As British Columbia grapples with a heat wave that broke temperature records this week, a disability rights advocate says there has been no meaningful progress to protect the most vulnerable since a week-long heat dome left 619 people dead in 2021.
“In terms of what’s happening for people, the same people are still largely without cooling,” said Gabrielle Peters, a disabled writer and policy advocate who was originally part of a panel convened by the B.C. Coroners Service last year before she left when her own recommendations were rejected.
In its June 2022 report to B.C.’s chief coronerthe panel recommended steps to mitigate the number of deaths in future heat waves, but, Peters said, “the response of this government has been insincere. It’s not a genuine attempt to create good policy.”
The review panel found that most people who died during the 2021 heat dome were elderly, had a disability, lived in poorer neighbourhoods or lived alone. Peters fits all but one of those descriptions.
The panel made three recommendations: creating an alert system to inform people of an oncoming heat wave; identifying and supporting those who are most vulnerable to heat; and introducing long-term plans to build cooler housing.
Those recommendations and the need for measures to protect the public 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.
“We offered three meaty recommendations, and I think we’ve achieved one,” Dr. Jatinder Baidwan, chief medical officer of the B.C. Coroners Service and one of the death review panellists, said in an interview with CBC News. “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 partially credited this early warning system for the lack of mass casualties in the province in 2022 — when 16 people died of heat-related causes — and so far this year, with three deaths. 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 gaps in information
Since the death review panel’s report was made public, B.C. public health and emergency response groups have announced a newly minted, co-ordinated emergency alert systemmade a map of where people can find cooling centres across the province and created a new program that offers 8,000 free air conditioners to low-income residents if their landlord approves.
According to Peters, the right kind of information about how to protect people during heat waves and steps to do so have not reached those who are disabled, elderly or vulnerable.
WATCH | Poverty poses biggest risk during extreme heat in B.C.:
A new report says that a disproportionate number of financially vulnerable people died in British Columbia during the punishing 2021 heat dome event. Many who died had no air conditioning.
“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, referring to information shared by public health and emergency response teams. “[Heat] can affect your mood, it could affect you cognitively, it can affect your kidneys.”
Peters also said that while cooling centres are important for people who work outside or are unhoused, they are not helpful for disabled and elderly people who need to be indoors and at home. The free air-conditioner program is also riddled with barriers, such as requiring another application process and landlord consent, she said.
She added that some public health messaging rings hollow for those who live in low-income buildings and neighbourhoods.
“They tell people to check on their neighbours and then what?” Peters said. “If you gather all the older and disabled people in one building, who’s checking on who? It ignores the way housing is organized.”
Public health experts meeting daily
In response to a request for comment from CBC News, B.C.’s Ministry of Emergency Management and Climate Readiness said the province takes various steps to reach people during heat waves.
“To prepare and respond to heat warnings, government, regional health authorities, provincial health services authorities and other agencies take actions outlined in the B.C. Heat Alert and Response System to keep people safe, including undertaking community outreach, wellness checks and working with community navigators and organizations focusing on high-risk populations,” the ministry said in a statement.
A statement from the Housing Ministry said that a plan to update the B.C. Building Code to bring it in line with climate change forecasts is underway. One of these potential changes would require all new homes to design at least one living space that does not exceed 26 C.
As some parts of B.C. hit record-high temperatures this week, Baidwan said he has been meeting daily with public health experts and policy-makers to monitor and respond to the heat wave since Aug. 10.
“It’s definitely a huge improvement on the way we were doing business in the past,” he said.
“At that meeting, there’s all sorts of people from different parts of government. This time around is much more co-ordinated — and even the public messaging, I think, is getting to people.”
The way heat-related deaths are classified and reported varies by province, Baidwan said, but he is hopeful that change is around the corner.
“We’re going to get all the death investigation systems across Canada hopefully to meeting next year, we’re going to be able to say we’re all going to code these deaths in the same way because we’re not even doing that at the moment,” he said.
The challenge, Baidwan said, has been getting doctors to reach a consensus on how to measure heat-related deaths in patients who have comorbidities that limit their life expectancy. The goal is for heat to be factored into each investigation.
This is why, Peters said, it’s important for disabled people from low-income backgrounds to have their voices and recommendations taken seriously, as they are the ones navigating the system.
Last year, she said she proposed several ideas to the B.C. Coroners Service panel: deliver free air conditioners to the lowest-income groups through existing medical plans; create a summer employment program where health students share information with low-income groups and help them install air conditioners and window coverings; and consider ways to transport care aides to those who need them during a heat wave.
These ideas were not included in the final report, but Baidwan said discussing policy details was not the purpose of the review panel.
“You don’t get into the nitty-gritty of exactly what needs to be done at the operational level, even at the system level,” he said. “What you’re trying to do is create steering towards policy that the government then can use to actually make sure that the right kind of response is happening in the future.”
Peters and Baidwan are aligned in their opinion of a need to rethink the way cities and housing are built, as a long-term solution to regular heat waves brought about by climate change.
“[In] Canada and B.C., our building code is really good at making sure that we do not freeze to death in the winter,” Baidwan said. “There hasn’t been the same level of thought put to not cooking ourselves to the point that we’re dying in the sun.”