Three unacceptable but common conditions in our society have been thrown into high relief due to the pandemic. Each will require time and funding to ameliorate.
The first is the most glaring. Since the vast majority of COVID-19 infections and deaths have been inflicted upon residents of long-term care facilities, we obviously have a problem in many of them.
Multiple residents housed in one room, as is common in older residences, is part of the problem. Another vulnerability is owing to low wages (with few if any benefits, most especially health-care benefits), for those providing the bulk of the services in long-term care facilities. They often work part-time in several such facilities (though no longer in B.C.), live in crowded conditions at home and have become vectors for the infecting virus.
If provincial governments provide subsidies to such facilities based upon an average wage paid to unionized workers in the sector while some owners pay less for non-unionized workers, clearly the subsidy is being abused in pursuit of profits.
The circumstance that many of the lowest-paid workers are recent immigrants trying to gain a foothold in our society makes the exploitation even more repugnant.
Not only should inspections of long-term care facilities be frequent and thorough, but all workers’ wages need to rise to the level of unionized rates and comparable benefits should be mandated.
The second unpleasant reality we have confronted during the lockdown stemming from the pandemic is an increase in families, most particularly women, experiencing domestic abuse. Abused women, often with their children, are seeking protection and temporary shelter only to find shelter spaces are full or unavailable. With insufficient shelter space available, women are forced to return to the abusive relationship and thereby risk serious injury or even death.
What is needed is a substantial increase in shelter spaces for women seeking protection for themselves and their offspring together with resources to allow them to live independently of their abusive partners. They should not find themselves in a position where the only way to keep a roof over their and their children’s heads is to continue living in a violent home. Along with the temporary safe housing, abused women need immediate counselling to help them start on a transition to a stable future for themselves and their children. We need to make this priority in our social safety net.
The third social condition highlighted by the pandemic and the closing of schools is child poverty. Statistics Canada estimates that more than 560,000 children live in poverty. When school is in session, programs aimed at providing meals to hungry children camouflage the prevalence of this shameful situation in our wealthy country. While many schools and volunteers have scrambled to come up with stop-gap feeding programs, we can see the problem clearly now.
Malnourished and inadequately clothed, such children are the innocent victims of our society. They suffer health problems, under-perform academically and have below-average completion rates in school. In short, they are doomed in many cases to a life on the margins with high unemployment and poor health that puts a heavy burden on our social safety net from childhood throughout adulthood.
There is no justification for the failure of our society to eliminate this cancer on our collective well being and the cost of eliminating it pales when compared to the resulting savings when poor children are helped to become educated adults capable of productive employment. Each provincial and territorial government, together with the federal government should pledge now to eliminate child poverty in the next half decade.
As is often said by armchair philosophers, when given lemons make lemonade. The pandemic is a whopping lemon and we can make lots of lemonade for the elderly, abused women and children of poverty. It can be done; it just requires the will.
David Bond is a retired bank economist who lives in Kelowna.