The mayor of Bracebridge, Ont., is pleading with affluent cottage owners to stay away.
“This is not summertime in Muskoka,” Graydon Smith said on Facebook. The district’s health system can’t handle a wave of COVID-19 cases from people in Southern Ontario who choose to socially isolate by the lake, he warned.
The coronavirus pandemic is largely a class-based pandemic. In its wake, we may confront increased inequality and resentment. But there is a potential flip side: New programs to protect the vulnerable that could include a guaranteed annual income.
This pandemic will reshape the social landscape. It’s just too soon to say how.
Natural disasters are always hardest on the poor. In floods and hurricanes and earthquakes, the worst hit are always the most vulnerable. Pandemics are no different.
During these weeks of social distancing, well-educated white-collar professionals work from home, their incomes secure – at least for now – while they tweet about the challenge of holding a virtual meeting with children underfoot. How do you define privilege? People arguing that, at all costs, golf courses must be allowed to reopen.
But more than a million Canadians have applied for Employment Insurance because of the pandemic, with more job losses to come. For some, the loss is permanent, because many small businesses won’t survive the shutdown.
Others who can work, do, even though they are putting their health at risk through exposure to others. Supermarket cashiers are on the front lines of this fight. In some provinces, construction workers are expected to remain on the job. Delivering food and parcels comes with risk, even if people keep their distance.
The most vulnerable are the homeless, who often have mental-health and addiction issues. In the early days of social isolation, I talked to a knot of men taking shelter from the rain in a pedestrian underpass. They dismissed the pandemic as overblown. “It’s just the flu,” one of them insisted. Municipal governments are working to create safe shelters for the homeless, but those men were at high risk.
The children of low-income families are also at risk. Knowing the importance of education, the middle class always ensures that their children receive a good one, even – especially – in these days of home-schooling and virtual classrooms.
But a child in a low-income home may not have a laptop computer. Her mother may not be equipped to help her with schoolwork. She was already vulnerable; now her risk of eventually dropping out is even greater.
Class is everywhere and everything. The greater the social strain, the sharper the divide.
The big exception, in this pandemic, is the health-care sector. Every worker is at risk: doctors and nurses and aides, first responders and cleaners and administrative staff. That risk is all the greater because it turns out that governments failed to stockpile things as basic as masks and gloves.
After major events, people always say: Things will never be the same again. And they’re right, Things did change after the Berlin Wall came down, after the attacks of Sept. 11, after the financial crisis of 2008-09. How will they change after COVID-19?
If things go badly, the gulf between the knowledge economy and the gig economy – yes, they are often one and the same – will widen. Shops will close and jobs disappear as the elites discover that they like working from home and having everything delivered. Inequality and resentment of inequality will increase.
But on the other side, it is completely unacceptable to dock a worker’s pay because they are too sick to come in. Prediction: Paid sick days will join minimum wage and minimum paid vacation as government-mandated programs.
And we seem to have stumbled into a guaranteed annual Income. In an effort to protect workers and keep the economy from shutting down completely, the federal government has rolled out plans to pay those who lose their jobs or their business or whatever their livelihood might be, including those who must quit work to care for others. The measures are only temporary, but that’s what they said about income tax in 1917.
Social democrats have complained of a decades-long drift to the right. But this country has just received the strongest leftward jolt since the Depression. Will it last? Who knows?
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