Poverty And Pandemics

Saskatchewan’s most vulnerable people now have a killer virus to deal with. It’s time for change

Poverty by Stephen Whitworth

There’s a lot of chatter about what a game-changer coronavirus is. With Canada’s economy just now taking its first, tentative steps out of lockdown, Canadians (even conservative Saskatchewanians!) are still reeling from a shock lesson on the importance of basic social programs — like, say, emergency income support for individuals and businesses.

We’re getting a wake-up call telling us to re-invest in public workers, services and infrastructure. One example: hospitals, which weren’t as prepared as they should’ve been for a pandemic (thank goodness for the heroic efforts of nurses, doctors and support staff).

Another example: private care homes, the worst of which have been exposed as little more than concentration camps for the elderly (see: Quebec).

But despite a surge in awareness of these and other cracks in the foundations of civil society, there’s still one group that’s essentially being ignored in this crisis: the poor.

Poverty In The Time Of COVID

Backing up for a moment: I’m an early-50s Gen-Xer who turned 18 during the Ronald Reagan/Margaret Thatcher/Brian Mulroney decade. That shitty era saw the resurrection of bad ideas like low, low, low taxes on the rich, massive privatization of public services, the romanticism of “efficiency” whatever the human and economic costs, and deranged enthusiasm for layoffs and pay cuts in both the public AND private sectors (CEOs excluded).

The 1980s firmly established neoliberalism’s 40-plus-year-long war on social programs that saw everything from bus rides to public pools to college and university become much more expensive for Canadians.

Another thing that got rolling in the 1980s: food banks.

The Regina Anti-Poverty Ministry’s Peter Gilmer is a familiar voice in Saskatchewan social justice circles (and Planet S interviews). For more than two decades, Gilmer has advocated for the poor with both facts and appeals to human decency.

A few weeks back, I spoke with him about what it’s like being poor during a global pandemic.

Spoiler alert: it’s not pretty.

“It’s important to look at this in the context of where we were before the pandemic hit,” says Gilmer. “[RAPM’s] initial focus was ensuring we could get all the folks we’re working with who have been cut off or denied income assistance an income as this sets in.

“Many of the cases our office deals with are people who … have basically been left with no income support whatsoever,” Gilmer continues. “That’s a bad circumstance at the best of times but obviously there’s more pressure on people when society is impacted by a pandemic.

“We’re very concerned about people being made homeless during a pandemic.”

Gilmer does have measured, reserved praise for the Province’s initial COVID-19 response.

“The Province listened to the call for a moratorium on evictions for now, at least based on rental arrears,” says Gilmer. “That was absolutely essential and we’re glad they finally came around on that. We’ve also seen some easing-up with the reporting system for people on income assistance programs.

Flowers From Turds

“We’re glad these minor changes have been made at the provincial level and we’re glad there’s a relief package coming from the federal government supporting the many low- and middle-income workers pushed out of work due to the pandemic,” Gilmer says. “But so far, we’re not seeing any additional supports for the lowest-income people in our society. And we do think that this is a time when the provincial government needs to step up and look at what is realistic for people to live on.

Gilmer, like others, sees Canada’s plague-induced lockdown as an accidental agent of much-needed change — which is the nicest thing anyone’s going to say about a homicidal virus that’s destroying lives and nuking the economy.

“Ultimately I think this is going to clarify for folks, in the same way the Great Depression did generations before, that poverty is indeed a systemic issue [that] has to be dealt with systemically, and through policy and legislative change,” Gilmer says.

“It’s the only way we’re going to be able to deal with poverty in the future.”