In response to the emergence of the novel SARS-CoV-2, the causative agent for COVID-19, the province of Ontario entered a state of emergency on March 17th, 2020. Social distancing, defined as self-regulated physical separation and non-essential gathering, was recommended by the province to contain person-to-person transmission of the virus. Measures implemented by the lockdown included working from home, a transition towards online classes, and the shutdown of daycares. These changes were implemented to ‘flatten the curve’, a term used to describe the collective effort to keep the daily number of new COVID-19 cases at a manageable level for the current medical system. These practices are particularly important for asymptomatic and presymptomatic carriers of the virus, who may unknowingly infect high-risk individuals. In addition to similar practices during the bubonic plague and the 1918 influenza pandemic, the efficacy of social distancing was demonstrated by a simulation published by The Washington Post, which highlighted limited viral spreading when in-person interactions are restricted.
Although social distancing may be effective upon proper implementation, its feasibility and enforcement will differ depending on profession, demographic, and place of residence. Fundamentally, working from home assumes that employment from home is both available and equivalent to pre-pandemic standards, and these assumptions are not universally true. Waterloo Professor of Economics Mikal Skuterud reports that lowwage earners, renters, and women in non-unionized jobs are among those most impacted by the current pandemic. In his interview with The Toronto Star, Skuterud estimates that between three to five million Canadian workers have been affected by job loss and may not return to their original positions once the pandemic subsides. Under normal circumstances, Skuterud notes that recessions may come from a gradual decline in service demand to result in job loss concentrated in manufacturing and construction. Under current circumstances, however, jobs lost during the pandemic cluster in the lower-wage service and retail industries, where women constitute the majority of the workforce. Skuterud also notes that women with children have experienced the greatest loss in total working hours, likely from a shift in childcare labour towards parents in the face of daycare shutdowns. This disparity in childcare responsibility also extends into academia, where Skuterud highlights the large decrease in publications from female researchers compared to their male counterparts during the pandemic.
Economists worry that this pandemic will widen the gap between “the haves and the have-nots”. Essential workers—including those employed at grocery stores, city transportation, and postal services—are underpaid and undervalued. Perpetuating this disproportionality is the racial representation within essential worker positions. Although racialized workers make up 21% of the Canadian workforce, they are overrepresented in sectors deemed essential, including warehousing, storage, and food manufacturing, where they comprise 37% and 30% of their respective workforces. Although their status as ‘essential’ requires their labour, their paycheques do not sufficiently compensate for the risks they take by continuing to work. According to the 2016 census, the average grocery store worker and manager earned half of the average annual Canadian salary ($49 500). Likewise, light-duty cleaners were paid 40% of the national average, and cashiers were paid 26%. A study performed by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives noted the staggeringly low unionization rates within these essential sectors, with less than 8% of retail workers being unionized in Canada. The intersection of job instability and constant exposure to the public has put workers in a precarious place in which they must choose between their livelihood or their health.
Economic disadvantage, resulting from profession- and demographic-related factors, has emerged as a key player in health and safety. COVID-19 is predominantly localized to areas of high density within living quarters that do not permit the ability to physically distance. Examples of these include long-term care homes and high-density housing, where a single infected individual may quickly turn into a COVID-19 ‘hotspot’. Dr. Eileen de Villa, Toronto’s chief medical officer, identified that the majority of Toronto’s hotspots are in the city’s periphery, where access to testing sites and PPE is limited. Further examination of these patterns revealed that residential location within Toronto is intertwined with race and income. In 2018, The Toronto Star discussed how racialized individuals are concentrated in low-income areas in the periphery of the city, with “white residents dominating affluent areas in numbers far higher than their share of the population” within the wealthy downtown core. Economic status, race, and access to healthcare are deeply intertwined, and these biases have revealed stark differences in COVID-19 infection, as the poor and the marginalized within the city are predictably non-white. Although the virus did not cause these strata in unemployment or mortality, it exacerbated a healthcare and employment system that has a history of bias against certain jobs and demographics. Thus, it is paramount that the decisions regarding safe returns to work involve nuanced thought and require co-ordinating workplace expectations with personal health and safety.
It is important to recognize that the COVID-19 pandemic will likely not be the last. Approximately two-thirds of infectious diseases identified in humans originate from animals. Although it is rare for a virus to adapt from animals to humans, globalization and industrialization have led to unprecedented human-animal interactions. Mass deforestation and habitat destruction have disrupted ecosystems that are home to unknown viruses and have displaced them from their natural hosts. A CNN article published in September 2019—shortly before SARS-CoV2 appeared on the international stage—described under-preparation for potential pandemics. A report by the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board (GPMB) stated that a typical response involves “[ramping] up efforts when there is a serious threat, then quickly [forgetting] about them when the threat subsides”. While disease and pandemics have always existed, the article notes that “greater population density and the ability to travel anywhere in the world within 36 hours means that disease can spread quickly through a country and then go worldwide”, which has been observed throughout the current pandemic. If current patterns of deforestation continue, the next pandemic is likely going to be a matter of when and not if. Thus, we must identify measures to avoid pandemics, as opposed to handling them once they present themselves as a deadly threat.
One example of pandemic preparation includes strengthening the systems most vulnerable to overburdence. Preparation for mass unemployment, ongoing vaccine research, and the development of safe, affordable housing are all investments into public health, and will minimize the risks that citizens have to take in order to stay healthy and well-fed during a pandemic.
Early action to avoid emerging hotspots—as opposed to quenching them upon appearance—will also minimize viral spread. One clear example of early action includes lockdown of public spaces accompanied by prompt, widespread testing. The efficacy of these measures was demonstrated in Denmark, which enacted an emergency law to restrict access to public transportation and institutions two days after its first COVID-19-related death. Within two weeks of the Danish lockdown, a widespread testing strategy was launched by Statens Serum Institut, a Danish research institute. The combination of these efforts culminated in the re-opening of schools, restaurants, and bars by May 10th. During the lockdown, the Danish government covered 75% of workers’ wages (up to $3,300), given that companies would pay the remaining 25%, and companies that receive this assistance would commit to not lay off staff for economic reasons. Although a major investment, this strategy avoids lost tax income and any expenses to unemployment benefit. Instead of viewing it as a handout, the Danes describe it as “an attempt to avoid a more costly economic crisis”. Thus, early implementation of preventative measures may be able to avoid deadly, long-term consequences.
Although we endure the same storm, COVID-19 has revealed that some individuals are in yachts, while others are in rowboats. Proper pandemic preparation, therefore, should involve careful consideration of profession and demographic to best protect all.
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