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Chinese-Canadians may have done more than any single community to shield Western Canada from the worst excesses of COVID-19
The provincial economy is in shambles and thousands remain out of work, but the people of BC can take collective pride that they stared down the greatest viral threat of the last 100 years and came out triumphant. Of the 8,500 Canadians to be killed by the virus thus far, a mere 171 have come from BC.
But how did a disproportionately elderly province with some of the country’s first COVID-19 cases end up faring so well? It’s a question epidemiologists will no doubt be asking for decades, but we rounded up the most compelling evidence below.
While COVID-19 has sparked a rash of racist incidents against Chinese-Canadians, the ironic truth is that Chinese-Canadians may be the community most singularly responsible for shielding Western Canada from the worst excesses of COVID-19.
By early February, malls and restaurants in the majority Chinese-Canadian community of Richmond had already begun to seem eerily empty. On February 12, when federal public health officials were still assuring Canadians that the risk from COVID-19 was “low,” the B.C. Asian Restaurant Cafe Owners Association was reporting that some of their members had lost up to 80% of their business.
While some Vancouver commentators attributed this to a xenophobic avoidance of Chinese-owned businesses, the truth was that the avoiding was being done by Chinese-Canadians themselves. Richmond had also begun to practice widespread masking while most BCers were still shaking hands.
The result of these early efforts is that, in the very neighbourhoods Vancouver poised to become epicentres of COVID-19 transmission, early physical distancing efforts denied the virus the opportunity to gain a significant beachhead. Earlier this month, UBC infectious diseases specialist Peter Phillips commended the Chinese-Canadian community in arresting the spread of COVID-19, saying they "showed great leadership."
As we now know all too well, COVID-19 is a disease that almost exclusively victimizes the elderly. This is particularly true in Canada, where 81% of COVID-19 fatalities have occurred in a care home — as opposed to only 42% in other OECD countries.
Of all the extraordinary measures Canada has taken to limit the spread of COVID-19, the policies most effective at preventing loss of life have been those that targeted care homes: Barring visitors, isolating known cases, banning staff from working at multiple facilities and testing aggressively.
As The Capital’s Tori Marlan found in an in-depth feature on care home fatalities, BC was well ahead of the rest of Canada in enacting those measures. Restrictions on staff at multiple facilities were in place up to two weeks before provinces in central Canada. In addition, while Ontario and Quebec were stingy with their early COVID-19 tests in care homes, BC made the care home sector one of their priorities by testing absolutely anyone who reported feeling out of sorts. This enabled BC to get a jump on isolating early cases.
As the New York Times wrote in a profile of Chief Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry, she "aced the coronavirus test." Quoted in the piece was Toronto-based infection control epidemiologist Colin Furness, who said BC "took decisive action, did it early without hesitation and communicated effectively.”
Initially, it was reasonably assumed (including by us) that BC’s proximity to Asia made it uniquely vulnerable to the novel coronavirus. China’s Wuhan province spawned the virus, of course, and Vancouver International Airport receives more Chinese flights than any other airport in North America and Europe.
Ultimately, however, the deadliest strains of COVID-19 to hit Canada would come from across the Atlantic. In BC, vanishingly few cases were caused by a strain of the virus that had come direct from China. According to genomic analysis by the BC Ministry of Health, most were traced either to Washington State or a strain identified as “European-like and Eastern Canada.”
COVID-19 was likely spreading unchecked in Europe as early as December, according to recent analysis of routine Italian wastewater samples. And as global COVID-19 stats now show quite clearly, Asia has weathered the pandemic admirably, with the likes of Japan and Korea experiencing negligible fatalities from the virus. Ultimately, it was close air links with Europe, such as in Toronto and Montreal, that would prove to be the greatest liabilities.
By now, there remain few corners of the continental United States that haven’t seen people killed by COVID-19. But it was only a few months ago that the novel coronavirus was primarily a Seattle phenomenon.
Washington State recorded the United States’ first COVID-19 death on February 29, and the state would soon become the first jurisdiction in North America to enact now-familiar restrictions on civic life, including school closures, a ban on mass gatherings and the end of handshakes.
Thus, right from the outset, BC was literally within sight of what COVID-19 could do to a society. It’s hard to quantify how much this prompted BCers to treat the pandemic with greater seriousness, but public buy-in has proven to be a not-insignificant factor in determining which communities can best shield themselves from the pandemic.