We are being tested by smoke, fire, heat and disease

As we emerge from the pandemic, Kamloopsians expect that summer, especially this summer, will be liberating.

image: Globe and Mail

After being cooped up all winter, carefully  cloistering ourselves and observing ceremonial cleansing, we look forward to being outside, basking in the glory of Kamloops’ legendary heat.

But this summer, the heat is oppressive. And like the pandemic, the smoke keeps us indoors. Now all we want to do is seek the refuge of an air conditioned shelter.

It all tests our resiliency and takes its toll on our psyche.

Instead of being rewarded for our good hygiene in fighting the pandemic, we are stuck inside as thick smoke from wildfires that blanket the city.

When you’re choking on smoke and your eyes are watering, it’s bad for your physical health to be outside. And it’s bad for your mental health to be inside.

We imagined that the “new normal” will be adjusting to a world in which most people are vaccinated and COVID-19 is just another bug in the cast of flu characters.

But our new normal will have to include hotter summers, wildfires and smoke. The areas burned will become even greater.

The area burned by wildfires in Canada has doubled since the early 1970s, says Dr. Mike Flannigan, research chair for fire science at Thompson Rivers University.

And it’s only going to get worse, says Flannigan, – it’s just a matter of how much worse. Modest predictive modelling suggests the area burned in Canada will double again by the end of the century; more aggressive modelling predicts an increase by 11 times.

We are getting familiar with the measurement of the smoke hazard –just how bad is it? The hazard is measured by the weight of smoke particles in a certain volume of air; specifically, the weight of PM2.5 particles in micrograms per cubic metre.

What makes the PM2.5 particles so potent is that they can affect every organ in the body, not just the lungs.

Sarah Henderson, scientific director in environmental health services at the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, says that the particles are dangerous long before you can smell and taste the smoke. At levels of only 30 micrograms per cubic metre, adverse reactions begin:

“When it looks really bad, people think it is really bad,” she said. “But it becomes unhealthy long before it looks terrible. The immunological response ends up causing inflammation, and that inflammation is systemic.”

Concerned about the smoke hazard, I recently installed an air sensor, made by Purple Air, in my house. While the weekly average reading has been nine micrograms per cubic metre, which is safe, sometimes it peaks at over 50.

George Bonanno, a clinical psychologist at Columbia University, has studied people’s resiliency in the aftermath of hurricanes, terrorist attacks, life-threatening injuries and epidemics such as the 2003 SARS outbreak.

Bonanno’s research shows three common psychological responses to hardship. Two thirds of people are resilient and maintain relatively stable psychological and physical health. About 25 percent struggle temporarily with psychopathology such as depression or post-traumatic stress disorder and then recover. And 10 percent suffer lasting psychological distress.

We are being tested on a number of fronts. Physical and mental illnesses are not a sign of weakness –they provide an occasion for everyone to rise to the challenge, to draw closer together and support those in need.

BC Housing should value their friends in Kamloops City Council

City councillors support public housing but the recent announcement by the B.C. government took them by surprise. In a press release, BC Housing said that they had purchased the Fortune Motel on Kamloops North Shore.

Fortune Motel, image: Agoda

BC Housing is a crown corporation that finances subsidized housing for low income families.

“What the hell is this?” was a common reaction at City Hall, Councillor Dale Bass told me. The lack of communication represented a “disconnect of our relationship” with the provincial government.

While staff at City hall were apparently aware of the purchase, councillors were not Bass said.

Consultation is needed because Council has plans for the North Shore and BC Housing’s purchases may not fit. Of course, consultation would have to be done in confidentiality since real estate purchases are sensitive.

In a press release, Attorney General and Housing Minister David Eby said that BC Housing and the City of Kamloops will work together to determine a permanent plan for the property. That’s a fine thing to say but just when did BC Housing plan to start working together?

It’s Councillors who take the flak from the public over public housing. Some citizens are “genuinely afraid” of homeless people, Bass said.

Kamloops homeless are often characterized by the actions of “street people” who sometimes appear menacing.

Encounters with mentally ill people can be frightening. A friend of mine was approached by a stranger, apparently in a psychotic state, as she shopped in a thrift store on Tranquille. “You’re going to fucking die, bitch,” he shouted angrily. The verbal assault left her shaken.   

Mental health of homeless people is a problem and it’s exacerbated by their lack of secure shelter. While mentally ill people are more likely to injure themselves than others, that’s little comfort to those are accosted by the unstable mentally ill.

Street people are also blamed for an increase in crime. Yet the perception doesn’t always match reality.

Kamloops RCMP Supt. Syd Lecky told City Council on June 11, 2021, that crime was actually down in some parts of the city compared to last year. Property crime was down in North Kamloops by eight per cent, the same in Valleyview, and up 11 per cent in Westsyde.

But last year was unusual because of the pandemic, Lecky added, and that property crime was up everywhere from 1019.

Homeless people represent a fragile sector of our population.

In a survey done by BC Housing of Merritt’s homeless in 2020, one-quarter reported a brain injury and 70 per cent had two or more health concerns. Seventy-eight per cent suffered from addiction.

In a survey done in Kamloops in June, 2018, one-half of respondents first experienced homelessness as youths. Probably, as in Merritt’s case, many were formerly in foster care.

The profile of homeless people is one of addiction compounded by desperation, mental and physical health. They are often youths thrown out on the streets with few life-skills.

Kamloops doesn’t need a big-stick approach by BC Housing to get affordable housing in Kamloops. Not like that other Interior city, Penticton, where City Council is taking the province to court over a dispute involving BC Housing’s locations.

Kamloopsians sensibly realize that you can’t complain about homeless people on the street while also complaining that they are being housed.

Bubble families emerge from pandemic

Provinces are allowing the expansion of family units to include friends and family. The selection of who’s in and who is out is tricky.

image: Money Crashers

B.C.’s provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, said last week: “I believe that we are at a point where we can increase our social contact, and we can have more people in our close circle of family and friends.”

Singles can pair off with another single or with a couple and socialize exclusively with them.

Families can also pair off with other families. But it has to be done carefully. As soon as you add others to your circle, you add all the people which they are connected to which amplifies the risk.

Before you extend your bubble family, sometimes called a cohort family, you need to check with them to ensure that their degree of virus avoidance matches yours. It would be a mistake to extend your circle to a family just because they’re “cool” as Professor Lucia O’Sullivan found out.

O’Sullivan wasted no time inviting her “best friend family” to join forces after New Brunswick allowed bubbling. The families lived nearby, traveled together, spent Christmas Eve together and have children of a similar age (Globe and Mail, May 2, 2020).”

“Saturday morning,” said O’Sullivan, “I was gardening and I thought, uh oh, I better contact them and see. I felt rushed because I thought everyone’s going to ask them. They’re like the coolest family in town. It’s like asking someone to the prom: Were they already taken?”

It turned out that they were taken. Instead, the “best friend family” had bubbled up into a group of eight: two husbands, two wives and four kids.  O’Sullivan’s parents paired up with her sister. Her best friend family’s parents decided not to break their quarantine. Bubbling can leave you feeling left out.

Bubbling requires commitment, like going steady or being in a monogamous relationship. For instance, the chances of contracting a sexually transmitted disease is extremely low in a monogamous relationship, but increases sharply if one or both partners cheat.

You can’t play the field. Dr. Henry says: “What you can’t do is see two people one night and four different people the next.”

Bubbling reduces the isolation of singles. Daycare and work-time access improve.

An Edmonton couple, both who work and have a two-year old, bubbled with another working couple with two-year old forming a makeshift family of six.  They care for the children on alternate days: While one parent goes for walks, or does arts and crafts with the kids, the other three parents can work a full shift uninterrupted. They rotate a biweekly grocery run, one person shopping for both families. As a courtesy, they text message each other whenever anyone leaves the house for errands, a walk or a drive.

Mental health improves with socialization. Some sense of normalcy returns to these crazy times.

However, what legacy will remain once the pandemic is over. Will you remain close to those in your bubble?  Will those not included feel slighted or shunned?

And how will you feel about the “others’” outside your circle? The stain of disease is deeply engrained in the human psyche. If they didn’t meet your standards of hygiene, can they ever be trusted?