The fallout from the spreading COVID-19 virus could have a profound effect on B.C. It is likely to last far after the virus has stopped spreading.
The two biggest impacts will be on the economy and the health system. Those effects will become much more obvious in the coming weeks. The cruise ship season, a major driver of tourism in both Vancouver and Victoria, won’t start until at least July 1.
This is one of many things that will greatly diminish the flow of tourism dollars. B.C. is a tourism magnet for people in many parts of the world, but both Asia and Europe are suffering from major outbreaks of the virus and travel is the last thing on most people’s minds. Flights to the U.S. from Europe have been cancelled for 30 days, and Canada could follow suit. The federal government is already restricting which airports international flights can arrive at.
A steep drop in tourist visits will hit hard, in particular, Vancouver Island, the Lower Mainland and the Okanagan hard.
Many conventions are held each year in B.C. Every day, there is news of a major gathering being cancelled or postponed. Sports leagues – professional and amateur – have also cancelled games.
The ports, another major driver of the B.C. economy, have already been suffering due to both COVID-19 and blockades. Much of the port traffic is to and from Asia, and there is no sign that it will resume its former volume anytime soon.
All these factors impact restaurants, service businesses, hotels and other areas of the economy. It is likely some businesses will close permanently. The economy is almost certain to see a decline.
The health care system is already dealing with COVID-19 and, thus far, is doing a solid job. Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has been forthright and proactive. Her experience in Ontario during the 2003 SARS crisis is coming in very handy, and as a province, we are fortunate to have her.
However, should there be many more cases, our hospitals have little space to accommodate them. Fraser Health, with 1.9 million residents, is the largest in the province - but has just 80 intensive care beds. As of March 9, 10 per cent of those were empty. The situation is similar in other parts of the province.
The health system is woefully inadequate at times of crisis. Many B.C. residents do not have family doctors, and there are still too few of the badly needed urgent care centres which the current government is starting to set up.
Homeless people may have other specific challenges, as their health is often poor and the virus will be able to spread quickly among them. They do not generally get much attention from the health system.
In Washington state, the epicentre of the disease in the U.S., most of the COVID-19 deaths have been linked to one seniors’ care home. These people have extremely fragile health and cannot fight off the virus. Should the virus enter a number of care homes, the immediate effect on the health system will be overwhelming. The one COVID-19 death in B.C. (as of March 13) was a resident of a North Vancouver care home.
The scenario is changing and bringing new challenges daily.
Frank Bucholtz is a columnist and former editor with Black Press Media. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.