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BRIAN HODDER: Lessons from a state of emergency - food security, assistance to people with mental health, addictions must be considered in review

It takes a lot to fill the shelves and keep them stocked at the Summerside Salvation Army Food Bank. Millicent McKay/Journal Pioneer
File photo.

After eight long days, which tested the patience and resilience of the citizens of this city, the state of emergency was lifted in St. John's, NL.

While all businesses are now permitted to open and buses are now running, it will be quite a while before things return to normal. While St. John’s residents have coped, the impact has been much more severe on those who are disadvantaged in our society, particularly those living with mental health and addictions issues.

One of the issues that this emergency has highlighted is food security. While most of us may have started to run low on certain staples, we still could feed ourselves and cope. Those who depend on food banks and services such as food kitchens were unable to access these services and many of them went without. It is little wonder that when grocery stores were allowed to open, there were long line-ups of people waiting to get something to eat. Factor into this the reality that there was no public transportation to get people to these stores and no mail service meaning - some did not receive their cheques to purchase food - and the impact is multiplied.

People who are dealing with addictions issues would have found this time to be especially difficult. Those needing methadone or suboxone to maintain their recovery, which usually requires showing up daily in person at the pharmacy to receive, went days without their medication and faced the same transportation issues once pharmacies reopened. Those who rely on support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous had to cope without this vital contact over the period of this emergency or could not get to the meeting if one was available.

Overall, I am very impressed with how everyone here dealt with this emergency. The citizens of the city came together as a community and helped out their neighbours, and even complete strangers, with shovelling and sharing food.

The same was true for people dealing with mental health issues who could not access the various support groups in the community, leading to long periods of isolation, which can exacerbate the impact of mental illness.

The city and province have plans to review the legislation around what happens when a state of emergency is declared and it is hoped that the lessons learned from this storm will give them direction in how to update it to reflect the changes within the city since it was last reviewed. While it is critical that safety remain the paramount concern during an emergency, I am hoping they will be open to considering how essential mental health and addictions services are to those who need them and develop plans to either keep them open or re-open them sooner during a state of emergency; essential health care should not just be limited to physical health.

Overall, I am very impressed with how everyone here dealt with this emergency. The citizens of the city came together as a community and helped out their neighbours, and even complete strangers, with shovelling and sharing food. When some services were re-opened, taxi companies, who had already lost days of business, offered their services free to those who needed rides for food or medication. Line-ups for food proceeded in an orderly fashion and people mostly bought only what they needed, leaving food for those behind them.

Those who work in essential services went above and beyond to ensure basic needs were met and the workers who toiled tirelessly and around the clock to clear our streets of snow cannot be thanked enough. Perhaps the biggest lesson from this emergency was that, when the chips are down, we can unite to help our fellow citizens and find moments for laughter in the midst of adversity; it is a lesson badly needed in the world we live in today.


Brian Hodder works in the field of mental health and addictions. He can be reached at bdhodder@hotmail.com.


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