Ontario may be turning the corner with the COVID-19 Omicron variant, but we have seen this virus mutate and we could face another challenge. As we approach a potential lull this spring and summer, we must focus on actions government can take to build our resilience as a society that will save lives, decrease the toll of future “long COVID,” and protect our economy and liberty. The more resilient we are, the less likely we are to have to lock down. We must not waste another spring and summer on inaction or miss crucial opportunities through inequitable action.
There are five key areas that governments should act on immediately.
First, we know vaccination is key to protecting individuals, those around them, and their neighbours – and that our governments’ efforts have fallen short, particularly among certain racialized communities. It is time for significant new, targeted funding from all levels of government to ensure equitable vaccine access for the populations and communities that need it most. This can be done through door-to-door campaigns and by focusing efforts on communities, schools, unhoused people, those who live with disabilities, and other marginalized groups for outreach and clinics.
Second, our health care workers and system have suffered greatly on our behalf throughout this, and we need them and our system to be much more resilient. In particular, nurses, personal support workers, and others who bear the brunt on the front line are disproportionately female and racialized. Ontario must provide adequate and improved pay and benefits, proper equipment, safety measures, and targeted mental health supports. Beyond our hospitals, slashing public health has cost lives, our mental health resources are more strained than ever, and ignoring those without access to quality primary care is untenable. Racialized and low-income communities have been hit hardest and may lack the social capital and system navigation information to push to the front of the line for deferred care, mental health supports, and other health needs. This means tracking and meeting clear equity targets for all aspects of the system.
Third, our schools and child care centres care for and educate our children, and must be given what they need to protect them, and therefore all of us, from infection. Learning and mental health challenges are disproportionately experienced by low-income, racialized, and other equity-seeking groups. Our provincial government must ensure equitable access to vaccines, high-quality masks, ventilation, and testing to mitigate the risks of transmission in schools. It should also take this opportunity to address learning loss among vulnerable populations with a well-funded, public campaign to provide qualified teachers who can tutor students who have fallen behind – and outreach for this program needs to be far better than our vaccine outreach has been.
Fourth, COVID-19 flourishes where governments have failed to prevent under-housing and homelessness. To build resilience, all levels of government must work together to rapidly and dramatically increase shelter capacity and significantly upgrade supports. They must move to provide rent subsidies and credible rent control, and combat evictions through other supports and legal changes. And they need to live up to rhetoric and commitments on housing affordability – and fast.
Finally, our “front line heroes” and all vulnerable workers have been put at higher risk of COVID-19 throughout the pandemic, crippling our society’s ability to fight back. The minimum wage must be increased – belatedly coming to $15 an hour is not enough. At least 10 paid sick days are a necessity, so workers can stay home when ordered to self-isolate and still put food on the table. And other serious changes to employment standards targeted at low-income and vulnerable workers should be rapidly put in place.
All these changes will make us more resilient against a potentially challenging winter, and they will improve equity and fairness. However, they cannot take the place of the fundamental work that is needed to build towards a new normal, including committing ourselves towards a society in which everyone has the income and supports to thrive – to enjoy a healthy, equitable life.
If the worst of this wave is behind us, it means we have an opportunity that we cannot waste to put this lull to good use by building resilience in our systems and our vulnerable populations swiftly, and equitably. If we do not act now, we face another cycle of restrictions and lockdowns when the next mutation comes our way.
Dr. Kwame McKenzie, CEO, Wellesley Institute
Jesse Rosenberg, Policy Director, Wellesley Institute