Handwashing…so basic and yet…

“A lot of services shut down and there are hardly any bathrooms available, and the bathrooms that are available are only during specified hours…If the city was going to respond you think they would put out handwashing stations, if the basic premise of this [emergency] is to fight COVID-19…right?”

trish pal, Indigenous Harm Reduction Team, in Apr 1 Victoria News article

It’s never been clearer: in a crisis, colonial government is the worst responder.

It’s not that government doesn’t get things done. They seem to be remarkably efficient at making people’s lives harder. But we have seen zero creativity, understanding of how to work collaboratively, or the kind of flexible responsive action that is needed in a crisis.

Amidst the hand-wringing about how various levels are government are trying their best to shelter everyone but are “running out of options“, there remains a high need for handwashing stations everywhere people are sheltering and accessing services. These should have been put in place immediately, as everyone needs them (not just people sheltering outside).

The ‘vancouver’ municipal government, hardly a model of decolonial wellness or creative responsiveness, still managed to get it together by March 21 to install 11 handwashing stations and to set up a map showing where handwashing facilities (and bathrooms, showers, and laundry) are located. Here, we have a grand total of 2 government-created handwashing stations: one on Pandora where an estimated 100-150 people are sheltering and hundreds more accessing food services; and one at Topaz Park where, along with two bathrooms (which may or may not be stocked with soap at any given time) 220+ tents have been set up. If commercial options weren’t an option then surely an entire Public Works and Engineering department has the capacity to rapidly consult with colleagues in other cities and come up with solutions.

If truly nobody could figure out how to do it, then government could have worked with the grassroots organizations that figured out very quickly how to make it happen.

And yet…

Photo of DIY handwashing station made of two orange buckets tied together with elastic straps and a rubber foot-pump. Photo by Kim Toombs, AVI. The original station and design was donated to AVI by 1st Arbutus Scouting Group early in the COVID crisis (rock stars), IHRT pilot-tested it on outreach, and subsequently crowdfunded to make and distribute more to locations where people are sheltering outside. Government has not supported or acknowledged this effort and in one park in the CRD a handwashing station was confiscated by bylaw officers.
Photo of government-made outdoor sink at Topaz Park. Discarded towels sit on top of a wood frame beside a sink basin. Photo by trish pal, Indigenous Harm Reduction Team

Amidst the repeated public health messaging about the importance of handwashing frequently and correctly, the basic public health principle seems to have been completely lost on government. Not only is the government not ensuring that everyone has access to something as basic to COVID prevention as handwashing, but they are creating outside basin that are hand-powered, ensuring that these are high-touch surfaces for ready transmission of the virus.

It doesn’t have to be this hard. Government doesn’t have to pretend it has all the answers. They can reach out, ask to work together and collectively share resources, knowledge, and expertise so everyone can benefit. Although government is more harm than help pretty much all the time, at the very least they could respectfully leverage their resources. There’s no profit or power to be gained from that, but it’d sure be more useful for health and well-being. ❤

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