Politics Blog: COVID-19 highlights inequality in Canada

Toronto – June 19, 2020 – When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit Canada, the wealthy 1 percent were able to lock themselves away in their mansions and gated communities, while low-wage workers – mostly women and racialized Canadians – were thrown onto the front lines.

For years unions and activists have been highlighting the gross inequalities in our society, where the wealthiest few have more income than everyone else. We have all seen the numbers: the 86 richest families in Canada own more wealth than the bottom 11 million Canadians combined. There are CEOs who make more than 200 times their average employee. Women continue to earn 75 cents, on average, for every dollar their male colleagues make, and the gap is even wider for women who are Indigenous, disabled, racialized, or new to Canada. As well, over one-third of working women make less than $15 an hour. If that weren’t bad enough, women are more likely to take on a greater burden of responsibility around the home, including child care and looking after elderly parents. Coming out of the pandemic, many women will be unable to return to work without the provision of affordable child care.

The impacts of COVID-19 have paralleled these societal inequalities as they have been extremely uneven. According to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), 70 percent of the job losses related to the pandemic have been suffered by women. Half of all Canadians earning $14 or less have been laid off or have lost their hours during this crisis. Among the richest 10 percent of workers who make more than $48 an hour, only 1 percent have lost jobs or had their hours cut. The Public Health Agency of Canada has shown that more woman than men have been diagnosed with COVID-19, and as a result, more women have died from the virus. Women also make up the highest percentage of workers on the front lines of health services, care giving, cleaning, and other essential, high-risk roles. 

In Canada, race and ethnicity have not been tracked as part of the data collection around COVID-19. This means we are ill equipped to understand how Black Canadians and other racialized communities are being impacted by the virus and represents a serious gap in our capacity to respond to COVID-19. In some parts of the United States, where race-based data has been collected, the death rate has been disproportionately high in African-American communities and is linked to systemic barriers to health care and economic opportunities.

Analysis by CBC News of coronavirus cases in Montreal found strong correlations linking higher rates of COVID-19 infection with low-income neighbourhoods and communities with higher percentages of Black residents. A similar analysis of neighbourhoods in Toronto found a strong association between high COVID-19 rates and low incomes, working conditions, visible minority status, and low levels of education. Ontario public health officials reported that COVID-19 infections in the most diverse neighbourhoods was 3 times higher than in the least diverse neighbourhoods and the rate of death was twice as high. People in these communities are more likely to be working in low-wage jobs that put them on the front lines, such as personal support workers and retail store clerks who face working conditions that leave them more exposed to the virus. They are more likely to be living in apartment buildings or smaller dwellings that make it much more difficult to practice social distancing.

In Indigenous communities, the housing crisis has resulted in many families living under one roof, and the lack of access to clean drinking water and declining infrastructure have made these communities vulnerable to outbreaks with limited ability to respond. Consequently, many Indigenous communities have shut their doors to outsiders to prevent outbreaks that could devastate their communities.

Meanwhile, migrant workers labouring on farms and in meat packing plants – the majority of whom are racialized – have been declared essential and are also facing more severe outbreaks of the virus due to poor working and living conditions. 

Women and racialized workers have always been at the centre of inequalities in our society, and COVID-19 has only exasperated these disparities. Across every sphere, from health to the economy, security to social protection, the impacts of COVID-19 are worse for women and racialized Canadians simply because of their sex, or the colour of their skin. As we move forward, we must be fully mindful of how this crisis is amplifying inequality. And, as with long-term care, it will not be good enough to just return to “normal.” Coming out of this pandemic, we must do better by tackling inequality in a serious and concerted way.