Passer au contenu

Canada’s human rights failures on COVID

We must not wait for the pandemic to pass before committing ourselves to reducing inequality.

Stressed woman

When COVID-19 was declared a pandemic in March, everyone was saying that we are all in it together. Six months in, it is clear that we are not. We have seen huge disparities in terms of the impacts of this virus on the elderly, the unemployed and underemployed, women, the disabled, indigenous peoples and racialized minorities. In other words, the majority of our population.

Let’s start with the elderly. Across the country, between 77 and 80 per cent of COVID-related deaths have been linked to long-term care homes. It is stunning that we are seeing a resurgence in outbreaks in those facilities, while governments fail to to acknowledge the role that they have played in the debacle. According to the Globe and Mail, the Ontario government is not guaranteeing the health and safety of residents in these facilities, stating that the responsibility lies with those who run and operate them. Keep in mind that the Ontario Ministry of Long-Term Care regulates, licenses and inspects the province’s 623 long-term care homes. Close to one hundred of them have been targeted in $500 million class action for their role in these deaths and this suffering.

I was pleased to hear the beginning of an acknowledgment of these issues in the Speech from the Throne. We may see an attempt to impose national standards on long-term care homes or even consideration of criminal prosecutions against those who actively cause deaths and severe suffering of the elderly. But who will be found responsible? The overburdened caretakers in those facilities, or the organizations who run the homes? That has not yet been determined.

If we turn to unemployment, we again see incredible disparities. Let’s first consider women, the majority of this country’s population. Those who work in the public sector or have high-paying jobs have, to a large extent, not suffered as much as women with lower incomes, especially those with children. The aggregate hours worked by mothers of children under six is down 17 per cent compared to just 4 per cent of men with children under six. Women who earn less also suffer more unemployment. There needs to be better discussion and understanding around the duty of employers to accommodate the burdens put on caregivers, whether male or female.Where disabled workers or those with co-morbidities are concerned, the duty to accommodate could be even more pressing on account of their susceptibility to the virus.

If we turn to race, Statistics Canada offers some stunning unemployment figures. , going back to July, when it only started conducting race-based analysis of the labour market in. All non-white racial groups are experiencing much higher levels of unemployment than their white counterparts. South Asians and off-reserve Indigenous workers were at the greatest disadvantage, with unemployment rates at 17.8 per cent compared to 9.3 per cent overall. The picture for Indigenous disabled and gig workers is even worse.

I was again pleased to hear in the Speech from the Throne an acknowledgement that women have faced a larger burden in this pandemic, along with the promise there will be a feminist intersectional approach to remedying these inequalities. There was also acknowledgment of discrimination, but nothing specific on how to raise the floor for racialized minorities and address the challenges they face in terms of unemployment or low paid employment in the long term.

Here lies the rub. How do we reconcile ourselves as a country that pays attention to inequality, and that tells the rest of the world that we are champions of inclusion and human rights for all and that they should do better? We have a lot of work to do.

We need to think about a massive build-out of our social infrastructure to meet these fundamental challenges of governance and regulation. If we do not, this will not be the last catastrophe we face. Scientists say there are multiple pandemics lining up behind this one. Getting in front of the next crisis will require profound examination and preparation by our best minds and our best practitioners. In the long run, all Canadians must rethink our social infrastructure and our governance structures. The question is whether we are capable of that.

For higher-paid workers, the recession caused by the pandemic ended in August. Meanwhile, the rest of the population is still suffering economic and social distress. New social infrastructure must focus on raising the economic and social floor for the majority of the population. This requires a complete rethink of our present economic and social programs and giving more policy-reforming room to those willing to challenge the present structures that entrench inequality. There are increasing demands for measures designed to raise the floor for the majority of Canadians—such as the establishment of a universal basic income and free post-secondary education for those that can’t afford to pay. We are also hearing growing calls for progressive judicial rulings, new mechanisms and funding to combat systemic discrimination against, women, racial minorities and the elderly in employment, education, the criminal justice system, housing and health care.

We must not wait to defeat the pandemic before considering these options. This virus has a compelling moral impact, and so it is essential we tackle inequalities at the height of the pandemic. If COVID-19 results in massive unequal suffering in the population, we run the real risk of confining the country to a far more fractured social, political and economic future.