How do you communicate the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic to a community dealing with entrenched homelessness and drug addiction like the Downtown Eastside?
In the City of Vancouver’s case, the answer is partly through art.
The city has adapted its existing mural support program to help fund COVID-19-related murals to be painted on some of Vancouver’s growing number of boarded-up shop windows.
“It’s important because not everyone has internet,” said DTES community advocate Karen Ward, who wrote a message on one such mural near Hastings and Carrall streets.
That mural is a collaboration with well-known DTES street artist Smokey D, whose work has also helped communicate the toll of the overdose crisis.
The painting depicts a coughing figure and illustrations of the virus, along with advice to stay home, wash one’s hands 10 times a day, and avoid touching one’s face.
Not only do few people in the neighbourhood have internet access, said Ward, with bars and other gathering places closed down, they don’t have access to television either.
“People are hearing stuff on the street about this and that, and it’s and not always the most reliable information,” she said.
“A largish public art piece like this communicates visually and really clearly, and it is talked about among people.”
Advocates for residents of the Downtown Eastside have repeatedly warned that an outbreak of COVID-19 in the neighbourhood would be “catastrophic.”
Handwashing facilities are limited in the area, and the city has struggled to get locals to comply with social- and physical-distancing measures.
Lisa Parker, the city’s branch manager of street activities, said the mural program will be active throughout the whole city, not just the DTES.
She said the initiative aims to both get the word out about the pandemic and help reduce graffiti on the city’s boarded-up storefronts.
“Giving information on distancing, and different information that is coming in from our health officials, and just really translating that into a 2D reminder to stay safe,” she said.
Other murals have expressed support for B.C.’s health-care workers, and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and national public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam.
Vancouver has budgeted $15,000 for the program, and can provide up to $400 in paint. Would-be artists must have permission from the relevant property owners, tenant or business improvement association.
Artists must complete the work in two to three days, and maintain social and physical distancing while working.
The city is also asking property and business owners to pay artists for their work.
Businesses or artists who wish to participate can find out more at http://www.vancouver.ca/murals.