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20 July 2020

After COVID-19 rethinking the social safety net

As the weeks passed with ongoing physical distancing and social isolation due to the emergence of COVID-19, Canadians are experiencing a new reality. Required to stay home if at all possible, many have returned to spending quality time with their families and remembering the importance of friends. There’s renewed interest in homecooked meals and the domestic arts. With schools and countless businesses closed, many cars are off the roads, and with much industry shut down, air pollution has visibly improved. There is more birdsong, and rarely seen wildlife is re-emerging.

Had you asked any conscientious observer in any sector — whether it be the environment, climate, indigenous rights, farming, healthcare, housing and homelessness, food security, poverty — they would have been able to articulate in detail the injustices and vulnerabilities inherent within them. But as so many have noted, the arrival of COVID-19 has brought the flaws into sharp relief for all to see: pre-existing holes in our social safety net, the claim that austerity measures, upheld by neoliberals for decades, is the only possible way forward.

Citizens have come together in solidarity to support the public good. Making sacrifices, they follow measures during this unprecedented public health emergency to slow down the progress of the virus and to protect not only themselves but also all of society. Proclaiming “We’re all in this together,” governments have stepped up to the challenge in dramatic and surprising ways to take an essential role in enabling Canadians to adhere to public health directives. Multiple policies which mere months ago had been deemed impossible by politicians and economists alike have been put into to place in only a matter of weeks. We have seen numerous financial aid packages, a moratorium on tenant evictions, deferred mortgage payments, free inter-city public transit, free parking, free hotel rooms for the homeless, the early release of non-violent inmates from prison, and more.

Choice and necessity

Canada’s federal government has poured more than a billion dollars into research grants to study the virus, make medicines, and discover a vaccine, along with additional millions to purchase Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) for front-line healthcare workers. To cushion workers and businesses from the economic shocks of COVID-19, it has created the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) which with the click of a computer mouse has put $2,000 a month into the pockets of more than eight million eligible Canadians; the Wage Subsidy and Canada Emergency Rent Assistance Program for business owners; salary top-ups for low-income essential workers; an increased Canada Child Benefit; the Canada Emergency Student Benefit; additional funding for Indigenous infrastructure and business; money to arts, culture and sports organizations; funds for farmers to house migrant workers during the necessary 14 days of quarantine; millions for fisheries; $1.7 billion to the fossil fuel industry to hire 10,000 workers to clean up abandoned oil wells and restore farmland.

Nearly every day, Prime Minister Trudeau has announced new measures to cover the gaps of yesterday’s aid packages. It’s costing hundreds of billions of dollars, but no one is blinking an eye. Austerity, it turns out, as journalist Gwynne Dyer put it, had been an ideological choice, not an economic necessity.

Falling through the cracks

Unfortunately, protection isn’t being applied equitably across the board – sometimes because of split federal/provincial responsibilities — and some Canadians are still falling through the cracks. The vast majority of deaths from COVID-19 are seniors residing in long-term care homes. Grocery store clerks are being hailed heroes along with front-line healthcare workers but many go to work without PPE or pandemic pay. Expectant mothers who have exhausted Employment Insurance aren’t eligible for CERB. Businesses are receiving rent relief but residential tenants are not. Students are getting some assistance but not as much as workers who have lost their jobs. Migrant workers remain outside the labour force. While governments are deploying military personnel and recalling retired medical workers to the front lines, fully-trained foreign doctors remain excluded. Social assistance recipients continue to struggle far below the poverty line, and the illnesses their chronic poverty have caused put them at increased risk of contracting COVID-19. In the general population, after many weeks of restrictions and no idea how long this is going to last, tempers are fraying and anxiety is palpable. Liquor sales are up and so is domestic violence. There’s increased surveillance in the name of public safety. Too many are dying, and dying alone. There are no wakes and no funerals.

People, not profit

Government’s extensive financial aid has led to unprecedented discussion about implementing a basic income. Why continue to patch together myriad programs that still exclude some Canadians when a single measure could protect everyone from falling into poverty? Fifty members of the Senate of Canada sent a letter to the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister, and the Minister of Finance on April 21st, calling on them to restructure the CERB to implement a “minimum basic income”. There are similar efforts to make basic income a reality across the world: Spain announced it will introduce a universal basic income “as soon as possible” to be in place “indefinitely” as part of its efforts to combat the economic effects of coronavirus. Pope Francis supports basic income as a priority in a post-COVID world to help “eliminate inequalities” and “heal injustices.”

Every global pandemic has been unique. And in the aftermath of widespread suffering and loss, positive change has come. Likewise with COVID-19, the real test will come once the crisis is over. Daily, Canada’s prime minister acknowledges that there is still much to do and he is committed to doing a better job. Many expect no less than transformative change. Instead of a world order characterized by ‘capital’, ‘profit’ and ‘consumerism’, there’s an opportunity to shift towards ‘cooperation’, ‘equity’ and ‘sustainability’. Will we take the lessons learned during COVID-19 and apply them to a new way of living? Or will we return to ‘business as usual’, where profit takes precedence over people, and we continue to shut out and discriminate against our poorest and most vulnerable citizens?

Tara Kainer, JPIC Office, Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul, Kingston (ON)

This text is taken from the Summer 2020 issue of the ad vitam webzine “Laudato Si’: Caring for Creation and future generations”