We are contending with a global health, economic and social crisis unlike any in modern history. The coronavirus, (COVID-19), which has been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO), is attacking societies at their core, especially the most vulnerable in our society – including the elderly and the poor.
The pandemic has had a severe impact on Canadians, unemployment rates have soared with the number of adults unemployed or seeking employment standing at a record high of 13%. However, this statistic is really an understatement of just how dire the situation really is, as many individuals are not included in these calculations.
One major concern is that the COVID-19 pandemic has increased inequality even more within the Canadian labour market and across society more broadly. The negative impacts of COVID-19 are most certainly more pronounced for workers who hold low paying jobs.
Economic inequality is unfortunately a worldwide phenomenon, and the pandemic is exposing more blatantly than ever before the reality of these inequalities. Functional democracies require a healthy and strong middle class to sustain the service levels for all members of a society. There is however an uneven distribution of income and wealth that constitutes one of the critical challenges of our time. Canadians are fortunate to have for the most part a strong social safety net but a great deal more remains to be done to address persistent inequality for many members of our society.
If this pandemic is not properly managed, and in particular the recovery from it, there exists the very real possibility that it will increase inequality, exclusion, discrimination, and global unemployment. In addition to the economic pressures experienced by Canadians, Health Canada estimates that 11 million people in this country are experiencing high levels of stress.
Food banks across Canada have witnessed a sharp increase in the number of people needing to use them. Many of Canada’s 3000 food banks have been severely impacted by COVID-19. They have experienced drastic reductions in their food recovery efforts as well as a significant drop in volunteers despite their very best and commendable efforts.
It is estimated that over one million Canadians visit food banks every month and this was based on statistics prior to the COVID-19 crisis. The Federal government announced in April $50 million in investments for Food Banks Canada to help improve access to food for Canadians facing social, economic, and health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Food banks across Canada prevent individuals from going hungry and they assist Canadians living with food insecurity through a noble vision of creating a Canada where no one experiences hunger.
Since the beginning of COVID-19, there has been a reduction in volunteers and staff supporting these efforts. In addition, many food drives and fundraising events have been cancelled. As well, our breakfast programs across the country have been closed. Many schools provide children with breakfast, now those children who received meals through school breakfast and lunch programs may not be able to access the food they would normally receive.
We can, however, all make a difference by making a financial contribution to the ‘COVID-19 Response Fund’ to support food banks and by providing food donations to them.
The longer the pandemic continues, the more obvious becomes the deepening income inequality.
The concept of dignity is an essential element of the modern human rights landscape. The core international human rights document, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948 starts with “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family” as the “foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”
Dignity rests on the opportunity to pursue one’s potential with a sense of purpose and meaning and being able to financially support yourself without humiliation. This crisis is making it difficult for most people, especially the most vulnerable members of our society. The significant gap between rich and poor has increased. Questions must be raised as well about globalization and the shipping of jobs overseas. Yes, it is true that we have accessed cheaper and more affordable goods and items from off-shore manufacturing, but at what price?
The COVID-19 public health emergency will either provide the platform for us to change our world or permit even greater inequality. We must act.
Dr. Mario Silva, PhD (law), Distinguished Fellow, Ryerson University