The COVID-19 pandemic took its social and economic toll on Canadians across the board, with far greater consequences for marginalized groups who entered the pandemic with fewer social, political and economic resources. Yet the outcome could have been much worse.

Many of the pandemic’s economic consequences were mitigated by government intervention. One example is the now well-known Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), which provided a $2,000 monthly income for employees and self-employed Canadians who had lost their job or were working fewer hours because of the pandemic. CERB helped to limit inequality for many groups. CERB recipients were more likely to be younger, lower income, Indigenous and racialized workers.

CERB benefits clearly went to many workers in need of support during the pandemic. But what about people who were not working before the pandemic? What supports did they receive?

People with disabilities and chronic health conditions were in an especially tough situation during the pandemic. Many faced increased costs, but without employment, they did not qualify for benefits such as CERB

Canadians with disabilities and with chronic health conditions have lower employment rates and lower earnings. When they do work, they are disproportionately in low-paying, non-union jobs in the food and service sectors — areas hit hardest by the pandemic.

Because of low employment earnings or being completely excluded from the labour market — in addition to lack of access to credit markets (such as credit cards, mortgages and loans) — people with disabilities and chronic health conditions make use of other income supports. These include personal and household assets and government benefits, mostly from provinces. They also often face higher overall costs of living, and they experience obstacles in accessing health and personal care services.

This meant that people with disabilities and chronic health conditions were in an especially tough situation during the pandemic. Many faced increased costs, but without employment, they did not qualify for benefits such as CERB.

In June 2020, we conducted a national survey of 1,027 people with disabilities and chronic health conditions, as well as 50 in-depth follow-up interviews. We asked about their experiences with the pandemic and pandemic countermeasures, their employment and financial situations, their mental health status, and their attitudes toward government and policies during COVID-19.

People with disabilities who were employed but lost their jobs when the pandemic hit saw increased economic insecurity. Individuals in so-called “good jobs” like government and unionized jobs felt more financially secure, as did those who received CERB. However, as we show, employment does not always guarantee financial security. Half of employed respondents still worried about their economic futures.

Coupled with heightened fears of getting COVID-19, worsening economic situations also contributed to deteriorating mental health. Increased anxiety, stress and despair were associated with negative financial effects of COVID-19, greater concerns about contracting COVID-19, increased loneliness and decreased feelings of belonging.

 

Feeling left behind

Not surprisingly, views of Canadians with disabilities and chronic health conditions toward the federal government’s response to the pandemic were shaped by these experiences. Those who received CERB viewed the government’s response very positively. Those who were ineligible described being left behind and unsupported by their government.

However, as we show in our recently published study in Canadian Public Policy, attitudes about government are mostly shaped by political preferences and where a person lives in the country. Although political leaders across the country demonstrated consensus about the nature of the pandemic and what to do about it, we found respondents to be far more partisan. Conservative respondents were more critical of the federal government’s response, and we also find preliminary evidence that small-c conservatives in provinces with conservative governments are also critical of their provincial governments. This seems to be especially the case in Ontario.

Conservatives tended to be more critical about programs like CERB, citing government debt and abuses of the system. We also find that conservatives were more likely to tie extant social cleavages into how they articulated their criticisms — some linking these to “Liberal overreach,” race and gun control.

People with disabilities and chronic health conditions felt left out of the policy process. Whatever policy efforts are made to mitigate social, health and economic impacts of the pandemic on this diverse community must include their voices.

Across these studies, our findings highlight how the already precarious positions of people with disabilities and chronic health conditions were exacerbated during the pandemic. They are a community facing particular circumstances that clearly shape how they perceive their position in society and vis-à-vis their governments.

Reviews of policy also show that the needs of this group were often ignored by governments. Many people who were receiving provincial disability benefits actually received less than they would have through CERB — the amount the government considered appropriate for supporting workers.

Broader economic supports like a Basic Minimum Income or a Universal Basic Income — programs that are not tied to employment and have been tested in Canada with much success — could offer a better solution for groups left out of the labour market. Indeed, several of our respondents mentioned their increased support for universal basic income in light of the financial havoc the pandemic wreaked on people with disabilities, older people, single parents struggling to find work and childcare, and people with health issues.

More generally, as our findings show, people with disabilities and chronic health conditions felt left out of the policy process. Whatever policy efforts are made to mitigate social, health and economic impacts of the pandemic on this diverse community must include their voices.

The pandemic calls into question existing policies that focus on a person’s capacity to save for a rainy day — policies that ignore structural disadvantages and strict income thresholds that can keep people with disabilities out of better jobs. Now is the time to revisit and reform these systems for long-term wellbeing.

Although the pandemic has led many to challenge an unequal system of benefits and supports, and may create new political opportunities to pursue a more universal approach to supporting Canadians, significant and long-lasting reforms will still have political hurdles to overcome. As we find in our own sample, broader currents based on regionality and political partisanship shaped attitudes and behaviours during the pandemic and will likely continue to do so. The interplay between the position of certain groups within Canada’s social structure and more generalized political attitudes and beliefs will be sure to matter next time Canadians with disabilities and chronic health conditions are at the ballot box.

Author(s)

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David Pettinicchio is associate professor of Sociology and the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, University of Toronto.

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Michelle Maroto is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Alberta.