The Slatest

The Lethal Heat Wave Is the Latest Public Health Crisis to Be Blamed on Its Victims

Vancouver, British Columbia, seen through a haze on a scorching hot day
Vancouver, British Columbia, seen through a haze on a scorching hot day. Don Mackinnon/Getty Images

A record-breaking heat dome has washed over the Pacfic Northwest and Canada this past week, leaving hundreds in Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia dead from heat-related causes. It’s been especially harrowing in British Columbia. A wildfire destroyed 90 percent of Lytton, a small village in the province. Intense and plentiful lightning strikes produced a “literal firestorm.”

And yet one Canadian official, when asked about whether the government had done enough to inform British Columbians about health risks associated with the heat crisis striking his province, took it upon himself to blame the victims.

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“I’ll await the coroner’s determination—as Dr. Henry said, fatalities are a part of life—and the consequences of those fatalities are examined by officials that we put in place as a society to make sure we’re getting the best information possible,” said Premier John Horgan during a press conference Tuesday. (Horgan was referring to the province’s public health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry.)

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“The public was acutely aware that we had a heat problem, and we were doing our best to try to break through all of the other noise to encourage people to take steps to protect themselves,” he added. “But it was apparent to everyone who walked out doors that we were in an unprecedented heat wave, and again, there’s a level of personal responsibility.”

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It’s typical for some public officials to be callous toward their constituents during moments of crisis. And public health disasters are often boiled down to an individual’s lack of preparedness—a macro manifestation of the micro tactic of writing off health consequences as a result of personal choices. Horgan’s comments are indicative of how institutions, and their leaders, often default to personal responsibility and individualism during crises to avoid answering tough questions. (This is my third time writing some variation of this.)

The same logic that blames obesity on people refusing to eat properly can blame whole communities for failing to evacuate during a hurricane. A collective or societal problem becomes a matter of each person failing to do what they were theoretically supposed to do—never mind how many other people shared the same outcome, or how adverse the conditions may have been.

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In British Columbia, first responders have been stretched thin by the number of sudden death calls and pleading with civilians to check in on one another. Officials estimate that 486 people died from heat-related causes between June 25 and June 30—an 195 percent increase from what is normal for a five-day period—despite the opening of cooling centers.

“While it is too early to say with certainty how many of these deaths are heat related,” said Lisa Lapointe, the chief coroner of the province, in a statement, “it is believed likely that the significant increase in deaths reported is attributable to the extreme weather BC has experienced and continues to impact many parts of our province.”

Horgan has since offered his condolences to the families that have lost loved ones.

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