(noun) an outbreak of a disease that occurs over a wide geographic area and affects an exceptionally high proportion of the population (Merriam Webster dictionary)
(noun) an advantage that only one person or group of people has, usually because of their position or because they are rich (Cambridge English dictionary)
When reports of a new virus, the Covid-19, broke in late December, many in Canada, and indeed across the rest of the world, had a sense of insulation that geography provided. There were initial concerns and reports of Asians being subjected to racist rhetoric, but for the most part, it wasn’t our problem. Four months later, the coronavirus is a global pandemic. Yet while anyone can get the virus, everyone is affected differently by it. Our social positions and identities—who we are, what power and resources we have access to, and how we able to manage crisis such as this one, informs the level of privilege we have. In addition to following the public health directives, in between stockpiling toilet paper, and watching the sun set on the beach with mates, perhaps we can also take some time to keep our privilege in check?
It is ironic that those who are likely to have been the first carriers of the virus are the privileged: the professionals attending conferences, those on cruise ships, and people with means to travel internationally. Yet, those who now carry the biggest burden of the virus, and its effects, are people who are positioned at an intersection of multiple vulnerabilities.
A global pandemic has brought changes to everyday life, and routines and disruption to services, and supports. For people with mental health concerns, these changes and measures such as social distancing have exacerbated anxieties, triggered trauma and uncertainty and isolated people from important community and state resources.
Poverty and pandemics don’t go well together. Overcrowded homes, inadequate housing, lack of shelters, and barriers to accessing running water, are some of the challenges that poorer communities face. While some of us seamlessly make the transition from boardroom to Zoom, for others finding an adequate place to work or study is almost impossible. One poll suggest 42% of Canadians face job losses due to the virus. Most low-waged work in services, retail and care, cannot be done virtually. Workers in these sectors face further job losses, reduced income and increased risk to their health and safety. Many are forced to choose between their health and income. Others have had to give up work to take care of children as schools and day care centres close.
In almost all countries the news of the pandemic was met by frantic shoppers panic buying supplies. But access to surplus cash or credit, is not an option for many households, who live from pay cheque to pay cheque. Our quest to hoard supplies because we are able to, has left those that need them more vulnerable than ever. While the Canadian government has introduced much needed measures to alleviate some of these issues, for most people the added benefits are a temporary balm to the deep wounds of poverty.
Newcomers, and migrants have been affected by the pandemic in many ways. Some families have been split as travel plans and borders become restricted; international students, temporary foreign workers, and those with closed work permits struggle to find relief in precarious legal and economic situations.
Finally there is also the health burden of the pandemic itself. The elderly, and those who are immune-compromised, need someone to buy their groceries, to walk their dogs, to keep their spirits up. In the midst of the healthcare burden, there is also the emotional labour of caring for each other, our children, our environment and ourselves. Invariably, gendered notions creep into these roles, determining who stays home, who gets to decide how already tight household budgets are stretched and spent.
The coronavirus is more than a health pandemic. Eventually we will contain it; we will look back on this time when a handshake was forbidden, when we fortified our homes, and scrambled to digitise our classrooms and workplaces. Soon, our playgrounds will come alive with children’s chatter, coffee shops will be filled, restaurants and bars tickle with the sounds of friends and family, we will let our embraces linger, and our hugs will be warm. Will we still remember this time? How lonely, anxious and powerless we felt? We can only do that, if we take this opportunity to see how the coronavirus is a reflection of our vulnerabilities as human beings. If we consider that it mirrors the inequities and injustices embedded in our societies. As the streets quieten and the playgrounds fall silent, it provides us a moment to think of who we are as a collective, how we have become as a community, who we are leaving behind, and how we may move forward.
Dr. Zaheera Jinnah is Assistant Teaching Professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Victoria, Canada, and research associate at the African Centre for Migration and Society, Wits University, South Africa. She writes in her personal capacity.