By Olvie Li
When I was thirteen and alive, I wanted to travel the world to combat illness and disease. I wanted to make wounds better with lots of Band-Aids and kisses. This innocent desire is now buried under calloused layers of adult pain, reality, and jadedness (mainly because “Band-Aids” are not solutions anymore and kissing is a direct mode of transmission for the spread of unwelcome viruses).
Today, I am on the frontlines fighting the virus we are all avoiding and physically distancing from (unless you are practicing herd immunity). Some days, I am fighting the social inequities and systems that perpetuate the transmission of it, and some days, I am greeting it by inserting a long thin Q-tip into the nasopharynx of a symptomatic person.
I am a visible woman of colour in a very white space, gowned up in PPE, with only my brown eyes, honey-beige forehead, and dark hair to give me away.
It crosses my mind, every time a white middle class citizen rolls down their window before I swab them for Covid-19, “am I the face of COVID-19?”
It is particularly painful as I recall a memory of myself when SARS broke out, rushing to a Kumon class and then being physically blocked by a tall white teenager who stood in my way, asking if I had SARS. I fear for the global Asian community, where many experience severe racial discrimination and violence from the non-Asian community, accusing them for the virus that originated in China.
To provide more context: I am a nurse. I work as a Public Health nurse at the main COVID-19 testing site in Victoria, BC. I also work as a Harm Reduction and Outreach nurse, advocating and working with the street community (who are currently fighting their own public health crisis) downtown, Victoria.
Equally as important, I am a climate activist.
One balmy, autumn day, several Octobers ago, an Elder in the community took me canoeing down a quiet meandering river, a narrow waterway sheltered by maples and pines on either side. When we finally paddled to the open waters, we saw the white rocks of Northern Ontario and the windblown White Pines perched on the cliffs.
The Elder said to me, “You see those trees? They are strong, blown by the wind and the rain. All they need is one of its roots to draw from a source of water and it can grow from any rock, out from any crack”.
The source. The water. The strength. The life.
Climate change and public health
It brings to mind the simultaneously interconnected emergencies we are currently facing: climate change and public health.
From the frontlines, I see and experience the perils of a colonial and capitalist system. How hospitals, pharmacies, and clinics are run as businesses, letting some in and leaving others out while funding oil and gas companies who in turn poison Indigenous communities and diasporic groups.
How the testing of a virus caused by destruction of wildlife was only at first available to those with power, and physical distancing was only afforded to those privileged enough to have a home and clean water (approximately 150,000–300,000 people in Canada are homeless every year, and hundreds of communities are currently under boil-water advisory).
Of course, we appear to be doing better than other nations, but must we always compare bad apples with rotten tomatoes?
We are disconnected, when everything in this world is interconnected.
Where is the source? What is poisoning our water? (Sidenote: I highly recommend the documentary by Ellen Page “There’s Something in the Water” on environmental racism in Nova Scotia).
We have to look at what is making us sick from up the stream. What is the real work that needs to be done at a higher level before widespread disease and infection is transmitted at a community level?
I am not the only healthcare provider addressing the links between public health and climate change. SARS, MERS, Covid-19, are all zoonotic viruses originating from animals whose natural habitats have been disrupted by human activity, resulting in viral transmissions to human hosts (this is called a “spill-over”). This discourse has been started by other doctors, nurses, and researchers who work on the frontlines everyday combatting acute and chronic health challenges, seeing the direct link between human health and the environment. We call these “Ecological Determinants of Health”.
This pandemic has somehow peeled a few calloused layers off of us globally. The crises we have been facing for decades are finally revealing itself. The opioid and housing crisis here in Victoria is finally given some attention to after three decades of rallying. Governments are finally paying attention to healthcare, transportation, and job security (some slower than others).
And I am finally peeling my own layers.
But who else is missing at the table? Who do we need to pull up a chair for so their voices are heard?
When I crawl into my bed at night, exhausted by my work yet proud of my labour, I think of my grandmothers (and my deceased grandfathers), my ma and pa, my sisters and their children growing too fast in my absence, and all my loves that I will not see for a long time or ever again. I think of the world we lived in before the pandemic, the world we live in right now, and the world that emerges after. Will we have a green new deal? Will Indigenous communities finally have sovereignty over their land? Will we have an electoral reform? Will we have paid sick days? Will we be kinder, gentler, and, as the kids say, more “woke”?
I am dreaming. And my dreams always tell me a story.
I want to wake up to write a new story because we will never go back and we certainly won’t return to normal (don’t cringe, pandemics always set a new path forward. If cholera never happened, we would not be using soap and water to wash our hands today).
Our only option is to swim upstream and go back to the source. The way the wild salmon run every autumnal cycle.
The “visceral chord” (referring to the quote at the beginning) is the chord that runs through all of us and has been resonating since time long ago. I believe this chord is the water that we are made of. The water that feeds life and makes our immune systems strong. Water that grows pine trees out of rock cuts.
Water connects us, protects us, and brings us life.
Let’s protect our water and wildlife. Let’s address the climate crisis and accelerate climate action.
Let’s protect each other with care and kindness. Let’s pay attention to our health and health systems and kick down some doors of powerful governments, policymakers, and stakeholders.
And this is how we will survive and be together again (and perhaps a kiss won’t be so deadly anymore). A message from your Public Health Nurse.
This post was originally published Solastalgia
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