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COMMENTARY: In one of Canada’s most beautiful cities, an ugly underside vexes politicians

Click to play video 'Concerns over falling overdose prevention sites in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside' Concerns over falling overdose prevention sites in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside
WATCH: (April 28) Since the start of the coronavirus crisis, overdose prevention sites like Insite have seen a major drop in use. Now public health officials are warning we could see the number of overdose deaths rise back up as a result. Grace Ke reports – Apr 28, 2020

Vancouver is one of Canada’s most beautiful cities, framed by breathtaking mountains and sparkling seas, and blessed with the country’s mildest climate as a bonus.

But there’s a dark side to the Pacific coast postcard: grinding poverty, growing homelessness and Canada’s worst drug-overdose epidemic, problems made progressively worse by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Just last Friday night, paramedics were called out to an emergency at a suburban home.

When they arrived, they were met by a shocking scene. Five people were unconscious, supposedly from a natural gas leak.

But first responders quickly determined that no gas was leaking. The five victims had succumbed to an overdose of toxic drugs.

Read more: Four arrests after homelessness, anti-police brutality activists occupy Vancouver intersection

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Amazingly, police, paramedics and firefighters were able to revive all five by administering heavy doses of naloxone, an emergency drug used to counteract the effects of powerful opioids.

Hundreds of other Vancouver-area drug users have not been as fortunate. Nearly five people a day are dying from overdoses in the province.

What’s driving the carnage? Experts say the Canada-U.S. border lockdown has slowed the flow of narcotics. Dealers lace existing supplies with deadly fentanyl, the powerful synthetic opioid that continues to circumvent border restrictions through the mail.

Drug users, meanwhile, are using alone more often as they cut down on social interactions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

And the supply of cash from provincial and federal relief programs has added to the demand for drugs, according to some street-level experts.

Drug overdoses are spiking across Canada during the pandemic, of course, but Vancouver’s O.D. rate is particularly alarming in the Downtown Eastside, the poorest neighbourhood in the country.

When the pandemic hit in the spring, there were terrible fears of COVID carnage in the densely-populated neighbourhood, where many poverty-stricken residents suffer from underlying health conditions.

Read more: $450,000 to restore Vancouver’s Oppenheimer Park

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Though the COVID-19 death rate in the Downtown Eastside is not as bad as originally feared, new studies suggest the area has not been spared from the virus.

Bloodwork done at community pop-up clinics found high rates of coronavirus antibodies, indicating many residents may have been infected with COVID-19 and recovered.

“Many may not have known they were infected, or they attributed symptoms to something else,” Dr. Brian Conway, of the Vancouver Infectious Disease Centre, told me.

It’s a troubling discovery, especially as homeless downtown residents fan out to other parts of Vancouver’s metropolitan area, where tent cities are growing.

In East Vancouver’s Strathcona Park, campers are living in an estimated 400 tents, making it the largest homeless encampment in Canada.

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The normally peaceful neighbourhood is pleading for help, as conditions worsen at the camp and violent incidents escalate.

Last week, a man was stabbed inside a tent at the park and was not discovered until eight hours later. Another man seriously injured in an assault was lying on the ground in the park for 12 hours before policed were called.

A loaded semi-automatic assault rifle was found in a rolled up tent bag about a block from the park.

On Saturday night, a neighbourhood activist who pleaded for help for the campers said she was attacked by an unknown assailant outside her home near the park, requiring stitches for a head injury.

All of these incidents — and many more — are under investigation by police.

Read more: Vancouver city council to consider drug consumption site in Yaletown

As the ranks of homeless swell, the overdose death rate rises and the number of COVID-19 cases climbs a second wave, B.C. politicians are making plenty of promises.

British Columbians head to the polls this Saturday in a snap election called last month by NDP Leader John Horgan.

All major parties have promised new investments, initiatives and programs to reduce poverty, increase housing and rescue neighborhoods.

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With election day looming, there’s hope the next government can make progress. But a pattern has been repeating itself in the city for months now: as one tent city shuts down, another one pops up.

In Canada’s most beautiful city, it will take bold initiatives to deal with an ugly underside.

Mike Smyth is host of ‘The Mike Smyth Show’ on Global News Radio 980 CKNW in Vancouver and a commentator for Global News. You can reach him at mike@cknw.com and follow him on Twitter at @MikeSmythNews​.