Steve Tornes 0:01
Hello listeners. I'm Steve Tornes with Below the Radar, a knowledge democracy podcast. Below the Radar is recorded on the territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. On this episode of Below the Radar, our host Am Johal speaks with Micheal Vonn, CEO of PHS Community Services Society about the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in the Downtown Eastside. I hope you enjoy the discussion!
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Am Johal 0:38
Thank you so much for joining us on Below the Radar again this week. We're really excited to have Micheal Vonn joining us this week. Welcome, Micheal.
Micheal Vonn 0:48
Oh, thank you. Nice to be here.
Am Johal 0:51
Yeah, Micheal, maybe we can begin with you introducing yourself a little bit.
Micheal Vonn 0:56
Sure. So, I am the CEO of PHS Community Services Society. That's been our name for quite some time. But there are still some people who know us best as the Portland Hotel Society. That's what the PHS stands for. Coming up to two years, I have been in that role. Before that I was for 16 years, the Policy Director of the BC Civil Liberties Association. And prior to that was, of course, law school to get to be a lawyer to do that. And prior to that, I was at AIDS Vancouver. So, a long a long history of working in and around issues of equality, rights, and extraordinary circumstances. And terms of how do we how do we adjudicate appropriate rights and proportionate responses to, as I say, extraordinary circumstances. But thinking about this stuff for a long time.
Am Johal 1:49
So, I'll begin with a question. You know, from your vantage point as the Executive Director of a social services and housing organization with a really long progressive history, based in the inner city, from your perspective, in regards to a pandemic, like COVID-19, what worked well, and what didn't, in regards to the pandemic and the various stages that it went through? Clearly, there was governmental responses from the Federal/Provincial/Civic governments, the Health Authority, policing, etc. But I just thought it'd be good to start off with that question, just to get a sense of your high-level perspective.
Micheal Vonn 2:28
Yeah, it's a great question. I feel compelled to be very, very honest, and say, at the beginning, nothing worked. Nothing. You know, everyone was, if you will, caught off guard. I'm not sure what kind of preparedness was going on in the background. But in the initial phases, what you saw was regulatory bodies and governments mandating things that nobody was prepared to do. So, you know, you've got your new mandate, for PPE, for example, but no way to get it except lineup, at Canadian Tire, like the rest of everybody, hoping like hell, that you can put it together in time for when it's all got to come down. So, I mean, it was a, it was a real scramble, everybody was scrambling for everything. And so, you know, at the, at the beginning, we were relying almost entirely on heroic efforts. There was no systems. So, it was individual's heroism, delivering PPE at three o'clock in the morning, so that we could open up the next day, right. I mean, this is the kind of stuff that was going on. So obviously not sustainable. And that was the beginning.
Micheal Vonn 3:36
Mid level, you start seeing the systems kick in. So, the centralization for getting the equipment that you need order to keep the doors open. After all, this is housing and healthcare. We are essential services; the doors have to stay open. So, you do see a lot of hustle on the part of systems to, again, make this feasible. We have to, we have to see our way through this. But what is astonishing to me, Am, in all of that, as we move into systems thinking, how readily it was that the lives of, if you will, the analog poor, were not factored into any of the systems thinking. So, the idea here is we're in COVID. So, everybody just get online, right? We're going to be safe and get online. Well, it's not going to work for a whole bunch of people, including our folks, the people that we serve,, they need the kind of banking services that they can do in person. Every bank in the Downtown Eastside closed except ours. We run a bank called Pigeon Park Savings with VanCity. And but for that, people would have no way to cash their cheques.
Micheal Vonn 4:40
Now speaking of cheques, again, digital version of everything assumes that you're not getting a cheque in the mail from the government in order to pay your rent and buy food. But if you are, the Canada Post decides that they're not going to deliver in the Downtown Eastside during COVID because of safety reasons. So again, we have all of these MacGyvered maneuvers in order to provide these essential services, even into the era in which the systems are really starting to kick in, because those systems, how we're going to get around this, just don't really grasp what it is to not have access to a computer. Just as a as a really simple as a really simple place to start. It was not the big vision. And again, it was through, you know, community innovation that saw that, right. The same kind of community innovation that saw the onboarding of recreational vehicles, RVs, for people who needed to isolate if they were living in a tent city. Again, how you're going to do this thing that we, you know, for many people, it's very clear, your house, your computer, gives you all of the access to all of those Plan B's, but we were on Plan C, D, H, and K, by the time we finished because again, the big picture plans were not really, didn't have the communities that we serve in mind.
Am Johal 6:04
The sort of work arounds that you talk about were certainly the stories that I heard in the initial phases of the project. And as you mentioned, with PPE, the supply chain issues of just like calling and phone, I heard of organizations, phoning in suppliers and using personal contacts to access some of these things, and central distribution points and, and things of that nature. And what was also quite common, it was in the in the media as well, but just the level of stress that placed on to employees and frontline workers, in terms of being able to maintain services that were that were required. I imagine there was challenges of that nature as well, in terms of keeping staffed up during a really complicated time.
Micheal Vonn 6:52
it was super challenging. Just about everybody in our sector, lost a huge proportion of their workers going on COVID leaves of one kind or another, which is not to suggest that those weren't legitimate. But you can imagine when that crisis hits, you couldn't need people more, and you had fewer of them than you could imagine. And so again, it was massively stressful, of course, on the frontline, but also in management, because you got to figure out a way to make it work, you got to figure out a way to make it work, make it safe, serve the communities that we serve. And in some cases, there were you know, really no good choices, just calculated risks, using your best judgment that you can, but everything was a trade off. As it would have to be, again, you know, the good choices were that the situation be different than it wasn't.
Am Johal 7:42
Yeah, and certainly in speaking with, you know, local foundations and within the civic government health authorities, wondering if you can speak to how the sort of coordination of communication between organizations and some of the institutional authorities like the Health Authority, how that functioned and worked. I know that there's a lot of challenges around food delivery and attempting to coordinate different, as stores shut down in places where people shop shut down that there were real limits on what people could get and it took a few months to pull those pieces together. But wondering if you have any thoughts just around the inter-governmental type of work and communication that had to happen from the vantage point from community organizations?
Micheal Vonn 8:29
Yeah, I think it was very frustrating, because everybody wanted to know everything all at once. And the simple truth was that there weren't answers. So eventually, I think the communications piece was very critical at the beginning, but very, very hard to do. I can say, you know, we were frustrated, sometimes with getting communications that we felt were outdated or didn't speak to the issues that we wanted. And at the same time, we were getting criticized for our communications. This is outdated, this is not what we want or need, etc. It was, it was a it was a very big challenge. But the question of, you know, how you get out information to a community, such as ours in the Downtown Eastside, but also inner-city Victoria, that is just not connected in the ways that we are used to communicating anymore, you know. We were, you know, we were postering. We were doing things that people just, you know, very rarely do in this era to try to figure out how to effectively communicate. Because the channels that are the channels that are most often used today are just not very salient in the communities that we serve.
Am Johal 9:37
Now, of course, the pandemic hit here in BC, when there was already another public health emergency in the sense of the contamination of the drug supply and deaths attached to that with the disruption of drug supplies and border controls. It really deepened and amplified these challenges and disrupted those drug supply networks. And, and we've continued to see an incredible death toll and impact during the pandemic period with closures and other types of measures. And I guess my question would be, what can government's do better right now to reduce the harms associated with addiction, especially in the context of a contaminated drug supply?
Micheal Vonn 10:24
Well, there, there really is the overriding solution and that’s safe supply. We have a poisoned drug supply, there's no doubt about it. And we've had a public health emergency that is going into anniversary phases. It has lasted for so long. We are still breaking records in terms of the tragic loss of life. And it's very, very clear, we have a model for safe supply that we need to unfurl. This model has to be made accessible. And that is for safe supply that is, at this juncture, made through medical access. Eventually, what we need, and sooner than later, is access through a non-medical channel, which will be the kind of standard regulatory channel that you'd see in cannabis, tobacco, alcohol, etc. That's what we need to work towards.
Micheal Vonn 11:16
But we do have right now, and you know, BC is a leader, not only in the country, but in the world, in some of these initiatives. We have the expertise, we just need to be able to bring this to fruition. And it's had a very bumpy ride. So, we had pandemic prescribing, was acknowledged during the pandemic, which was very interesting, because people realized that without, without that intervention, we were going to see an even greater loss of life, as people were blocked buying drugs on the black market that we know are poisoned. We had to run this as an increasingly medical medicalized intervention. And that was good. And that was right. And we need to do more of it. But we have to hold a bigger vision of what this looks like. Because this will be an important piece. But the long game is actually for something that is even lower barrier. We keep trying to lower the barrier to access. But the ultimate low barrier would, of course, be a regulatory channel and not a medicalized one.
Am Johal 12:17
Now, we're speaking here in late July [of 2021], it’s, of course, there's lots of concerns around the Delta variant and future variants that might emerge. And it seems that the vaccination program, although it was late getting started once it did roll out, it seemed to get to the Downtown Eastside in an accessible way. And it seems like there's more pop-up clinics happening on a weekly basis. But in terms of going into the Fall, what keeps you up at night in terms of the way that things go in the next possible phase of the of the pandemic as we hit the flu season and otherwise?
Micheal Vonn 12:57
Well, just to put a little context around that, your historical description is absolutely correct. I'm just going to add on the tail end of it, or the where we are right now, which is that the figures for the Downtown Eastside are nothing short of miraculous against every possible forecast. Because of the vulnerability of the community and underlying conditions, we were expecting to see a just a tidal wave of COVID and we didn’t. The same holds true for Victoria, and we didn't. So, you know, hats off to everyone. The huge campaign, the massive public health campaign that prioritized people in the Downtown Eastside with these particular vulnerabilities. The social determinants of health were very much at the forefront of how public health mobilized. So, we really have to take off our hats to them, because we have not seen anywhere near what was feared and that's, again, a massive success.
Micheal Vonn 13:59
So, with that in mind, what keeps me up at night, about what may happen as we go into a fourth wave, and variants become more concerning. My concern is actually a little different than I think most people's would be. I think I am starting to really on-board this notion of what the pandemic has cost us, and what other emergent crises we have to face. We have extreme heat, we have drought, we have famines that are starting to encompass huge portions of the world, pandemically driven, but also climate change driven. And we're going to have to, we're going to have to learn to respond proportionately to a whole lot of risk factors.
Micheal Vonn 14:45
And throughout the pandemic, we've already seen the tension that arises when you have a poisoned drug supply, and COVID to deal with at the same time. How do you go about that? Do you change the OD protocol, do you close vital services? We've seen that in a microcosm of the difficult decisions to keep things nuanced, and keep all those risks balanced. COVID isn't going to go away. And so, I know that it's become very, very much part of the culture to prioritize COVID. And of course, in the crisis that we've been through, it makes all kinds of sense. But we are going to have to layer this over like we layered it over the drug poisoning epidemic, over many more challenges. And so, staying contextual, staying unified, about not breaking into factions of, I think this should be prioritized over this other thing, of course, there's going to be democratic debate, and there's going to be differences of opinions. But I would hate to see us lose the unity that we so need to be able to be effectively responsive. Because we've just had a little preview of what it looks like when you have two public health crises. Wildfires, we're talking in July, wildfires are ripping through this province. We have a lot of things to be concerned about. And we have to be able to, again, respond contextually and proportionate. Which is not what you expected me say, right.
Am Johal 16:16
No, no, I'm not surprised, you have big picture thinking. So, I'm not surprised either, though. I was going to ask you, Micheal, of course, I know you from your long tenure as the policy director at the BC Civil Liberties. And prior to that, you worked in HIV AIDS with AIDS Vancouver, and probably a number of other organizations. But wondering if you can speak to that background in terms of what you did with those organizations and kind of how that helps you in your current role as executive director of a large organization working in the inner city?
Micheal Vonn 16:55
Thanks for that question. I call upon those experiences and that history and the wisdom of all the community members that I worked with in both of those contexts, virtually every day. I don't know that HIV, I don’t know that there could be a better foundation for dealing with these scenarios than having lived through HIV. I often say I come from AIDS. I understand what it is to be in a community gripped with fear. And medical indeterminacy. We didn't know for a long time what was doing a whole bunch of things. And the community response was the early days hero of the AIDS movement. I mean, HIV brought the language of, well, brought the language of human rights to healthcare. Brought healthcare and human rights together as a concept.
Micheal Vonn 16:55
And so, it was really the high watermark of understanding the social determinants of health. Which sounds maybe a little bland, but it's actually a very radical notion, which is that the more you belong, the better your health outcomes. The more control you have over your life, the better your health outcomes. So, what, when the rubber hits the road, we don't talk about community because it's nice and fluffy. It is those things. It's great, it's warm, it's cuddly, we like it. Community, what a lovely word. But we actually have data, we have something you can take to the bank. This is meaningful, as a health outcome. And so, you know, it was really, again, the high watermark of a whole bunch of thinking that has been receding ever since. As we become very understandably, focused on medicalized interventions, and the great and glorious benefit that they are. Nevertheless, you know, I know from that experience, how critical it is, if you're looking at the health of communities, to have the investment in community, and, and the social determinants of health is the lens through which I look at all of my work now. And as I say, it does, it's hard to underestimate how radical that is. It means that everything that happens to you, your family status, your education, your sense of welcome in your neighborhood, all of those things are hugely impactful in relation to your well being. And again, demonstrable wellbeing, not just a feeling of well being, as much as I like feelings of well being. But this is really, this is critical stuff. And bringing that lens to the crises that we're in right now, I think is going to be increasingly important. And some of that will be, be rediscovering things that we knew back in the day.
Am Johal 19:40
Yeah, when you look at really important organizations, like Act Up in the States, and how they had that relationship to health and human rights moving away from criminalization and the way it really shaped the harm reduction movement, here, coming out of HIV AIDS around the overdose deaths crisis that was declared a public health emergency in the mid 90s, is real tie in between these movements. So, I can see that connection very strongly. And it is such a great framework to bring to these questions. And certainly, from the civil liberties world as well, you were, you know, reading detailed papers involved on the sides of court cases as an organization. And so, you've been sort of deep in the inside of privacy questions for a long time, which I guess also relate to the public health system in some kinds of ways as well.
Micheal Vonn 20:35
It does. Privacy, national security, surveillance, all kinds of interesting things, you can bring from that experience into, into this one. I think that, you know, one of the things that I really come to appreciate is, I know that back in the day, when I was at AIDS Vancouver, I used to be very adamant about what I knew. I was a mouthy activist the way you are when you're when you're young and full of your stuff, right?
Am Johal 21:00
I don't know what you're talking about. I've never done that.
Micheal Vonn 21:03
Yeah, so I would happily, happily tell people, it's like you don't know what you're talking about. That's against the law, or you can't do that. It's a human rights violation, blah, blah, blah. And then I went to law school and my response to almost everything was I'm not sure, it depends. I'm not sure, it depends. Because actually, the situation is a heck of a lot more complex than my youthful sloganeering would have me believe.
Micheal Vonn 21:28
The complexity of the world means that there's a lot of rights, and there's a lot of risks, and putting things together is something that we need a lot of voices at the table to figure out. And you have to make compromises. There's no other way. And so, kind of the way, you know, bringing some light into the way forward. I think that I'm a little concerned as to how fractious making collective decisions, democratic decisions, community decisions, working together as communities has become. It's become pretty toxic. It's become pretty toxic, because again, this kind of culture of compromise or even good faith, right? We are so we are so married to the ad hominem argument, right? I think your argument isn't right, so I'm going to say you stink, right? What the hell is that? It is so counterproductive. When we have such complexity that we're dealing with. We really just need more and more people to develop the personal tolerance of views that aren't theirs so that we can have the kind of heterodox diversity of ideas that's going to get us through complex shit. Not simple shit, complex shit, and lots of people have stuff to offer. But we're going to have a hard time bringing everybody together around the same table. If they're always calling out, we do a lot of calling out. I know we're supposed to call people in at this point, but I'm not seeing so much of it. We need more, we need more across party lines, across all kinds of lines, we just need more.
Am Johal 23:02
Having seen you speak as an AIDS Vancouver representative to BC Civil Liberties to now, there is a through line of, of swear words, Micheal, which I've always drawn to as a mobilizing premise. So, I have a question around, COVID-19 struck, in a way because though there have been many, many pandemics in parts of the world, many people, at least in the Canadian context, haven't experienced a global pandemic such as this one. And you know, going back to read about the Spanish flu epidemic, the second wave all of these types of things, that you know, many people are saying that we have to be braced for future pandemics just because of the impacts of climate change, the growth of human societies into the natural world, which will produce more transmission and species jump in future pandemics that could that could happen.
Am Johal 23:55
And wondering, in going through this one, and looking at where systems worked, and where they didn't, what are your thoughts on how communities, governments, other stakeholders can better respond to pandemics more systematically, because as we're dealing and attempting to manage this crisis, there are many going on around us as you as you mentioned, that will continue to be exacerbated and accelerated in the coming years.
Micheal Vonn 24:22
Yeah, I think that's exactly true. So, I'm, as you can tell, very interested in the community response. And so, I've seen emergency preparedness data, that would indicate that when they do look at things like an extreme heat event, they find that social connection is as valuable to survival as an air conditioner. Now, that's not anti air conditioner to say. So, that's to say that our cohesion is going to be a key element of how we get through these crises. And we need to put some concerted effort into that. My fear is, the route I don't want to go. And this comes straight from civil liberties, but I know it really well. There was, and continues to be, a lot of pressure to basically securitize public health. The money post 9/11 was all in national security. So public health started reframing itself as biosecurity in order to get that kind of, those securitized dollars. But of course, with that dollars comes a lens, a lens of you know, being at war with. And I think that is exactly the direction that we do not want to go. It’s very easy when people are afraid to bring in a whole lot of measures, the kind of state of exception measures that we saw, post 9/11 in the securitized state to bring those in along the lines of biosecurity. And I think that would be a disaster. So that's the kind of thing that we need to be alive to, as a concept, as crises multiply and complexity advances. We need to stay solidly grounded in serving local communities and having community-based responses. It's not, again, it's not the total solution. There are systems and security thinking that that is required. But the securitization, if you know what I mean by that term, of public health is definitely to be resisted.
Am Johal 26:22
Micheal, is there anything you'd like to add?
Micheal Vonn 26:25
No, I think I think we got it all in there. At least for now.
Am Johal 26:30
Great, Micheal, thank you so much for joining us on Below the Radar. Always wonderful to speak with you and in watching the different ways that you've worked in the community. And thank you so much.
Micheal Vonn 26:44
Thank you. Nice to be here.
Steve Tornes 26:49
Below the Radar is a knowledge democracy podcast created by SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement. This has been our conversation with Micheal Vonn. Head to the show notes to read up on some of the initiatives and examples mentioned in this episode. Thanks for listening, and tune in Tuesdays for more Below the Radar.
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