A remote island off the coast of B.C is experimenting with online technology to connect community and forge a collective strategy to deal with COVID-19.
Cortes Island, with approximately 1,000 permanent residents, is wedged between the B.C. mainland and Vancouver Island. The island harbours a tight-knit community, where most residents know each other by name, and hugs rather than handshakes used to be the standard greeting.
But as per the new mantra of the COVID-19 era, the community is looking at new ways of coming together but staying apart.
As a result, community groups, essential front-line workers and members of the public are attending an ongoing series of online Cortes Community COVID-19 response meetings, organized by the island’s regional director, Noba Anderson.
The overall objective is to connect, communicate and collaborate as a community to establish strategies to boost the island’s resiliency during the global pandemic, Anderson said Wednesday.
“It’s also profoundly about building connectivity. People can’t see each other these days,” she said. “And it’s finding a new platform to do the kind of work Cortes has often been good at in the past, and just figuring out a new way of doing that.”
Another goal is to find ways of complementing what initiatives senior levels of government are taking, as well as implementing COVID-19 programs and aid on the ground.
“Ultimately, service delivery will be through businesses and non-profit sectors here on Cortes,” Anderson said.
There have been four meetings to date, using the now ubiquitous videoconferencing app, Zoom. Inevitably, the first 10 to 15 minutes of each meeting has been spent coaching attendees who are new to the technology and working out glitches.
At the first online conference on March 23, community groups and businesses shared key information about their responses to COVID-19. The objective of the second meeting on March 25 was to provide Anderson with input to craft a community message about non-essential travel to and from the island during the epidemic, to prevent the spread of the virus.
At the third meeting, on Friday, break out groups brainstormed the initial steps to issues including: using larger venues on the island for self-isolation or quarantine purposes, improving food security, producing food for vulnerable residents, connecting volunteers to people in self-isolation and establishing mental health and youth supports.
"It’s finding a new platform to do the kind of work Cortes has often been good at in the past, and just figuring out a new way of doing that,” - Noba Anderson, Cortes regional director, about the community going online to beat COVID-19.
Between 30 to 40 community groups and business leaders joined the first three calls, and 65 people were dialed in for the fourth conference on Tuesday night, which was also broadcast on Cortes Community Radio.
The most recent online community call on Tuesday was open to all residents to get information from the initial meetings and have the opportunity to ask questions, Anderson said. She said there were a number of takeaways from the Tuesday’s meeting.
“Foremost, it confirmed we need to provide some support with systems navigation,” she said. “There are so many new senior government programs, and they are constantly changing… and many people will need help accessing them for all sorts of reasons.”
Also, many people on Cortes are not connected to or comfortable using the internet and the associated technology, Anderson said, adding she’d like to carve out more time for people to speak at future meetings.
Based on input from groups and businesses at the second community meeting about how to stem transmission of the virus, Anderson issued a statement on the Cortes community’s COVID-19 guidelines on March 26.
Most of the requests mirrored provincial and federal health authorities' messaging about self-isolation after international travel or should someone display symptoms of respiratory illness, physical distancing and avoiding non-essential travel from home or on BC Ferries.
However, the announcement also asked that off-island tradespeople not come to Cortes until April 15, although most trades have been defined as an essential service by the province.
As well, it called for all short-term vacation rentals to be cancelled until the end of May on the island, which relies heavily on the tourism industry.
Both the B.C. and federal government have asked people to avoid non-essential travel, but there have been no concrete edicts that the tourist sector lock their doors.
Two residents posted open letters on the island’s community webpage, the Tideline, to express concerns about the guidelines, especially as it pertained to limiting off-island tradespeople.
The guidelines developed in the online forum were an “overreach” of authority, particularly where they diverged from those set out by senior government, Graham Blake said.
“This is not an official body and it is not authorized to speak on behalf of the community nor issue dicta with respect to what is or is not permissible activity carried out by citizens during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Blake wrote.
“This will encourage people to suspect each other of acting in bad faith for the simple crime of following the guidelines of provincial authorities.”
The island does not have the authority to define essential travel, he added.
Genoa Coty echoed the point that tradespeople were defined as essential workers, and she worried the messaging would foster an “us” and “them” mentality that would be detrimental to the community and the local economy.
“Telling Cortesians not to have tradespeople in their homes, and not to bring off-island trades could have serious consequences for the well-being of individual community members and families,” she wrote.
The guidelines were a representation of the best collective voice of the community, and are in line with public statements issued by a number of other small remote communities in the province, Anderson said.
“We’re not discouraging on-island trades, and we’re not policing off-island trades workers,” Anderson said.
“We’re just asking if people can defer work projects for a couple of weeks.”
Residents needing emergency repairs from off-island contractors wouldn’t be deterred, and they would determine what was essential, she added.
“It’s up to every individual contractor and household to use their best judgement.”