Nova Scotia·Video

Locking down North Preston so 'our little small community doesn't get wiped out'

In Canada's oldest and largest black community, people are taking action to help safeguard their hometown from the ravages of COVID-19.

People taking steps to guard loved ones in historic N.S. black community

Colter Simmonds, left, posted a sign to help keep COVID-19 out of his mother's home, while Robert Downey and his girlfriend want to do the same by distributing notices, right, around North Preston. (Craig Paisley/CBC/Robert Downey)

In and around North Preston, N.S., the province's oldest and largest black community, the signs are popping up: people are on guard against COVID-19.

There are notices on the homes of seniors, families with babies and people with health conditions. "During COVID19 shut down, PLEASE NO VISITORS," reads the poster, which prominently features a stop sign.

Robert Downey drove around his hometown over the last week with his girlfriend, Natteal Battiste, and distributed 250 of them to the people who needed them most. Downey didn't need a list of addresses because he knew exactly where to go — North Preston is that tightly knit.

"I got welcomed with so much love, and so many happy people were so appreciative," he said in an interview. The notices were created using a poster-making app, he said, "so we took it upon ourselves to put those signs in place for people who didn't have the tools to do that."

Robert Downey lives in Dartmouth, N.S., but is from North Preston, N.S. He's one of nine children. (CBC)

Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil faced criticism this week for singling out North Preston as one the communities where he said some people were flouting COVID-19 rules, including holding parties.

But the actions of Downey and others are examples of how seriously coronavirus is being taken in the Prestons, neighbouring black communities on the outskirts of Halifax that include North Preston, East Preston, Cherry Brook and Lake Loon.

Political and health leaders from the community have formed a COVID-19 response team that's working with public health officials to tackle a frightening situation.

While officials are not releasing the number of infections in specific communities, the testing clinics set up this week at the North Preston Community Centre, along with Elmsdale, a mostly white community, indicate they are hotspots where the disease is "active."

Registration for the assessment clinic was full on Wednesday and Thursday, said Nzingha Millar, a member of the Preston response team. 

"That is testament to how much people are passionate about protecting themselves and others in their community, and are in fact not reckless, not careless," she said.

North Preston is celebrated because it's tightly knit, neighbours know each other, and multigenerational families live together. (Paul Adams for CBC)

The cluster of cases may be connected to some of the community's most treasured qualities. 

There are many large families, and it's not uncommon to have several generations — from babies to grandparents — living together under one roof. If there's a home in quarantine, separate bedrooms or bathrooms for the sick may be impossible.

The community response team has said emergency housing is needed for multi-generational families who are required to self-isolate, along with expedited financial support. McNeil said he's asked the community to put together a request of what's required.

Premier Stephen McNeil said he didn't intend to name and shame the Prestons, mostly black communities, when he talked about it as a COVID-19 hot spot on Tuesday. But many in these communities took offense when McNeil accused people of not listening to public health warnings. 3:42

Support for the community can't come soon enough for Colter Simmonds, whose hometown is North Preston. At his mother's home in Lake Loon, he's taped a handwritten sign on her door alerting people the home is locked down. It's his way of protecting his mom, a senior who was recently released from the hospital. 

He said he knows a few people who are infected, and has been dropping off groceries to show them support while maintaining physical distancing. He's urging everyone to modify their Easter tradition by avoiding family gatherings, and to be kind to people who are in self-isolation.

"We're going to work together to get through the situation so that our little small community doesn't get wiped out," said Simmonds. "That can happen because we are so close in proximity, but also in family and relationships."

Verena Rizg is a nurse practitioner in Halifax. (Laura Roy)

The spectre of COVID-19 in North Preston is shedding light on marginalized communities that are more vulnerable to the virus because of health and social factors, said Verena Rizg, a nurse practitioner in Halifax.

She said black communities in the Halifax area are at an "increased risk for not surviving this" because of medical conditions tied to social factors.

While people without underlying medical problems are also dying of COVID-19, people with comorbidities are dying in greater numbers, she said.

She said higher rates of high blood pressure and diabetes within black communities are directly connected to social factors such as not having a grocery store and limited public transit — which is the case in North Preston. That makes it harder for residents to get healthy food.

"It's important to just acknowledge that communities that are pushed to the margins of society are at even greater risk right now to have higher death rates," said Rizg, who is black. "The black Nova Scotian community is at risk for that."

About the Author

Elizabeth Chiu is a reporter in Nova Scotia and hosts Atlantic Tonight on Saturdays at 7 p.m., 7:30 p.m. in Newfoundland. If you have a story idea for her, contact her at elizabeth.chiu@cbc.ca.

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