Spring was in the air when the whole world paused in March 2020. As nations across the globe faced a new and unknown disease we were united in our fear of what was to come. But there was also a sense of connection and cooperation rising up. No one had the answers and so communities banded together. In Paris, people sang from their balconies while famous actors read bedtime stories to children online. Zookeepers delighted audiences by introducing unlikely animals to each other and world-class chefs gave cooking demos in their kitchens. In a time of uncertainty, the world stood together in the fight against COVID-19.
More than a year later, that sense of comradery is a fading memory. In the months since those early days of COVID-19, the pandemic has shone a light on many pre-existing underlying inequalities in Canada. These issues may have pre-dated the pandemic but the months of hardship have only exacerbated them. Although COVID-19 inspired many to help others in their time of need, the damage and stress of the pandemic were certainly not felt equally by all.
The impact of COVID-19 wasn’t just limited to hospitals. From gender, to race, to working conditions, Canadians in different socioeconomic positions are living through a very different pandemic. Inequalities take many forms such as:
In theory, every Canadian should have access to the same universal healthcare system, especially in the middle of a pandemic. In practice, things are working out a little differently. Healthcare centres are not uniformly accessible throughout the country, especially in more rural areas where the distance between centres increases, creating inequality in who can access services and when. Urban populations have a higher density of hospitals and health practitioners but even then, there can be barriers to access.
Language accessibility can often prove a challenge particularly for new Canadians who may not speak the same language as their doctors or have access to translators. Physical barriers such as a lack of ramps or wheelchair access can also increase the challenge of reaching the right medical help for Canadians with disabilities. Not to mention, even making an appointment can be a challenge if it requires time off work for patients without sick days who may be hourly or lower-income workers that can’t afford to leave their jobs. Canadians might have universal healthcare but not everyone can access it with the same ease.
Canada’s digital divide is nothing new. The availability of internet in urban areas vs rural ones is a long-standing problem with large stretches of the country facing economic and geographical barriers to extending access. Downloading within a city might see internet speeds of 63.72 Mbps while the same download in a rural community could average 5.96 Mbps. In First Nations communities, it’s estimated that only 30 per cent of households are meeting the government-recommended speed levels that allow pages to load in seconds rather than minutes. This means that online meetings for remote work or e-learning classes for education become nearly impossible to access with a weak connection.
When schools and support services across the country closed their doors due to lockdowns, many families were faced with a new pandemic hurdle. Who is going to supervise the kids or take over elder-care responsibilities? Those trying to balance remote work with remote school quickly realized how difficult things were going to become and invariably, it was women who more often bore the brunt of those new challenges.
Unfortunately, the solution to this problem has seen droves of women leaving the workplace in order to take on more responsibilities in the home. This has the potential to set back the fight for pay equality that was gaining steam before the pandemic struck. Not to mention the long-term impact of women leaving the business world will affect how many women move into senior and leadership positions as time goes on. The struggle of many women to balance being a mother and an employee in the same place at the same time has the potential to leave its mark on the working world for years to come.
Unfortunately, though infection risk was higher, the rates of vaccination also skewed against visible minorities. Black Canadians were vaccinated nearly 20 per cent less than the Canadian average when looking at first dose rates meaning that populations experiencing the most risk were also facing less protection.
Not only are visible minorities within these communities seeing higher COVID-19 numbers but they’re also faced with greater levels of discrimination. A StatCan poll found that Chinese, Korean, Southeast Asian, and Black participants were twice as likely to have faced discrimination as white participants throughout the pandemic. All across Canada COVID-19 is affecting people differently and visible minorities are bearing the brunt of that impact.
Living through the pandemic has left no one’s mental health unscathed. From forced isolation to physical distancing, Canadians were kept away from many of their support systems and that necessity has had a very real cost. A CAMH poll showed that 50% of Canadians are reporting worsening mental health in the past months with many feeling increased worry and anxiety. Substance abuse, worker burnout, and anxiety and depression rates are all on the rise making it clear that the pandemic poses a threat beyond just our physical health. But just as social support services were needed most, many had to close their doors during lockdowns. The ease and availability of accessing help decreased along with the health and wellness checks that had been commonplace before the pandemic. Suddenly those battling mental health challenges were on their own with little recourse. The past months have proven that too many people are falling through the cracks as the country focuses on physical healthcare with no solution in sight.
We’re living in the golden age of Amazon deliveries, Uber Eats, and online shopping but what does that mean for Canadians who can’t afford the inflated cost of online goods or the extra service and delivery fees? Even before the pandemic, Canada had a problem providing all citizens with food security as over 800,000 people would access food banks each month. The pandemic saw that number climb an additional 20 per cent. But for food banks to run effectively, they need donations, volunteers, and usually indoor gatherings with shared meals. Of course, all of those things are in short supply during a pandemic even as the need for them only grows. Even by the time the third wave hit, numbers were steadily rising, not falling. In Calgary, one organization saw 1,000 people accessing their food services each day, up from 400 a day the previous year. With demand holding steady, food scarcity remains a stark inequality in the country as Amazon delivery trucks drive by shuttered food banks.
In a very similar vein to food banks, shelters and charities working with Canadians experiencing homelessness felt the same squeeze as the pandemic kicked into gear. With volunteers staying home and donations drying up, shelters across the country were cut off from the support services they needed to help those experiencing homelessness. Even worse, with no safe place to shelter and isolate, COVID-19 infections ran rampant through shelters. More affluent Canadians had the option to escape pandemic hotspots in favour of their cottages and many middle-class families had access to at least a private bedroom to isolate in but others were faced with the decision of risking disease within a shelter or risking it on the streets instead. For Canadians who struggled to find a home before the pandemic, COVID-19 only made things worse with increased infection risk and decreased resources and support.
In offices around the world, workers celebrated the new era of working from home. And what a time it was. News anchors were caught on camera in pyjama pants and Zoom filter mistakes kept the country laughing. But again, not everyone was able to adapt their work in the same way. For essential workers, there was no option to work from home. Groceries can’t be bagged over a webcam, after all, which means those in frontline positions faced a greater risk of infection than those with the ability to work online.
Plus, even as the risk stayed consistent, the resources available for essential workers declined. Loblaws, for example, introduced a $2 wage boost at the start of the pandemic that they quietly rolled back several months later, despite no vaccine being in sight at the time. While part of the country had the luxury to shelter at home, others went out every day to earn their wage despite the danger their jobs posed to both them and their families.
The pandemic also impacted people of different ages differently as well. Many seniors faced a particularly harsh pandemic as many of their resources were cut off. Meal deliveries stalled and local programs such as exercise classes or community gatherings were paused. This left thousands of older Canadians isolated and alone.
The situation was even worse for those in care facilities. As COVID-19 swept through long-term care homes across the country, buildings were locked down so that no one could enter or leave. Residents were isolated again and even worse, they were trapped in places they couldn’t escape as COVID-19 infected their friends and neighbours. In fact, 69 per cent of the country’s fatalities came from deaths in nursing homes. The facilities created a perfect storm with an isolated and vulnerable population, underpaid staff, and in many cases poor physical conditions. Unfortunately, it was Canadian seniors who paid the price.
For those struggling with addiction, the pandemic has been a nightmare scenario. Many Canadians were left on their own, isolated from friends and networks that would normally be a source of support. Harm reduction and treatment services declined even as the demand for them increased. In BC, record numbers of overdoses were reported during the spring of 2020 as users sought to numb the increased anxiety, depression, and fear caused by the pandemic. And it wasn’t just those battling addictions that saw an increase in substance use as a coping mechanism.
With little to do and dark news pouring out of the TV, many Canadians turned to drugs or alcohol to self-soothe. According to a CAMH poll, 21 per cent of Canadians aged 18-34 and 25 per cent of those aged 35-54 reported an increase in their alcohol usage through the pandemic. 52 per cent of existing cannabis users also reported an increase in their use through at least the first wave. When times were rough, Canadians turned to substance use to cope and the decision may have long-lasting implications, especially for those already struggling to manage their usage.
It’s time to stop pretending we’re all in this together. Those who can afford to escape hot zones or purchase their groceries online are living a very different experience from those in lower-income neighbourhoods that might have more limited access to healthcare while shouldering greater risk. From communities in the North to diverse neighbourhoods in urban centers, the cost of the pandemic is not being evenly felt. As Canadians, these inequalities should be a call to action that we need to do more. Let’s not aim to return to normal as it was already broken. Instead, let’s find a way to build a new system together that doesn’t just acknowledge the deep inequalities in our own country but takes real steps towards fixing them.
To learn more about how you can help Canadians affected by the pandemic, check out the COVID-19 Community Care Fund by Unite for Change.