Vulnerability in a crisis – and beyond

The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t been easy on any of us, but some community members were already in crisis when it began.

Staying home, facing job changes or losses, and dealing with school and community organization closures are all unexpected challenges many of us had to overcome when the COVID-19 pandemic hit home. Adding the heartbreak and stress of several tragedies in our province made it even more difficult. Through this, Nova Scotians have proved resilient. Many found ways to support each other even when we need to be physically apart.

However, not everyone made it through these months unscathed. Those living in poverty or close to the edge were far more vulnerable, and still are. Up until COVID-19 restrictions began, they were often most supported by programming run by charities. And charities do great work. We see the results of how they improve people’s lives all the time. But charities have struggled to meet needs during COVID-19, as we’ve witnessed in the applications for funding from the Atlantic Compassion Fund. Already stretched thin, we have to wonder – wouldn’t it be easier if people could just access what they need? Why do they need to go to multiple charities?

Needing connection

Human connection has been so important during the last few months, especially for those who are socially isolated. Many rely on in-person community programs to access education, resources, social time, and the opportunity to build skills and confidence. All of those programs ceased to exist in their original format because of COVID-19 restrictions.

The obvious replacement for these kinds of programs is virtual. But the cost of technology, internet or data plans remains a significant barrier.

For those living in more rural parts of HRM, high speed internet is just not available. The cost to connect is also very expensive. It impacts people living on a low-income and parents of school-aged children who are at risk of falling behind their peers without reliable access to technology.

Needing to nourish

Others facing additional challenges include those experiencing food insecurity. School breakfast programs, community meals, after-school programs and food banks all have helped fill hungry bellies. But programs and schools were cancelled and closed. Volunteers were unable to work shoulder-to-shoulder, and gathering spaces closed to hungry patrons. Making sure people have adequate access to food has been a real struggle.

The demand for community organizations to provide grocery boxes and take-away meals has increased exponentially, shining a light on the stark reality – with adequate income and supports, they would be able to buy the food they need, and mealtime would be much more dignified. They could choose what is culturally appropriate for their family, not have to worry about dietary restrictions or skipping a meal. They could make their own decisions about what they want to eat, as we all prefer to do, rather than the food included in a charity box as their only option.

The solution?

While we support many organizations who are making food, social connections and housing available to the community, we realize it’s contributing to a bigger problem. More of this work is downloaded onto the charitable sector, and it often makes it more complicated for people to navigate. Many of the charities that do this kind of work are already facing huge increases in demand. This means individuals who want support have to go to several sources to get what they need. There should be a shift to ensure people have an adequate income to afford the necessities and live a meaningful life.

An adequate income would mean those who are socially isolated could afford an internet connection. They could access entertainment, information and programming that exists online or connect with others virtually. They would be better positioned to take advantage of educational opportunities, mentorship or job training.  Virtual mental health supports would be more readily available. Residents could remain engaged with their community and overcome barriers to living their best life. Renters could pay their rent and still afford groceries, transportation and clothing.

A real-life example

To have an adequate income, we know there needs to be a safety net. It would boost low wage earners up and ensure those who can’t work can still live. We saw a version of the safety net in action during the COVID-19 pandemic. The CERB payments from the federal government were easy to apply for, accommodated people earning some wages, and gave those who experienced job loss a decent income.

However, it’s only temporary, and those who are already receiving government benefits like income assistance were ineligible. Would a permanent income supplement – like a basic income – be a better, more sustainable, long-term solution? Could it ensure people don’t fall through the cracks and are able to maintain a decent standard of living? The next time our country faces a pandemic, would we be more prepared? The gap between what some of us have and what many others need might be less dramatic with an adequate income for all.

COVID-19 has taught us many lessons outside of how the virus itself impacts our community. As we enter the next stage of “new normal” we must not forget those who have been further marginalized by this pandemic.

Let’s take these lessons to heart and figure out the solutions we need to make an adequate income a priority.

Self Reflection and Discussion Questions:

What would you do if you lost your income, and didn’t have family or friends to help get you through?

What do you think needs to happen to ensure everyone has an adequate income so that they can afford the necessities? Who needs to make it a priority?

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