provided hotel rooms and community centre spaces for all of the people who were living in Oppenheimer Park. According to a report by CBC, this was done to “reduce the chance of an outbreak of coronavirus among [Vancouver’s] most vulnerable people.” Knowing that if they don’t “clean up” homeless camps the virus will spread even more throughout the province shouldn’t be the only reason that they want to help. 

It seems like the government is acting on aid because they know that the potential continued spread of COVID-19 through these communities is harmful both physically and economically. But they knew that these communities were vulnerable long before COVID-19, so it seems quite hypocritical for them to only take action now. The very fact that they already called these people are the most vulnerable just highlights how much they think that it’s only an emergency when it’s an emergency for the government — that is to say that an increased total COVID-related death count might be perceived as a crisis of response to the voting population. For the people in need, every day is a crisis.

Instead of mitigating marginalized suffering after the fact, how about total prevention? The government should prioritize things like affordable and accessible housing, food security, and clean water access before the next global disaster. Working on recognizing Indigenous rights to their own land as well as their political autonomy instead of holding them at the mercy of a neglectful federal government would also give them the means to provide their own emergency preparedness structures tailored for the needs of their communities. 

Having strong, pre-existing systems in place to support marginalized people would make it so the government wouldn’t have to come swooping in like superficial superheroes to seem like saviours at the eleventh hour. It would mean that these communities would not have to struggle to simply stay alive as a baseline.

There needs to be support for marginalized communities at all times, not just when it’s expedient for the government. Remind yourself that it is the government’s past and present actions that have caused these inequities, but also that they have always had the power to fix it. Action taken early means that there is less reaction to the problems that could and should have already been solved.