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LETTER: We are the ‘outsiders,' Squamish

In a Squamish Chief column last week, [“ BC Parks failed us when we needed them most ”] I argued that BC Parks’ system-wide closure was excessive because the outdoor transmission risk for SARS-CoV-2 is quite low.

In a Squamish Chief column last week, [“BC Parks failed us when we needed them most”] I argued that BC Parks’ system-wide closure was excessive because the outdoor transmission risk for SARS-CoV-2 is quite low.

One counterpoint argues that BC Parks’ closures were primarily made to dissuade British Columbians from travelling.

Nested within a discourse of localism, this talking point is often focussed on Vancouverites day-recreating in the Sea to Sky Corridor.

Travel is a separate topic to green space access. But, as some have noted, the topics are still related so it’s worth considering the issue in detail.

 We know of course that travel is part of the problem, as provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has constantly reinforced. The introduction (indoors) of COVID-19 to a Chilcotin First Nation by a newly-released federal inmate provides a clear example of how inter-city mobility can spread disease.

The outbreak at Alert Bay provides another example, even though privacy concerns will prevent us from ever knowing if “patient zero” was a visitor or a returning resident.

When one further considers that COVID-19 in B.C. is contextualized by a history of infectious disease imported by outsiders, it’s easy to be sympathetic to the concerns of remote First Nations like the Haida or the Bella Coola Nuxalk. For these communities, in particular, dissuading non-essential travel protects their most vulnerable populations.

 But this is not a system-wide issue that is indivisibly linked to all provincial parks.

The threat to bounded or archipelagic First Nations is very different from the perceived threat from, say, Vancouverites recreating outside in Sea-to-Sky. In contrast to a place like Haida Gwaii, the idea that a town like Squamish is epidemiologically distinct from the rest of Vancouver is inaccurate and socially-problematic. According to 2018 census data, 25% of Squamish workers commute more than 45 minutes to work. Assuming that many of these workers drive to Vancouver, they are functionally part of the urban core. Compared with the transmission risk that commuting locals pose when they return home to their families at night, the transmission risk of a Vancouverite having a socially-distant barbecue at Murrin Lake Provincial Park is suddenly much less worrisome.

 Which brings us to another truism that epidemiologists often like to emphasize. While it is not in dispute that travel is how diseases initially spread from city to city (indeed, this is self-evident), it is behaviour within the community that determines the outbreak’s scale. This is why epidemiologists are often sceptical of border closures if social distancing protocols or quarantines for returning residents are not followed.

One key point can be taken away from all this: if a Squamish resident gets sick and requires a 48-minute transfer to Vancouver’s Lion’s Gate Hospital, it’s probably not the fault of the “outsiders” recreating on public lands. More likely than not, that virus was picked up by a family member indoors. Instead of viewing Sea-to-Sky travellers as a threat then, perhaps we should be more focussed on our own behaviour. Toxic localism aside, maybe we’re a lot closer to our Vancouver friends, family, neighbours and co-workers than we think.

Christopher Elliott