The coronavirus pandemic has revealed just how dependent we are on one another. If we don’t work together to defeat the virus, we’re told, we will all pay a terrible price. But not enough is being said about the huge gaps in our safety nets that have allowed so many to slip through day after day.
Suicides and attempted suicides have increased among Canadians from every walk of life. Health-care workers are facing emotional strains and fractures like never before. Crisis lines have reported a huge spike in calls, just the tip of a very deep iceberg of distress and despair that is advancing across Canada.
The coronavirus has exacerbated long-standing conditions such as alarming disparities in health outcomes in racialized communities; the repeated failure to protect seniors at their most vulnerable; an income shortfall that leaves too many struggling just to get by; and a chronic failure to deliver adequate mental health care to all those who need it.
People who are homeless are five times more likely to die from COVID-19 than the rest of the population. Opioid-related deaths echo the pandemic’s deadly march. First Nations communities face the reality of youth suicide 24/7.
What’s common to these disparities is that they are disproportionately borne by the forgotten, the voiceless and the powerless – the ones society has left behind because it has too often been convenient to do so.
The shocking conditions under which residents of long-term care homes are living – and, sadly, dying – has finally triggered national outrage. But many of the causes that have contributed to those conditions, like weak oversight and inadequate front-line worker pay, have been obvious for decades.
The pandemic has revealed shortfalls that go far beyond the supply of personal protective equipment and vaccines. It has shown that we need an antidote to the social and economic conditions that lead to physical and emotional harm, produce lives of misery and detract from the right of everyone to a decent quality of life.
We need a massive national effort to rethink how we can create a more compassionate and caring society. In the past, Canada has confronted major challenges of the day with landmark initiatives that set the agenda for the future. The royal commissions on bilingualism and biculturalism, announced in 1963, and on Canada’s economic future, in 1982, come to mind.
It’s time for what I call a compassion commission to help build the animating narrative for the caring values this country stands for. Institutional change is once again necessary, this time to reflect our common beliefs in healing, support for one another and generosity in our national spirit. Institutional betrayal is the ill-starred card that too many Canadians are currently being dealt.
Our economy also needs a ground-up rebuild to adjust to certain inconvenient truths too long ignored. One is the caring economy. For instance, women bear the brunt of home care for ailing and aging loved ones. But they often sacrifice jobs and a living wage to do it. Many descend into poverty because of it. We need to adequately compensate them for the heroic work they do in allowing loved ones to live and recover outside more costly institutional care settings.
Similarly, we need to stop fooling ourselves that it’s perfectly acceptable to allow millions of Canadians to subsist below what would be considered the poverty line (that is, if Canadian governments recognized that there is such a thing), which is what is happening with most low-income seniors and those on disability support.
We also need to do a better job of incorporating mental health awareness and sensitivity into daily life, especially when it comes to recognizing warning signs of emotional crisis in the actions of loved ones and co-workers. For years, it’s been widely known that our mental health system is the poor cousin of its stethoscope-based counterpart. This is reflected time and again in the failure to adequately deliver mental-health care to those who need it. Canada is long past the point where we can afford to accept the pervasive sense of stigma that prevents too many from seeking help. Innovations like a three-digit nation-wide mental health hotline using the numbers 9-8-8, which I’ve spent the past 18 months campaigning for, need to be embraced much faster.
As more and more Canadians struggle to get through each day, a campaign that promotes a culture of compassion and kindness in all our actions could yield untold benefits. More importantly, it would help us create the caring Canada that lies beyond this pandemic, and the one our collective conscience tells us we must build.