Two-Tier Response to COVID-19

Against the Current, No. 206, May/June 2020

Ivan Drury

THERE ARE TWO stories of Canada’s re­sponse to the novel coronavirus. One story, spoken in daily briefings by politicians, is bailouts and the warm embrace of state support. This is the story of $5.8 billion in federal monies for beleaguered oil and gas extraction corporations, and $500 million for property and homeowners in mortgage forgiveness.

The other is Iris’s story.

On March 22nd, three weeks into Canada’s immersion into the COVID-19 pandemic, I got a phone call from a young woman named Iris. She had gotten my phone number from a pamphlet about COVID-19 that she found on the street and she was calling for advice.

Holding in tears, Iris said she had no­where to go. Her boyfriend had just been arrested so she had found herself suddenly alone on the street, with no money or income, and nowhere to stay. All the shelters, she said, were full or not accepting new residents because the operators were trying to improvise ways to stop the coronavirus from being introduced into their buildings.

She was calling for advice. “There is an empty apartment across the hall from my friend’s place,” she said. “Do you think it would be okay for me to break in and stay there?” Iris said her plan was to nail the door shut behind her, keep the lights off, and keep quiet to not be discovered.

Canada’s response to COVID-19 is a poor young woman terrified, breaking into vacant apartments and huddling in the dark, hiding from police, and hopefully from the coronavirus.

Iris will not get a penny from the $50 billion that Canada has pledged to banks to secure potential mortgage payment losses, and not a dime from the $15 billion Alberta oil and gas executives are demanding from Ottawa. She is not a property owner so does not qualify for mortgage relief, and doesn’t even pay rent so can’t apply for $300 a month from the British Columbia (BC) provincial  government on behalf of her landlord.

She hasn’t logged 600 hours of licit wage labor in the past 52 weeks, so cannot receive either Employment Insurance (with a sped-up wait time) or Canada Emergency Response Benefit of $2000 a month because she has not had a job to lose. She’s not even on welfare, so she can’t get the BC government’s $300 pandemic bonus that gives people with disabilities and on regular assistance about half the amount of money of those workers who were laid off because of COVID shutdowns.

The State and “Civil Society”

While different, the two stories of Canada’s response to the coronavirus are not contradictory. The coronavirus crisis, like any crisis that shakes the confidence of the middle class and relatively privileged, white working class in the authority of the bourgeois state, adjusts and redefines that civil society.

In his Prison Notebooks, written while incarcerated under Mussolini’s fascist government, Italian communist leader Antonio Gramsci wrote that bourgeois power in western liberal democracies is made durable by hegemonic blocs formed at their core.

Alliances between the capitalist class and other relatively privileged sectors create close ties between what Gramsci calls the “state” and “civil society,” with the level of independence of civil society from the state depending on historical conditions.

Canada’s state response to the COVID-19 crisis has tightened the relationship between the state and civil society, into an indistinguishable capitalist-health bloc. In prime minster Justin Trudeau’s daily addresses, public health workers appear as a “front line” in the “battle” against the virus while his bailout packages flow to consumer markets, the oil and gas industry, and mortgage banks.

Media coverage has adopted a wartime self-censorship, turning airwaves into uninterrupted channels for government talking points, and members of civil society hang out their windows at 7PM every day to bang pots and pans and cheer their troops and demand police powers to fine and arrest those who disobey government orders.

In the coronavirus pandemic, Gramsci’s state and civil society become a reflexive whole with a pulsing and circulating ideology and capital like a heart and arterial system in the total body of the nation state of Canada.

COVID-19 is the obvious and stated danger against which this capitalist-health bloc is organizing. But the viral danger is especially organized against certain groups of people who have been excluded from belonging in civil society, defined along lines set by racism, colonialism, and capitalist class war.

In the United States this exclusion is most obvious in the racial disparities in the numbers of COVID-19 deaths. The New York Times reports that 70% of those who have died of coronavirus in Louisiana are Black while they are only 32% of the population. In Canada Indigenous people, long targeted for destruction by settler colonialism, live in overcrowded housing on reserves and packed into congregate homeless shelters in cities. They have epidemic levels of tuberculosis and other lung and immune system conditions.

The virus at this writing has not hit Indigenous communities but if it does, Canada’s colonial apparatus will cause a widespread and devastating spread.

The capitalist-health bloc of state and civil society are arranging a two-tier response to COVID-19. The Canadian state is distributing some degree of bailout support to the civil society public while it treats others as a social and health threat to that public. During the pandemic, Iris and tens of thousands of other poor, Indigenous and racialized migrant people have had their meager food and health services stripped away.

Losing Services

In response to a March 18th directive from the BC Provincial health authority to shut down all gatherings over the size of 50, the Salvation Army Caring Place in Maple Ridge shut down its meal service and froze its homeless shelter intake, the only daily free food serving in town and the only regular place for unhoused people to sleep indoors.

Maple Ridge is typical of many smaller BC cities. Its population of about 80,000 was built around long-struggling and recently failing resource industries. Large unhoused and low-income populations have emerged in the last decade. Unlike the urban centers Vancouver and Victoria, these tertiary cities do not have old institutions of regulatory care for the poor built into their cores.

During the third week of Canada’s pandemic crisis, volunteer researchers with Red Braid Alliance for Decolonial Socialism did a telephone survey of shelter and soup kitchens throughout the province. We surveyed 54 out of 61 homeless shelters listed BC-wide. Out of 2335 available shelter beds, 761, about one-third, had been frozen to new admissions or closed completely.

Researchers also spoke with staff at 32 soup kitchens that serve weekly or daily free meals outside Vancouver. More than one-third of them had closed completely, making a recorded loss of 630 meals a week.

The number of meals lost is likely double that or worse because about half of the meal programs in a government registry were unreachable; many of those are likely closed. In Vancouver the numbers were less marked; only seven out of 27 soup kitchens surveyed had shut down.

Every soup kitchen, along with every restaurant in BC, had been forced by government order to close their regular indoor food services. But unlike restaurants, soup kitchens did not move their menus to gig-worker delivery service.

The great majority of soup kitchens have moved from hot meals to exclusively cold, bagged lunches, with sandwiches and cookies replacing more nutritious hot meals. Out of 40 soup kitchens still operating province-wide (half of them in Vancouver), only seven reported that they were still serving hot meals.

The loss of food and shelter resources is devastating for a community already vulnerable to death by COVID-19 because of the long-term effects of poverty. Indigenous people who make up about half of those on the streets.

On March 18th Dwayne Martin, a leader in Anita Place tent city, a camp that housed more than a hundred beside the highway in Maple Ridge between 2017 and 2019, rode his bicycle up to the doors of the Salvation Army only to find the sign on the door announcing the closure.

“This is going to be bad,” Martin said. “I heard a doctor on the radio saying we are supposed to eat well and get lots of rest. Well, this was the only hot meal that most people out here get. And last night they told me they aren’t accepting anybody who’s not already in the shelter. We can’t sleep or eat.”

A week later another man sleeping on the streets of Maple Ridge said, “I’m down to stealing food.” He said that COVID-19 regulations make shoplifting more difficult because grocery stores restrict the number of people allowed inside at a time. He opened a cloth shopping bag to show me what he had been able to steal that day; it was all candy and chocolate bars.

Besides services dedicated to low-income communities, the poor have also suddenly lost the other spaces they can ordinarily use for sanctuary from the streets and for access to running water. On March 16th, the City of Vancouver joined other cities across Canada and the United States in shuttering “non-essential services” including community centers and libraries.

Spaces in private businesses where low-income people can access washrooms have simultaneously dried up. Cafes like Tim Hortons and Starbucks have closed their branches to public access under pressure from government order and moved to pickup-only, resulting in all their bathrooms being closed down.

Vancouver City government has opened some handwashing stations on sidewalks in the Downtown Eastside, where 60-80% of the population is low-income. But most communities and services have put nothing at all in the place of these frozen shelter beds and disappeared public spaces and services.

Case-by-case Pandemic Treatment

Where governments have opened or maintained low-income community resources, they are either dangerously congregate spaces where the coronavirus is more likely to spread, or institutional, spaces set up to treat people already exhibiting symptoms of the virus.

In Victoria, BC’s capital city, the city government declared three parks as temporary campsites for unhoused people. These COVID camps include trailers outfitted with bathrooms and running water and promise residents three individually packaged meals a day. These COVID camps are overflowing.

The fields themselves are orderly, gridded like soccer pitches with spaces marked for people to set up their tents. Security staff surveil residents and regulate donations in mass, outdoor shelters.

Tents crowd the bushes around the fields where an overflow of unhoused people seek a space where they won’t be harassed by security guards and bylaw and police officers.

Community activist Kym Hines says he believes Victoria has set up the COVID camps in order to break up the unregulated, organic camp of more than 100 tents that line the sidewalk on Pandora Street, close to downtown. Services on Pandora, including the drop-in and food serving Our Place, have been closed down and the city has refused community calls to set up bathroom and washing facilities for people camped along the street.

Hines said, “It feels like the city is cutting off services to people who won’t leave their spots and go to the government camps in one of three parks.”

In an OpEd published April 3rd, public health professors Bernie Pauly and Marilou Gagnon critique Victoria’s Covid camps.

They argue:  “Proven prevention approaches include rapidly housing people in hotels and housing rather than creating physically distant indoor shelters, setting up open-air shelters, or other designated locations for warehousing homeless people that make physical distancing a charade and self-isolation a myth.”

A statement released on April 14th by New Democratic Party (social democratic NDP) provincial government agrees in word, claiming “we are providing emergency housing options to people experiencing homelessness and COVID-19 symptoms can self-isolate.” But it fails to mention that the meager 900 emergency beds the government has opened province-wide are accessible only by health worker referral, and most are congregate emergency shelters consisting of cots set up in rows in empty gymnasiums.

Pauly and Gagnon, along with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), say such congregate shelters will cause a second, devastating outbreak in poor and incarcerated communities.

On March 26th, the City of Vancouver announced that it will open 200 hotel rooms to people who are homeless and living in single-room-occupancy (SRO) hotels who need spaces to self-isolate. These rooms are also accessible through doctor’s referral.

For those with money, the city and province mandate a pandemic response: everyone must self-isolate at home and practice physical distancing, under penalty of fines and regardless of health status.

The poor, however, only gain access to self-isolation spaces as a form of minimal medical treatment, and these beds are restricted to those who show symptoms. Governments are organizing coronavirus treatment for the poor on a case-by-case basis rather than affording them the pandemic-level access to self-isolation available to people with homes and resources.

Shelters a Hothouse for COVID-19

Unhoused and underhoused people who had shelter or modular housing beds before shelter operators began freezing intakes as response to the virus are stuck between the choice of staying in a dangerous congregate shelter or leaving for the streets without a way back indoors.

Staff at the Union Gospel Mission in Vancouver, which provides 72 shelter beds, say they don’t have any isolation space onsite. But they are “spreading the mats out a bit more than usual.”

In the words of a worker in a small-town shelter, the protocol from the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority is for shelter operators to treat the coronavirus “on an individual basis, not like a pandemic.”

One man staying in the Union Gospel Mission told me on April 11th that nothing has changed in how the space is operated except that he sees staff cleaning more often. He sleeps in a bunk bed in a small room with about 40 people. “If I stretch my arm out from my bed I can touch the guy sleeping next to me,” he said.

Eva Bardonnex, who lives in a modular housing facility that the BC government describes as a “work-camp style trailer,” said she is worried about what will happen when the coronavirus hits the building she lives in with 60 other people. “If one of us gets it, we’re all getting it,” she said. “There is no way to self-isolate in there. And we all eat together. We share bathrooms. Our rooms are tiny and we have no way to cook food.”

A circular released by the health authority on March 20th instructs shelter and low-income housing operators to separate clients with “mild symptoms” like cough, sore throat, fever, sneezing and difficulty breathing “2 meters from others,” and to confine them to “separate room and bathroom if possible.” Staff “should mask and maintain 2 meters distance.”

Without new or additional facilities to thin the crowds of people packed into congregate shelters, these orders are impossible and, like the daily declarations from politicians that they are helping “our most vulnerable,” are doomed to hang forever as empty words.

The rut of long-standing austerity cuts that make service providers tight-fisted about distributing resources to people under their care combines with neoliberal ideology that pathologizes and blames poor people for their poverty.

In Nanaimo, a small island city on Vancouver Island with a large poor and unhoused population, the transit authority decided against providing hand sanitizer on their busses. Regional District general manager of transportation Daniel Pierce said he worried that “transit riders could potentially try to drink… hand sanitizer.”

A prisoner health researcher at Dalhousie University in Halifax said hand sanitizer is considered “contraband” in Canada’s prisons. As well as being forcibly confined to cramped, indoor conditions with poor ventilation, she told CTV news, “they’re lucky to get a bar of soap. It’s terrifying.”

Sweeps Continue — Policing the Crisis

Outside the walls of Canada’s poverty institutions, the public response is increasingly to develop new carceral powers and to increase the policing of the poor.

Federal emergency measures and new COVID-19 fines will stack on top of existing laws and bylaws that city governments and police are using throughout the crisis to continue the harassment, displacement, and criminalization of unhoused and poor people.

Dave Diewert, an organizer who works with unhoused people in Surrey and a member of Red Braid, says that police in Surrey are patrolling all the storefronts and awnings where unhoused people congregate and moving them along.

On March 23rd he was talking with a group sitting in front of a community services building, which was shut down because of the pandemic, when an RCMP officer pulled up to tell them to move.

“I said there was no place to move since the shelters were full and not accepting new ‘guests.’ The cop said it was private property and the landlord wanted them removed; but she had no idea where they should go.”

A similar thing happened the same day in Coquitlam, another Vancouver suburb. Isabel Krupp, another Red Braid organizer, said she was talking with a group of unhoused people who were standing in front of the city’s main homeless shelter when the police showed up.

“Two masked-up, gloved-up cops came to half-heartedly disperse people,” she said. When she asked where they should go, the cops shrugged and said “Everything’s closed.”

On April 6th, an open letter organized by West Coast Prison Justice Society and signed by 169 medical professionals called for the release of prisoners in Canada’s prisons because “the window to act to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in correctional facilities is closing.” In the weeks that followed, outbreaks of coronavirus in Canada’s prisons began.

On April 8th, after an eight-day hunger strike by men detained at the Laval Immigration Holding Centre demanding release for their safety from coronavirus infection, the Canada Border Security Agency confirmed that a guard had tested positive for the virus.

Starting March 17th, Immigration Minister Bill Blair suspended “non-essential” immigration hearings and moved detention reviews to camera hearings, but despite widespread support for the hunger strikers his government has kept people detained under immigration orders on lockdown.

Likewise, the only adjustments made in Canada’s criminal court system has been to make adjustments to protect judges and lawyers. On March 16th, provincial courts in BC rescheduled all “non-urgent” matters to June or beyond. For people incarcerated awaiting trial, it means videoconferences for bail hearings and sentencing.

Closing the court protects judges and lawyers from the virus, but does nothing for incarcerated people, who languish in city cells, remand, and prison. James Bloomfield, with a representative of the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers, said “it’s impossible” to isolate people in institutions that are already overcrowded.

Under the pressure of prison abolitionist movements and the overwhelming danger of the pandemic, prison wardens in some U.S. states like Ohio, parts of California and New York, have ordered the release of some prisoners. Corrections Canada has only isolated judges and lawyers, while prisoners have had their visits restricted, cutting them off from their communities, and been moved into solitary confinement: punishments for their vulnerability.

No Social Isolation for the Socially Isolated!

Since the pandemic hit Canada, social media channels have been flooded with petitions, mobilizations, and calls to action that make similar cases for unhoused and underhoused communities.

The petition from a group of prisoner support organizations in Ontario and an open letter from the Union of BC Indian Chiefs say that to make incarcerated people safe, empty the prisons and reunite incarcerated people with their families and communities.

A petition with more than 10,000 signatures from a coalition of groups serving and made up of unhoused and underhoused people in the Vancouver Downtown East­side, including those languishing in more than 100 tents in Oppenheimer Park, calls to empty the shelters and the streets by opening vacant hotel rooms and apartments. And a demand from the BC Poverty Reduction Coalition calls to close the soup kitchens by immediately increasing welfare and disability incomes.

These calls to extend government relief to the poor refer to a similar hope: that the coronavirus pandemic has finally shaken Canada from the long spell of neoliberalism and brought back the possibility of a revitalized welfare state. But the signs are that deep colonial, race and class inequities encode differential access to the relief packages that have trickled down.

It is beyond the scope of this article to analyze the economic and cultural or national purpose of government coronavirus relief. But I argue that it is not to help people who need help to survive, or to end the attacks on communities targeted by the forces of capitalism and colonialism.

What relief has trickled down to poor communities has been either a side effect of a scattergun consumer bailout or, most often, a containment project that works to protect members of civil society from the percieved public health danger of the poor.

The coronavirus pandemic reveals the underlying inequities and income inequalities that undergird a settler colonial and capitalist society. The government response for groups that are securely part of Canada’s civil society has been a public health model, which has treated the virus as a pandemic and provided resources to stop middle class and privileged working-class people from backsliding into absolute desperation.

The limits of who in practice are excluded from the full benefit of Canada’s public health system is made obvious through this process. Canada’s response has been to treat those already immersed in poverty and despair as part of the contagion.

The struggle, therefore, cannot be content to petition, convince or find pitiful reason for the government and public to open access to more resources. All signs suggest resources accessible to low-income communities are actually shrinking.

Direct Action

The opportunity is elsewhere: in the militant and organized resistance and self-activity of the poor. On April 1st a group of 30 unhoused poor people and supporters broke into a vacant community center in the low-income center of Surrey, the largest Vancouver suburb. Dubbing the building the “Hothouse Squat,” the occupiers announced that they were creating a space for poor people to find sanctuary from the risk of contracting Covid-19.

Most of them moved into the building from the overfull congregate shelters in the surrounding neighborhood, where rumors were spreading that the community’s first cases of coronavirus had been detected.

They also said they were protecting each other from the ongoing dangers of the opioid overdose crisis and the other risks of poverty and life on the street. That same day, the health authority announced that more people had died in Vancouver from opioid overdose in the previous week than at any since 2013.

The claim of the Hothouse Squat, and the #Squat2Survive movement that its participants hoped to spark, is that because the state is failing to provide even the minimal protections for the poor, these communities should be legally entitled to provide care for themselves.

Such actions, the squatters claimed, should be protected under Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and police should not enforce trespass and break and enter laws. The Surrey RCMP, however, did not hesitate, and within four hours had entered and evicted the building occupation.

The COVID-19 crisis poses a fundamental challenge to the economic and cultural logic of settler colonial, capitalist society. Margaret Thatcher’s neoliberal adage that “there is no society” is proven obviously false when coronavirus shows that if one has the virus, all are vulnerable.

The only real solution is to recreate a society where no one is cast out and where all people have what they need to be healthy and safe. But Canada’s response shows that who the state and civil society define as full person, one deserving protection, is not universal. Those outside of the public receive answers drawn from the toolkit of fascism.

The lesson drawn by the Hothouse Squatters was not that resistance is impossible, but that the self-organization and struggle of subaltern communities cannot depend on police following their own laws in good faith. The next squat, they say, will include stronger barricades.

May-June 2020, ATC 206

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