Over the past few weeks, First Policy Response has published a series of interviews with policy leaders. We wanted to hear what they had learned from the first six months of the COVID-19 pandemic and what that says about the policies we need for a long-term recovery. We kept hearing some of the same observations, over and over, coming from different people with diverse fields of expertise. Here are some of those key points:

 

The need for high-quality data

As the saying goes: if you can measure it, you can manage it. But experts repeatedly encountered incomplete or inconsistent information, whether that was the number of COVID-19 cases in Indigenous communities, changes to the amount of charitable donations, or the number of deaths in long-term care homes. The Yellowhead Institute and the National Institute on Ageing, both based at Ryerson University, ended up compiling their own data when they found the figures they had received from official sources were inadequate. As Dr. Samir Sinha of the National Institute on Ageing said: “Did we think this was something that needed to be done? Absolutely. Did we think we needed to be the ones doing it? Certainly not.”

A lack COVID-19 data disaggregated by race was also a concern for groups like the Alliance for Healthier Communities, which successfully lobbied the province of Ontario to start collecting this data after seeing stark outcomes for racialized communities in the U.S. and U.K., the Alliance’s Sané Dube told FPR. “The fact that we don’t have data that tells us exactly what COVID looks like broken down by race, broken down by other socio-economic markers, is really troubling and it actually hinders our ability to respond to this pandemic.”

 

High marks for CERB and a need for continued income support

Nick Saul of Community Food Centres Canada called the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) “life-changing.” Economist Armine Yalnizyan called it “a miracle.” The rapidly implemented benefit program has been widely praised, but our experts said it also shed new light on how inadequate our previous systems of Employment Insurance and other social supports had been. This means we need to build a stronger social safety net after CERB winds down, either through income support or expanded subsidies, they said. “CERB has, I hope, set a new standard on setting a floor that people can’t fall below,” Saul said. “And really, that’s where I hope the conversation will move toward.”

 

A growing public appetite for social justice

From marching in Black Lives Matter protests to donating more to non-profits serving the most vulnerable, Canadians during the pandemic have demonstrated a growing awareness of inequality and more willingness to do something about it. “It is extremely clear to more and more people in general, you cannot have a fair society without equal rights,” said Syed Hussan of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change.

Several of our experts expressed hope that policy-makers would heed this changing social climate and develop recovery plans that centre the needs of our most vulnerable communities. But as Senator Ratna Omidvar cautioned, there is also a danger that the pendulum will swing the other way if a pandemic-related recession and job losses spur renewed nativism.

 

Systemic problems and the need for an equity-based response

For some of the sectors hit hardest by the pandemic, the effects were made worse by long-term, systemic problems. This includes migrant farm workers living in overcrowded bunkhouses; low-income, racialized residents of Toronto’s northwest exposed to the virus through their essential service jobs; a lack of viable childcare options forcing women to leave the workforce; or under-funded long-term care homes where residents who can’t afford better conditions are crammed three or four to a room. Our experts were clear that any policy solutions to the pandemic had to be rooted in equity, taking into account the larger social and systemic factors that put marginalized people at even greater risk. As Pedro Barata of the Ryerson-based Future Skills Centre said, “If we don’t acknowledge that people are all starting from a different starting line and that we are going to need to be non-generic in our interventions, we’re going to fail.”

 

Economic gains of inclusion

Regardless of our moral or ethical obligations to reduce social inequality and improve conditions for marginalized groups, there are also other advantages to including women, low-income and racialized Canadians in our economic recovery. “We have always argued that diversity and inclusion is critical to driving innovation and economic growth, said Wendy Cukier of the Diversity Institute at Ryerson University. “So if we do not address everything that we’re doing through a gender and diversity lens, in my view, we’re really putting everybody’s future at risk.” This is important as Canada rebuilds from the COVID-19, and also as we prepare for a looming labour shortage that will occur when baby boomers leave the workforce. “That’s a historic opportunity to bring pockets of marginalized people into the economic mainstream,” Yalnizyan said.

 

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Stephanie MacLellan is the managing editor of First Policy Response.