Seniors and homeless both vulnerable populations needing vaccine
I am writing in response to Mr. Kirkpatrick’s letter to the editor of Jan. 14.
As a family physician, I agree that seniors should be among the first to access the vaccine: it is true that advancing age is one of the most significant risk factors that predicts poor outcomes related to COVID-19 infection and that seniors are much more likely to die from it. The long term care scandals of the pandemic lay bare the many ways that our society casts aside and marginalizes our elders and this is not right. The lives of seniors are important and I cannot abide the many comments that I have heard lately to imply that we should not concern ourselves so greatly with COVID-19 because it only kills older people. In this context, I absolutely understand the urgency that seniors feel in wanting to get vaccinated and I understand why they might not trust anyone in healthcare to make sure they are prioritized appropriately.
I would also call upon everyone who reads this to extend a similar understanding to those of our community members who are experiencing homelessness. This is also a population at great risk of death and complications from COVID-19 and it is also a population that is pushed to the margins and frequently ignored. The opioid crisis and the thousands of Canadians dying annually from it show us clearly that the lives of people with addictions are not seen as terribly important by those of us in power. There is great stigma in finding oneself homeless despite the fact that the addictions and mental illness that often accompany homelessness and that render one prone to it are in fact diseases of the brain.
Addiction is frequently misunderstood as a simple result of bad decisions, questionable character or poor moral judgment but it is a medical and psychiatric condition in its own category. It is almost always linked with severe trauma and abuse during formative years. What we see as behaviours of public disorder are actually the culmination of years of trauma and the brain having wired itself in a very particular way to cope with that.
As a result, when I think about prioritizing different groups for vaccinations, it makes sense that both seniors and people experiencing homelessness are at the top of the list and I would urge us not to pit ourselves against each other.
Whenever I see two marginalized groups seemingly in competition for resources or in conflict with each other, it is clear that the powers-that-be are the ones to be held responsible. Beyond our public health officers, that is, and straight to the top of the political and economic elite. Would we find seniors feeling this scared about vaccinations if the government of Canada had put together a fully coherent nation-wide strategy that got us to COVID Zero like New Zealand or Australia? Or perhaps if Vancouver Island had been created as a proper COVID bubble complete with two week quarantine for incoming travellers?
The problem is not that people experiencing homelessness are at the very front of the vaccine line. It is that, as a rule, those in power do not do what is necessary to adequately protect our marginalized populations. Let that be where we direct our criticism and anger.
Dr. Jillian Ratti