It’s time to address the systemic social injustices exposed by COVID

It’s time to address the systemic social injustices exposed by COVID
In late July, Toronto Public Health produced socio-demographic data covering the first phase of COVID-19. That data was shocking in its findings — 83 per cent of COVID cases in Toronto involved Black or racialized people, and 51 per cent involved low-income people.

Another report, in early September, found that immigrants and refugees accounted for nearly half of the cases in the province, even though they are only a quarter of the population. This report also highlighted the large number of newcomer women who work in health care who have tested positive.

This pandemic has disproportionately impacted the most vulnerable among us and has exposed systemic inequities in our city. Seniors, racialized people, newcomers and those living in lower-income, larger households have been the most at risk.

The heart-breaking tragedy which unfolded in seniors’ care has been another shock to our collective consciousness, with 81 per cent of COVID deaths in Canada occurring in long-term care or retirement homes. This is double the average for comparable countries. Even in the U.S., the corresponding figure is 31 per cent.

The neighbourhoods in Toronto hardest hit by the pandemic are clustered in the northwest and northeast inner suburbs. They are generally high-density, low-income and very diverse. They are often under-resourced and neglected, with a lack of infrastructure and services. 

Many of the residents in these neighbourhoods work in low-wage, part-time, precarious jobs, with no job security or benefits. They often work on the frontlines, in sectors regarded as “essential” during this pandemic. 

Weston-Mount Dennis has a unique history of being a former industrial centre where numerous factories were located such as Kodak and CCM. When the plant closures started in the 1990s, this area turned into a shell of its former self.

Despite the devastation left behind by de-industrialization, Weston-Mount Dennis and other adjoining communities continued to be destination points for wave after wave of newcomers. If the myth of Toronto as a vibrant, multicultural city has any credibility, it is to be found in these inner suburbs.

Decades of neglect have contributed to the inner, and outer, suburbs becoming hotspots for COVID. This neglect corresponds with a worldview dominant since of the 1980s of a reduced role for government in favour of private-sector market solutions. The market solution to housing was to turn it into a commodity for speculation, making home ownership or even affordable rental housing out of reach for many.

The neighbourhoods hard hit by COVID include Rouge, Woburn, Glenfield-Jane Heights, Mount Olive-Silverstone-Jamestown, Milliken, West Humber-Clairville, as well as Weston. 

The ones least hit include the Beaches, the Danforth, the Annex, Yonge-Eglinton and most of the downtown core. While numbers have changed weekly, the infection rate in Weston has been as high as 18 times that of the Beaches.

This data shows a city increasingly divided by race and class. It also highlights the division between those who have privilege and those who don’t.

“Working from home” is not an option for many low-wage workers. Many don’t have the luxury of an actual house with an “office” and the digital opportunity for meetings with colleagues via Zoom.

Home can often be a small, cramped apartment in a high-rise building which hasn’t been updated in decades. Home can be a multi-generational family sharing one or two bedrooms. Home can be in a neighbourhood where the only TTC service is a crowded bus, or where there is a lack of testing facilities, or a lack of adequate heath services in general. 

Home can be in a neighbourhood where the loss of income, the threat of eviction and food insecurity are pervasive. Research by the Wellesley Institute shows that the same neighbourhoods hardest hit by COVID also have the highest eviction filing rates. In Weston, the annual eviction rate has averaged a staggering 13 per cent of tenant households, even before the pandemic.

The COVID data has confirmed the research done by the University of Toronto’s David Hulchanski who has made a career out of mapping Toronto’s growing income inequality. Two years ago he produced demographic analysis based on the latest census, which showed Toronto to be a city increasingly segregated by race.

Racialized people are concentrated in low-income neighbourhoods and white residents dominate in affluent areas in numbers far higher than their share of the population. His research showed relatively high levels of education in low-income neighbourhoods, pointing to systemic racism and discrimination as being a key factor in this divide.

This public health crisis is far from over with COVID on the rise again and concerns about the upcoming flu season. Many residents are struggling even more precariously than before. This pandemic has not only preyed upon poverty and discrimination, it has actually widened the gap between rich and poor. 

Six months into this lockdown, we have yet to fully grasp the impact on peoples’ lives of accumulated stress, anxiety, depression and isolation and of being deprived of the opportunity to properly grieve for the loss of loved ones.

This has been a period of profound reflection and re-evaluation. We have universally praised frontline workers and derided those who profit from the warehousing of our elders. We have rightfully seen access to proper healthcare, income security, adequate food and shelter as being priorities for people, even basic rights. We have seen acts of goodness, social solidarity and mutual aid become commonplace. And the gaps in our support systems, and the divides, have been exposed and made visible for all to see.

In a powerful essay, writer Dionne Brand reflected that:

“the people who espoused cutbacks, belt tightening, austerity, privatization … have been spun around 180 degrees. Where they advocated, over the last 30 or 40 years, shrinking the state they have now swiftly expanded it. Though they have not admitted to the failure of their ideas and austerity policies, they have virtually, though temporarily, overturned 40 years of shrinking the state’s responsibilities to people. You wonder what additional things might have been done that they previously said could not be done.”

Already there are some predictable voices who want to cut back on government spending and to refocus on debt reduction. They want a return to austerity.

This pandemic has coincided with a dramatic struggle for racial and social justice. This struggle gives us confidence that the previous “normal” will no longer be tolerated. As many labour and community organizations are calling for, it is time for a just recovery, to dismantle systemic barriers and injustices and to develop comprehensive supports to protect us all, especially the most vulnerable.

Ken Theobald is a community worker in Weston-Mount Dennis, located in the city’s northwest inner suburbs.

Image: marc falardeau/Flickr

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