Defining 'urgent' in the global pandemic

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This transmission electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2—also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus that causes COVID-19. Image: NIAID/Flickr

Seven weeks ago, we rolled our eyes when an email was labelled "urgent." It felt like a term thrown around too often, and with little meaning or weight. Like new alerts popping up on cell phones, there didn't seem to be enough discernment about what was and was not worthy of panic and alarm. 

Now, everything is urgent. There is an urgent need for medical supplies, for funding, for mental health support, for employment insurance reform, for a vaccine, for a cure. This has created an awkward and noticeable push to fill needs that social justice advocates have always considered urgent, but are suddenly (urgently!) gaining widespread support. 

Individuals with disabilities, long having been told that their needs are too big to accommodate, are watching mass support roll out to assist the workforce. Advocates for a universal basic income are watching as the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) is instituted in a matter of weeks. At our firm, a large part of our practice focuses on supporting affordable housing initiatives, and we too have watched as our city (Toronto) has suddenly been at the forefront of creating new housing solutions for individuals experiencing homelessness. 

In short, we are seeing concerns long considered urgent to finally be met with a sense of ... well ... urgency. 

That urgency, however, comes with a caveat: government bodies are in charge of defining what "urgent" means. An example: in Ontario, civil matters deemed to result in "significant financial repercussions" were deemed urgent, while all small claims matters were postponed until further notice. Small claims court now hears matters concerning amounts up to $35,000, which would arguably constitute a significant financial repercussion to millions of Ontarians. 

Another (popular) example: mortgage payment deferrals were available before the end of March for homeowners, while rent remained due on April 1 for tenants. Although the Landlord and Tenant Board is not hearing or enforcing eviction applications for arrears at this time, there also is not an organized deferral program for rent repayment, and tenants are left hoping that their landlords will be sympathetic and understanding. 

Lastly, when the federal government identified urgent concerns and set up CERB, one third of unemployed Canadians were excluded from the relief program. While many of those initial gaps have since been filled, the ordering of whose concerns were deemed "urgent," and whose could wait (seasonal workers, students, gig-economy workers, etc.), will not soon be forgotten.  

The groups prioritized by "urgent" action appear to be the same groups that were prioritized before. While there's undoubtedly a public benefit to supporting the majority through this pandemic, it's hard not to feel like an opportunity has been missed to consider the needs of disadvantaged groups when creating emergency response programs. In the room where decisions were swiftly being made to institute support programs, voices reminding and pushing for the rights of disadvantaged groups were either absent or ignored. The result: instead of taking an opportunity to affect systemic change, the overarching response has been to put bandages on deeper problems that affect our systems and cities. A look at the Ontario Human Rights Commission policy statement shows by how far the initial government response missed the mark. 

Many advocates may be harbouring hope that economic and social concerns arising from the pandemic will highlight to governments the need for instituting social support programs long-term to ensure the safety and well-being of the community before disaster strikes. These hopes may be misplaced. The institutional ordering of needs, the use of the term "urgent" to prioritize issues that benefit the majority, indicates that we could very well emerge from our respective lock-downs to find we have learned little to nothing at all. 

Karly Wilson is an articling student at Iler Campbell LLP, a law firm specializing in co-op, non-profit and charitable law. She works on a range of issues including housing, employment, governance, and human rights matters. Iler Campbell LLP is a law firm serving co-ops, not-for-profits, charities and socially-minded small business and individuals in Ontario.

Pro Bono provides legal information designed to educate and entertain readers. But legal information is not the same as legal advice -- the application of law to an individual's specific circumstances. While efforts are made to ensure the legal information provided through these columns is useful, we strongly recommend you consult a lawyer for assistance with your particular situation to obtain accurate advice. Submit requests for future Pro Bono topics to [email protected]. Read past Pro Bono columns here.

Image: NIAID/Flickr

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