Pandemic highlights how little we value marginalized lives


Look across the street.  Do you see that fancy new house, with the swish vehicle parked out front?  That person is more important than you.

In fact, their life is more important than yours.

We may live in a democracy and be subject to a legal system in which every person is technically considered equal, but you don’t have to scratch the surface with much vigour to penetrate the false veneer of equality.

Some people’s lives have always been deemed more valuable than others, but the current pandemic has shined an uncomfortable spotlight on just how glaring our social inequities have truly become.

Numerous recent studies confirmed what we already knew: marginalized people – racialized, impoverished, homeless – have been hit disproportionally hard by COVID-19.  But the pandemic has merely exacerbated pre-existing social inequities.

In recent decades, those who have wielded power made the conscious decision to retain systemic precariousness – a policy choice.  And with the advent of a pandemic, more people are beginning to notice just how devastating such inequity can be for those on the socio-economic periphery.

Even obtaining evidence of the extent that marginalized people have been assailed by the pandemic was initially next to impossible, as most public health authorities couldn’t fathom any benefit from collecting such demographic data.  It wasn’t until many were publicly shamed that they relented and admitted the necessity of focusing on those likely to be hit hardest.

While some people enjoyed the relative luxury of staying home during the initial COVID-19 wave, filling their days with online meetings or streaming movies, those with a more precarious existence continued to trudge to tedious and underpaid work that we suddenly declared “essential”, putting them at tremendous risk.  Yet despite such pandemic exposure, government made few demands that workplaces be altered to improve safety.  Laws and regulations remained largely unaltered.  Governments that had recently provided corporations with funding to purchase climate-friendly refrigerators somehow couldn’t muster similar money to retrofit factories or warehouses to keep employees safe, such as with improved ventilation or adequately distanced workspaces.  As the pandemic raged, temporary foreign workers continued to be bunked together in small quarters, crammed together like cattle, in conditions most oblivious Canadians would be horrified to discover exist in their supposedly developed country.

The combination of a housing affordability crisis and badly-designed cities that encourage car ownership has created deep transportation inequity.  Those who fill the lowest-paid jobs can’t afford to live in most central cities, and instead endure long commutes and woefully under-funded transit systems, crammed like sardines at a time they’re supposed to remain physically distant.  Building protected cycle tracks (bike lanes) would have put less strain on transit systems, decreased people’s exposure to the SARS-CoV-2 virus and allowed workers to get much-needed exercise (reducing health care costs).  Instead, our ideological politicians have largely dithered, despite regularly insisting that transportation is the motor of our economy.  Rather than learning from countries like the Netherlands that have already successfully diversified their transport options, we’ve instead consigned modes other than the private automobile to the “culture wars”, an excuse to continue to build community infrastructure on the cheap, illustrating the ultimately high cost of the “low-tax” mantra we’re constantly peddled – including people’s lives.

Homeless people were initially an afterthought as the pandemic began, and long delays to expanding the shelter system triggered numerous preventable outbreaks.

The Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) was announced to tremendous acclaim, and led to ponderous discussions about whether it should lead to a universal basic income.  Meanwhile, many people fell through the cracks, not qualifying to receive the CERB during a time of urgent need.  Initial indicators are that even fewer will be able to claim from the successor program, the Canada Recovery Benefit (CRB).  Those who fail to meet the minimum income threshold get nothing.  The so-called middle class is once again deemed more important than society’s most precarious, despite that many of the latter are desperate for financial support and battle against looming homelessness.

Care homes, which in several provinces underwent privatization overhauls that Margaret Thatcher would have been proud of, turned out to be ill-equipped for a pandemic.  Many private facilities were discovered to have become veritable COVID Petri dishes, alongside the uncovering of pre-existing neglect and exploitation so horrendous that the military had to be called in.  Meanwhile, Ontario’s three largest care home corporations paid out more than $1.5 billion in profits to shareholders over the past decade alone, according to the Toronto Star.  (And let’s not forget that former Ontario premier Mike Harris, an architect of his province’s care home privatization, now sits on the board of directors of one such corporation.)  Quite simply, profits trump lives.

So-called “pandemic pay” – a modest boost to the poverty wages of frontline workers in industries such as grocery stores – lasted a mere two months before several Canadian grocers curtailed such bonuses around the same time, raising suspicions of potential collusion.  With the second wave of the pandemic now already dwarfing the previous spring outbreak, most grocers have thus far resisted bringing back the pay boost, with the exception of Sobeys, which begrudgingly reinstituted it this past weekend after months of delay.  And as already mentioned, most such workers cannot afford to live in central Toronto, necessitating long commutes on transit.

Ontario implemented a moratorium on housing evictions during the initial pandemic wave, but that was lifted in early June, and courts now subject tenants to rushed online hearings that last as little as 60 seconds.  Why the moratorium wasn’t brought back during the current second wave is anyone’s guess.

Domestic abuse has also soared during the pandemic, causing spouses who don’t earn an income and children to be at the mercy of abusers during lockdown.

Homeless encampments continue to be bulldozed by the City of Toronto, while the municipality sends legal threats to Good Samaritans such as carpenter Khaleel Seivwright, who was building “tiny shelters” for those without a home as Toronto’s brutal winter approaches.

Also regarding transportation, Toronto finally relented and will begin to clear snow from sidewalks in some (but not all) parts of Old Toronto and East York, after years of political battles.  However, it remains doubtful whether all of the city’s sidewalks will be cleared in future years.  Elderly populations are high in Toronto neighbourhoods such as Corso Italia; winters without access to sidewalks have meant being trapped indoors for some, or necessitating the expense of private car ownership for others, despite seniors desperately needing daily exercise to remain healthy.

Considering it was people able to afford the luxury of international flights who were responsible for bringing the SARS-CoV-2 virus to Canada’s cities, it’s ironic that those at society’s margins now bear the greatest toll.  A posh condo tower across the street from me, where several celebrities and professional athletes live, served as the scene from something out of a horror movie this past March, as health workers in full hazmat suits combed the belongings of early COVID victims.  Several months later, such events became more likely to occur in the city’s neglected community housing towers.

In the quest to keep the wealthiest fed and sheltered in comfortable isolation, the poorest risk their lives on a daily basis.  Many agricultural workers who came to Canada out of financial desperation, in a benevolent quest to feed the families they were required to leave back home, have paid the ultimate price.

In the rush to re-stimulate the economy, our governments have recklessly ignored the advice of public health experts when it didn’t align with political goals.  They dragged their feet on a subsequent lockdown, exacerbating the second pandemic wave and needlessly endangering large swathes of lives.

We have collectively decided that these “essential” workers, these “heroes”, are expendable.  In our incessant quest for profits and savings, we can’t even commit to boosting their pay above the poverty line for more a couple of months.  Our neoliberal society cares so little about community that corporations are more concerned about paying dividends to shareholders than keeping front-line employees alive and compensating them fairly.

More than 12,000 Canadians have now succumbed to COVID-19.  Many of these deaths were the conscious result of policy decisions and/or profit-seeking.  How many of those who monitor the status of their stock portfolios each day are callously unconcerned with the ballooning human toll, as long as their personal wealth trends in the same direction?

Inequity isn’t new, but it has been exacerbated and brought into clearer focus – yet thus far, it looks like even a pandemic isn’t enough for society to want to systemically address social injustice.

The marginalized aren’t our COVID-19 heroes. They’re our sacrificial victims.

Photo Credit: Jeff Burney, Loonie Politics

More from Devon Rowcliffe.    @DevonRowcliffe

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