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Precarity in a Pandemic

Written by: Karl Andrus

As the world struggles in the midst of the Covid-19 Pandemic, deep structural and economic flaws in how we care for the most oppressed in society are becoming increasing difficult to ignore. For decades, activists living with the effects of these deep systemic issues have rallied, protested, and raised the flag to anyone who would listen. Those with lived experience on Ontario Works (OW), the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP), the retired poor on Old age Security (OAS) and the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS), and those living on the Canada Pension Plan (CPP) Disability Benefit have long known, even without the stress of a global pandemic, the struggle of living on inadequate income and substandard supports. The Covid-19 pandemic has placed increased pressure on folks already squeezed, neglected and ignored by both the federal and provincial governments.

On March 25th, as the effects of the global pandemic accelerated across the country, the Federal government, facing pressure from the opposition New Democratic Party, announced the introduction of the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) for those who might not be eligible for Employment Insurance and lost employment due to the crisis. It would provide $2,000.00 a month, or $500.00 a week, for workers displaced by the need to self-isolate, physically distance and shrinking employment opportunities. This established a baseline of what a single, able-bodied person in Canada would require to survive during this crisis. That emergency benefit left millions of Canadians still living on monthly fixed incomes that are far less than this already meager baseline.

For comparison to CERB, the OAS+GIS maximum is around $1,514.70, plus another $83.00 monthly. A single person on OW can receive around $733.00 a month, and a couple is looking at around $1,136.00. The ODSP is around $1,151 or approximately $1,971 a couple. Those subsisting on CPP Disability Benefits can expect a maximum of 1,387.66. There may be unique factors that increase these monthly amounts slightly, but none of them approach $2,000.00 a person a month. If you had been working on OW or ODSP beforehand and eligible for CERB, you could apply. But the money given to you by the federal government was clawed back from your OW/ODSP payments. Those on CPP-D and retired folks have no eligibility for CERB. Those people subsisting on such meager fixed incomes are also among those most vulnerable to the effects - physical, mental and economic - of the Covid-19 pandemic.

To date, the response to the pandemic by the Federal and Provincial government has been shameful. The Government seems more willing to give financial support to food banks and emergency service provides than directly into the pockets of those in need. The Ontario Government under Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives have offered a minor accommodation to those on ODSP/OW which are discretionary, at the whim of the client’s workers, and activists are reporting they are unevenly distributed:

“We’ve made additional funding available to help you pay for things related to COVID-19 like cleaning supplies, transportation and clothing. If you are an Ontario Works or ODSP recipient, you can get this additional funding by contacting your local Ontario Works or ODSP office. Funding for COVID-19 related expenses is the same for both programs: up to $100 for single individuals and up to $200 for families.”

The province also put forward a small offer for seniors:

“… receiving monthly Ontario Guaranteed Annual Income System (GAINS) payments, we will be doubling your payment, making it up to $166 per month for individuals and up to $332 per month for couples”.

Those on CPP-D have received no additional funding so far other than the doubling of GST payments issued for all low- and modest-income families in April. Those on OAS/GIC received a onetime payment of $500.00 and those eligible for the GAINS program saw a doubling of support from a paltry $81 a month to $166 per month for individuals. None of these measures bring folks close to the low bar of income replacement set by the CERB program.

The Federal and provincial governments appear to be operating under the tacit belief that people on fixed incomes do not need or require the same levels of support as those displaced from the work force. There is a feeling that the governments in charge believe folks living on the fringes of society are already used to getting by on limited incomes, so limited or no extra financial support is required for them. The fact is, even before this crisis, Canadians living under these systems were already struggling with deep manufactured poverty, unaffordable housing costs and increased food costs. As the pandemic worsens across the country, those living under enforced austerity budgets, struggling to maximize their limited income, could no longer afford even the meager life provided by these poor shaming programs.

The increased costs of the pandemic are being felt across the province and the country. Covid-19 has caused increases in food costs, limits on the dispensing of medication, the inability to shop multiple stores and flyer specials, requirements for delivery, shortages, increase in food bank usage, requirements to use taxis as public transit limits service and space on buses. Those on low and fixed incomes do not have access to the credit that many are turning to in this time of need. Payday loan companies, already used to preying on our most vulnerable, are making off like bandits during this crisis. While banks provide limited relief to credit card interest and deferrals of mortgage payments, the Payday loan bandits are charging 521% or more to desperate folks, trapping them on a treadmill of revolving payments and eating into their already limited finances. All these factors have put addition economic strain on folks on fixed incomes who can least afford it.

Economic pressures are not the only Covid-19 related strains low income residents are experiencing. The need for those most vulnerable to this pandemic to self-isolate, as well as the restrictions on visitations and transportation, has left many folks without vital social and physical interaction. Volunteer and family/friend caregivers provide a great deal of the much-needed care our institutions will not provide. Those stuck at home or in care facilities are cut off from those vital visits to provide everything from mental health support and counseling to day to day requirements for bathing, cleaning meal prep and other essential needs. This critical community care is needed now more than ever and putting an extra strain on our vulnerable populations.

The tools that those of us with internet, smartphones and computers are using to offset the loneliness and other effects of this pandemic are unavailable to many of our lowest income neighbours. Only around 80% of people in Hamilton have the internet, and those in the lowest income brackets are among the majority of folks without internet access. Among those without internet or a computer, vital access through libraries and other institutions has been cut off. At a time when connections to friends, family, community and social services are most needed, folks struggling with fixed low incomes do not have access to the internet and smartphones/pc.

As the pandemic continues, it is incumbent on our leaders at both the Federal and Provincial level to immediately address the needs of our most vulnerable residents. Increases to the CPP-D, OW/ODSP and OAS/GIC programs should at minimum bring monthly payment levels up to match those provided by CERB. That bare minimum of funding increase will save lives, improve the quality of life and provide a clear signal that we as a society care deeply for those often forgotten. If we are truly all in this together, it is incumbent on all of us to address the precarity of our society exposed by this pandemic.

Karl Andrus is a labour organizer and activist in Hamilton


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