Friday, October 30, 2009

Excuse me, doc - any advice for the uncertain?

What are we to take from the fact that a majority of adult Canadians don’t want to be immunized against the H1N1 flu?
I know how they feel. I’m still on the fence myself about whether to get the shot. Being immunized definitely appears to be the logical, civic-minded choice, but there’s this part of me that’s just really hesitant about getting a flu shot.
And 51 per cent of the Canadians apparently feel the same way.
Asked in an on-line poll this month about whether they’d be getting vaccinated against H1N1, more than half said no. That’s up significantly from July, when only 38 per cent were saying no.
That fact must be a great disappointment to the public-health officials working hard on the H1N1 front. People were alarmed as all get-out when the new strain of influenza first took hold in Mexico, and the task back then looked like it was going to be about keeping a worried public calm until a vaccine could be developed.
Instead we’ve ended up here, with immunization now available but fewer Canadians actually wanting it. That’s a fascinating turn of events.
What it speaks to more than anything is that the public no longer knows who to trust about such things. That’s especially true when it comes to flu shots.
We were terrified of H1N1 when it first started wreaking havoc in Mexico. I followed each new development with great interest as the virus took hold in the spring, and had long conversations with my own adult children in hopes of getting them thinking about vaccination.
But then H1N1 arrived in our own home towns. And in most cases it looked a lot like any other seasonal flu, except with more people getting it.
Public health experts continued to emphasize that H1N1 had the potential to be a much more serious type of flu. People do die from it - 87 so far in Canada. But it seems that the more H1N1 has taken hold in Canada, the more our scepticism has grown about getting immunized.
Canadians are sceptical of flu shots to begin with - less than a third of us get the seasonal shot.
The peculiar thing is that we’re generally pretty happy to get immunized. I got seven immunizations for a trip to Ghana a decade ago, and didn’t second-guess any of them. Most Canadians are quite willing to be immunized against major illnesses and to get their children immunized as well, so it’s not like vaccination is a foreign concept.
Ah, but the flu shot - for some reason, that’s a whole different thing. North Americans overall just haven’t taken to the flu shot, despite years of admonitions from public health officials about the importance of doing so.
Is it because you need a shot every year? Or because you’ve had the flu many times and it hasn’t killed you yet? Is it about the horror stories of vaccinations gone wrong that emerge just often enough to confirm your reluctance, or maybe a secret suspicion that it’s good for your immune system to have to fight off illness on its own once in a while?
I admit to a little of all of those in my own feelings about getting a flu shot. And I know it’s all about having an emotional reaction to the issue rather than a logical one. I hate being sick with the flu and I’m asthmatic to boot, so there’s no sensible reason for me to resist inoculation.
In the case of H1N1, experiences in my own family this past month should have also pushed me toward immunization if logic had anything to do with it. My brother’s wife is still recovering in hospital after a terrible bout of H1N1 that left her incapacitated and on a ventilator in the intensive care unit for almost a week.
But there’s something that I just can’t get my head around when it comes to flu shots. I wish I understood my resistance better, because I like to think I make good choices when it comes to my health. Public health officials might want to try to understand the resistance of people like me as well, because their messages clearly aren’t having the desired effect if the majority of Canadians are saying no to a flu shot.
Please take my musings on this subject as nothing more than that. I offer no advice on whether to get an H1N1 shot. I’m just saying that rightly or wrongly, many of us need more convincing.

Friday, October 23, 2009

It's community involvement that sets Project Connect apart

For the past two years, I’ve had the honour of organizing the Project Connect service fair for the street community, put on by the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness.
This year, we saw at least 700 people through the door for the event at Our Place drop-in last Wednesday. They came for help: a new birth certificate, care for their broken and battered feet, a haircut, vet care, a backpack full of useful stuff They also came for food, eating a whopping 2,100 hamburgers and 1,000 hot dogs by day’s end.
I don’t know whether to be delighted or heartsick that the number of people at the event was up by more than 200 this year, or that we served twice as many burgers and dogs. Sure, it’s great to draw a crowd, but I dream of the day when an event for people living in profound poverty fails to attract anybody.
If you’ve done any event-planning, you’ll know it’s a crazy-making activity with a million details to attend to. But when it all comes together, it’s a whole lot of fun, especially when the event is Project Connect. What sets it apart is that it really is a community-wide effort - one that depends on hundreds of people in our region stepping up to make a difference.
Consider, for instance, what it took to be able to hand out 700 backpacks last week.
First, it took the efforts of leadership students at seven local secondary schools to help us hustle up some of those packs - 250 all told. But we needed many more than that, and couldn’t have done it without a generous cash donation from a local businessman and a sweet deal on back-to-school packs offered to us by Wal-Mart and Real Canadian Superstore.
Then we needed things to put in those packs. We wanted to put a dozen or so items in each pack: a new pair of socks, gloves, toque, scarf, deodorant, toothbrush and toothpaste, and other essentials. But that meant collecting almost 9,000 individual items.
For that, we turned to the community. And people really came through.
The Church of the Nazarene bought us 500 pair of men’s gloves. Lambrick Park Church’s “The Place” congregation rustled up 400 toques and 200 scarves. St. Philip’s Anglican Church bought 400 emergency blankets. UM Marketing donated 200 deodorants, 800 razors, and 600 packages of tampons. Save On Foods, Safeway, Thrifty Foods, Lifestyle Market and Costco loaded us up with food.
Workplace donation drives at Telus, Queen Alexandra Society, Victoria Foundation, the Ministry of Housing and Social Development, Royal Bank Oak Bay and Shaw Cable brought us box after box of the kinds of things we needed. So did you - for four days straight in late September and again in early October, members of the public poured into Our Place with armloads of donations for Project Connect.
That all of the above happened was largely due to the efforts of five amazing volunteers I’d gathered around me to help organize the event. My deepest thanks to Gloria Hoeppner, Ruth Simkin, Deb Nilsen, Jill Martin-Bates and Willie Waddell - women who I’ve come to count on whenever the occasion calls for a crack team of volunteers.
The packs wouldn’t have been packed without them. Some 10,000 donated items would have gone unsorted. These women’s vehicles, husbands, living rooms, charge cards, friends and neighbours were all conscripted to the cause, as were mine. But hey, we got things done.
As for Our Place, which hosted Project Connect this year - well, I can’t say enough good things about those guys. Everybody on staff was unfailingly helpful and patient with us. I don’t know where we would have stored our overflowing bounty of pack items, let alone physically done the packing, were it not for Our Place making room for us every step of the way.
What was particularly nice was that anytime someone from our group arrived at the drop-in with the latest load of big heavy things needing to be carried in, at least four or five of the men who come to Our Place would immediately step forward with offers to help. Is there another place in the city where you can count on such gentlemanly behaviour?
And this long list was just what it took to get the packs together. Multiply the effort tenfold for all the volunteers who turned out that day, all the service providers who were there, all the work Gord Fry and the Capital Lions Club put in to help us feed such a big crowd, all the media support for getting the word out.
It was a remarkable community achievement. Thank you.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Pointless prostitution laws help no one but hurt many

Sex work is back in the headlines again, and will be for quite some time with a constitutional challenge to Canada’s prostitution laws finally underway this week.
I wish miracles for the three brave sex workers who launched the challenge. That’s what they’ll need to survive the savaging they’re in for at the hands of those who staunchly oppose anything that might make it easier or safer to be a sex worker.
The case in front of the Ontario Superior Court is challenging three sections of the Criminal Code: the “common bawdyhouse” laws that make anything to do with operating a brothel illegal; procuring or living off the avails of prostitution; and communicating for the purposes of prostitution.
In deciding the case, Justice Susan Himel will be gauging whether our prostitution laws are proportionate to their purpose, or if they have the effect of forcing sex workers into unsafe situations where they can be preyed on by deviants and serial killers.
So let’s ponder those two issues for a moment.
Sex work is legal in Canada, yet everything required for a sale to take place is illegal - location, marketing, even the earnings. That renders the work just legal enough for men to be able to acquire paid sex anytime they like in any city, and just illegal enough to continue the pretence that Canadian society is hard at work trying to eradicate prostitution. What exactly IS the purpose of laws like that?
As for whether the impact of the laws is proportionate to their purpose, I can’t wait to hear the arguments on that point. How many vulnerable women have died across Canada just in the last decade because our laws forced them to work out of sight in the rough parts of town, getting into cars with strangers? How could a gruesome impact like that possibly be proportionate in a civilized society?
What gets me the most about the laws around prostitution is the grand hypocrisy of it all.
We wrung our hands and wept for all the missing women when Robert Pickton’s exploits were the news of the day. We went to their vigils. But we didn’t do one thing that made life safer for the women working our streets.
We tell ourselves that only deviants and weirdos buy sex, and only victimized, desperate people sell it. But Canadians of every stripe are frequenting the places where sex is sold, and leading secret lives as part-time sex workers. Were a scarlet letter ever to appear on all the chests of people who have ever bought and sold sex, I think you’d be amazed to see who was in the club.
The sale of sex is a rip-roaring business in every Canadian community. Every moment spent denying that is another nail in the coffin of women working in isolation and danger on the nation’s outdoor strolls. Outdoor work is the mere tip of the iceberg in terms of the scope of the industry, but it’s certainly the place where the most negative impacts of our poorly considered laws are felt.
I understand the powerful emotions that drive the abolitionist movement. I know that some people have had tragic experiences in the sex trade. It’s definitely a job for adults only, and even then it’s not something that most people are cut out for.
But it’s still a job. Occasional monsters and victims notwithstanding, the buyers are for the most part ordinary people. The sellers are by and large happy for the money. Meanwhile, those who aren’t happy in the work take no solace from the law, because it can only punish them further.
I read an opinion piece the other day from an abolitionist exhorting Canadians to resist anything that might normalize prostitution as a legitimate career choice. That tired old argument is trotted out anytime someone dares to mutter about decriminalizing the industry: “Oh, horrors, your child could end up working as a prostitute!”
Read the research. Prostitution doesn’t increase when it’s decriminalized, because it’s already so well-entrenched in every community that there’s no increase in demand just because it’s now legal. All the men who buy sex are already buying it.
Nor is the growth of sex tourism much of a concern in Canada. Sex workers here are no more likely than any other Canadian to work for the pathetic, exploitive wages that sex workers earn in countries like Thailand.
And even if all that weren’t so, surely we don’t want to support laws that maintain an ugly and dangerous work environment just so our own daughters won’t be tempted into that line of work.
Every woman who works in the industry is somebody’s daughter. We owe it to all of them to fix this mess we’ve made.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Fight back - these cuts will do lasting harm

I’ve kept a rough list of the B.C. programs and services being lost as a result of government cuts this fall. Maybe there’s still nothing on the list that affects you and your family, but the odds are getting slimmer all the time.
A remarkably broad swath of British Columbians will be affected by the funding cuts being carried out by the provincial government and its five health authorities right now.
The cuts are coming fast and furious in all directions, with neither a plan nor an understanding at any level of what it’s all going to mean when the dust settles. Without a word of public discussion, vital social programs and supports that British Columbians have counted on for years are vanishing.
Our province will end up wearing the scars of these cuts for decades to come. We need to shake ourselves out of our respective silos and make it stop.
Whatever your political stripe, I’m sure we can all agree that we’re against bad decision-making. That’s what is going on in B.C. right now. Government and health authorities are so consumed with hitting their financial targets that they’re selling out the future health and well-being of British Columbia for poorly conceived, clumsily executed cuts that benefit no one.
It’s still hard for many of us to accept that tax dollars are well-spent on supports to strangers who need help in their lives. That’s why our governments generally assume they can shred social services with little fear of a voter backlash.
But this isn’t about votes. This is about what we’re giving up as a society. This is about services that are costing us a little money right now, but are preventing much, much higher costs down the road. Take a look at this sampling of recent cuts and think about the vulnerable people who will be cast to the wolves as the government and health authorities withdraw their support:
• School lunch programs
• Community mental health and addiction services
• School sports
• Intensive behavioural therapy for young autistic children
• Support for programs preventing fetal-alcohol damage in children
• Help for people raising their grandchildren
• Reading centres
• Treatment for children who witness abuse
• Outreach for victims of domestic violence (reinstated this week after public outcry)
• Help for problem gamblers
• Elimination of B.C.’s only prosecutor specializing in domestic violence
• Support for sports for people with mental handicaps

And none of that includes the cuts to gaming grants for the social sector still to come later this fall. Or the much deeper cuts coming in the March 2010 budget, and again the year after that.
Those familiar with government understand that whatever is lost in the next couple years is at risk of being lost for good. Government is writing off decades of experience, evidence and social infrastructure in its ill-informed rush to make up cost overruns on the backs of struggling families. We will not soon see these programs back if we let them go now.
Billings Learned Hand, a U.S. judge and philosopher from the early 1900s, once talked about change occurring only when things reach a point that “cries out loudly enough to force upon us a choice between the comforts of inertia and the irksomeness of action.”
Are we there yet? Surely we must be close. Thousands of people and communities are affected by the cuts, but I sense they haven’t yet realized their cumulative power to do something. It’s tough to go it alone against government, but so many people will feel these cuts that together, they could exercise considerable political clout.
Look only to recent headlines to verify that. Just this week, the government reinstated $440,000 that had been cut from services addressing domestic violence, all because the public went nuts. Cuts to camping programs for children with disabilities were also abandoned earlier this year after the public made its considerable displeasure known.
Fight, people. Be the squeaky wheel that haunts government’s dreams. Give government some of that “blowback” that Housing Minister Rich Coleman talked about a couple weeks ago, because they need a big blast of it to snap them out of these dangerously short-sighted, mean-spirited cuts.
As always, the poorest of the poor will feel all of B.C.’s cuts the hardest. I’m back organizing Project Connect for another year on behalf of the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness, and want to thank the community for the generous donations to date that will help us put on another really successful day for hundreds of people living in deep poverty and homelessness.
We’ve got one more drop-off day to collect things like new socks, new and gently used gloves, scarves and toques and travel-size grooming products like hand sanitizer to fill the 700 or so backpacks we expect to be handing out at the all-day service fair for the street community, Oct. 14 at Our Place. If you’ve got a backpack to donate, that’d be great too.
Can you help? Bring donations to Our Place, 919 Pandora, on the morning of Oct. 6. Contact me at the email on this column to donate time or money to Project Connect.