By Hassan Yussuff, as published in the Toronto Star
As we continue to cope with the challenges of COVID-19, we must recognize the opportunity presented by such massive upheaval, and move to implement deep social change in our communities.
We must re-imagine what our society can be and re-shape the country to address long ignored inequities – inequities that this pandemic has brought to the forefront. With the right investments, we can lift more people up. If we’ve learned anything from this pandemic, it’s that we are stronger when we support each other.
No doubt, COVID-19’s impacts on our health have been severe. Since March, Canada has seen more than 120,000 people test positive for COVID-19 and more than 9,000 die. Our numbers show better results than many other countries around the world, but still, in a population of 37 million, not one Canadian has gone untouched by this pandemic.
Millions have been also hurt by the economic fall-out. Public service workers have processed more than 8.5 million applications for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, and the federal government has a projected deficit of $343.2 billion for 2020-21.
Even before COVID-19 hit, many Canadians were already on the brink. Almost 50 per cent of Canadians said they were $200 away from insolvency. Many workers were earning minimum wage and often worked in precarious jobs that provided little to no protections or benefits.
Many of those jobs disappeared during this pandemic, as businesses shuttered or cut staff to save on expenses. As the fall approaches, we are seeing people desperate to work but unable to find employment. The rent is due and eviction bans are being lifted.
Amidst the calls for more help and support to struggling Canadians, there are those that have not shied away from suggesting that rather than fix what we can all see is broken, we should pull back support. As if on cue, former Prime Minister Stephen Harper opined in the Wall Street Journal this past spring that smaller governments should be the order of the day. Other prominent Conservatives have shared similar musings.
This Labour Day, Canada’s unions are rolling out a very different vision for the country. This is our opportunity to move away from the politics of austerity. After all, cuts and privatization were the cause of some of the devastation we’ve seen throughout this crisis. Supporting families and workers with targeted benefits has allowed us to avoid widespread hunger, homelessness and heartache as evident south of the border.
Step one must be the rebuilding of our economy. Workers deserve good, stable jobs that allow them to make ends meet. We are calling for a visionary job-creation plan that focuses on child care, long-term care, housing and other social programs that help communities flourish. It is time to concentrate on a green transition and shovel-ready infrastructure projects.
Furthermore, it’s clear we need to disaster-proof our country. People in Canada should be able to rely on their government to ensure they have access to the services that keep us all safe and secure. We can’t remain vulnerable to factors outside of our control and must be better equipped to respond to future crisis.
The catastrophe that we saw in long-term care homes has demonstrated the devastating effects of privatization. Furthermore, as people lose their jobs, they shouldn’t worry about how they pay for their prescription medications. Let’s address these critical gaps by making long-term care part of our health care system and by finally implementing a national pharmacare plan.
The negative impacts we are seeing on women’s participation in the labour market is in part due to years of inaction on affordable child care. The concerns that many people have over school re-entry is the result of years of cuts that have left schools in disrepair and our teachers with the absolute minimum support required to do their jobs.
When we consider how other countries have fared, we can be proud that we rallied together to face this unprecedented crisis. But future generations will appreciate the protections we enact today to weather the upheavals ahead.
Hassan Yussuff is the president of the Canadian Labour Congress. Follow him on Twitter @Hassan_Yussuff