Lessons of the crisis: This isn’t the ‘great equalizer’

The winning tagline for the Covid crisis seems to be “We’re in it together.”

It might be new as a rallying cry, but it’s always been true. We just didn’t talk about it before.

This pandemic is not the ‘great equalizer,’ as Madonna declared from her $5,000, petal-filled bathtub. Those who were already struggling are being hit the hardest. And nothing short of an earth-crushing asteroid can equalize a world with this much inequality (although smart social policies, fair corporate taxes, strong public services, compassionate immigration laws, and transformative climate policy would be a start).

But this pandemic is the ‘great exposer.’ It’s showing us just how close to the edge many middle-class and working class Canadians have been pushed. And it’s proving that a better future is possible.

For many Canadians, concerns about eviction, access to food banks, and income assistance had never touched them directly. And a ‘precarious job’ was thought to mean some combination of low pay, no security, and no benefits. 

This is a wake-up call: it could be any of us. And one catastrophic event can turn almost all jobs into precarious ones. 

None of this precarity was widely-recognized as a problem until it became a problem for ‘everyone’.

In a flash, people who felt they had secure paycheques, suddenly didn’t. My niece with a union job in Toronto’s booming film and TV industry. My friend, the massage therapist and owner of a wildly popular specialized clinic, that takes bookings two months in advance. Another friend who works in a dental office (Who could imagine a time without a demand for dentists?). It was a stretch to think that any of these jobs could vanish, one at a time. Let alone losing all of them overnight.

Yet, the system has been cracking – and those cracks didn’t happen overnight. For decades, we’ve seen governments cutting public services, squeezing the most vulnerable, and trying to convince all of us that those cuts wouldn’t hurt us a bit. And year after year, the evidence of families’ growing financial hardship has been mounting.

Last fall, personal bankruptcies were up 10% over the previous year. Headlines in early March shouted that Canadians own $3 trillion in personal debt. With an average household debt of $72,950, we’re carrying $1.76 in debt for every dollar of disposable income. And average debt per consumer increased 2.7 per cent in 2019, compared to a year earlier.

Here’s the thing: people who live paycheque to paycheque are in a world of pain when those paycheques end. Families drowning in debt can’t float when they can’t cover the monthly minimum. 

And now, the rug has been pulled out from under people – and there’s no floor to stand on. 

“No shit,” say the millions of Canadians whose lives keep getting harder thanks to conservative governments, like Doug Ford’s and Jason Kenney’s – governments that remain intent on cutting the public services and social supports that we need now, more than ever.

But none of this precarity was widely-recognized as a problem until it became a problem for ‘everyone’. And by ‘everyone’ I mean the stock market. And corporations who suddenly don’t have consumers. And governments facing a collapse in revenues.

Overcrowded shelters have been overwhelmed, underfunded, and stretched thin for so long that many simply can’t provide the safety and security that every human being deserves.

Now that it is a problem for ‘everyone,’ we suddenly see that governments can act swiftly to help people, when they have the political will. 

Governments around the world are proving that it’s possible to provide direct financial assistance to help people who are unemployed. In mere weeks, basic income went from being a great hope for many activists and the fantasy of Andrew Yang’s long-shot candidacy… to a cheque that Donald Trump is signing. (Of course, truly universal basic income will take much, much more than a one-time cheque in the midst of a global crisis). 

At the same time, municipal governments are proving that it is possible to take real action to provide emergency housing for people experiencing homelessness – and proving, by doing so, that so much more can and should be done to improve long-term access to housing for everyone. Because overcrowded shelters aren’t just a health hazard today; they’ve been overwhelmed, underfunded, and stretched thin for so long that many simply can’t provide the safety and security that every human being deserves.

The truth that this crisis exposes is that we can do better. 

We don’t have to settle for a politics of austerity and precarity. We don’t have to live in a country that pushes working families to the brink. We don’t have to ignore the needs of vulnerable people in our communities, with the hope that it “never happens to us.”

We can do better. We can build a future where safe and affordable housing is a right and a reality. Where working families have secure incomes, benefits, and pensions. And where the health and safety of everyone is protected, on and off the job. 

The crucial test will be what happens after. Having exposed the precarity that people face and proven that governments can do so much more to help, what happens when this is over? What happens to that political will, when certain politicians try to take us back to ‘normal’? 

Pandemic or no pandemic: we’re in this together. We always have been. And this time, let’s make sure we don’t forget it.