Wellesley Institute research has long demonstrated significant health disparities for low-income and racialized people. Like past crises, the COVID-19 pandemic intensified these disparities. Our pandemic response did not focus on equity – on helping the Ontarians who needed help the most. We must not make continue to make the same mistake. We need to ensure all Ontarians can not only survive, but thrive – access all they need to be healthy.
This year’s Provincial Budget must demonstrate to Ontarians that the government, hand-in-hand with society, can do two things at once.
First, it must show Ontarians that a better future – a New Normal – is possible by putting in place recovery plans for a stronger, more equitable Ontario. We cannot merely rebuild – we must build stronger. It should acknowledge that other pandemics – including racism, poverty, inadequate and unaffordable housing, and scarce physical and mental health resources – put equity-seeking groups at greater risk than others. It should tell Ontarians a story about a future where they can be proud that their society cares for everyone. Then, it should put in place adequate funding to meet concrete goals each year.
This means demonstrating how each of the next ten years will reduce poverty and homelessness in Ontario by ten percent. It means launching a consultation on and guaranteeing funding for a province-wide effort to combat anti-racism and extremism and build resilience among populations targeted by racism and damaged by structural racism. It means a plan to dramatically expand our healthcare capacity that goes beyond our hospitals to give us a system to be proud of. And it means a never before seen effort to build the mental health system and mental well-being programs we sorely lack.
Second, it must recognize that the COVID-19 virus is not finished with us yet and show vulnerable Ontarians and healthcare and other frontline workers that we must continue our fight. To do this, it this spring and summer the government must put in place investments that will protect us against future COVID mutations and surges. It should show Ontarians the science and data behind how the investments it will make and the measures it will put in place will fight COVID and COVID disparities. Then, it should take this urgent plan to build our society’s resilience in the short term on the road and engage Ontarians where they are to build the consensus needed for success.
This means delivering urgent action on the social determinants identified above, including better pay and supports for healthcare workers and combatting evictions. It means a lead provincial role in creative new efforts to increase vaccination among under-vaccinated racial and socio-economic populations. And it means immediately addressing safety and learning loss in our schools.
The good news is that all of this – rebuilding, building better, and retooling – will better protect our health and our economy. Social factors such as housing, income, education, discrimination, and access to social supports are vital for individual and community health as well as our economic growth.