Credit: Jakayla Toney / Unsplash Credit: Jakayla Toney / Unsplash

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a highly unequal-opportunity scourge. It has stricken the poor and the marginalized much harder than the rich and privileged.

Many of us know that harsh fact based on anecdotal and empirical evidence. The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) has now provided hard data to back up what we already suspected.

The CCPA’s new study, authored by Angele Alook, Sheila Block and Grace-Edward Galabuzi, is called A Disproportionate Burden. It analyzes the impacts of the pandemic on labour markets, and describes how those impacts have been far worse for Indigenous and racialized workers than for their white counterparts.

The researchers use Labour Force Survey data from Statistics Canada. Those data, says the CCPA, remind us of “the important role Indigenous and racialized workers have played as essential, frontline workers during the pandemic.”

But while they fulfilled that important role – a role which allowed many others to stay safe – Indigenous and racialized workers paid a heavy price.

In an earlier report in 2016, the CCPA described “the outsized role of racialized workers in frontline services: working in grocery stores, in delivery services, warehousing and storage, and food manufacturing,” as well as the “role of racialized women as personal support workers in long-term care in Ontario.”

These jobs are not just dangerous and low-paid. They are also essential. These workers stayed on the job at the height of the pandemic, allowing the rest of the population to obey public health orders to shelter at home.

The most dangerous jobs – who did them?

The CCPA study covers the 12-month period from July 2020 to June 2021. The authors remind us that during much of that time essential workers had to operate without the benefit of vaccination or adequate personal protective equipment. We also know that the scientific understanding of how the virus spreads was “evolving” over that period; we didn’t always have the right or best information to protect ourselves.

The study looks at rates of employment and unemployment, types of jobs, and overall economic and health impacts of the pandemic on different population groups.

The economic and health impacts of COVID-19 were not randomly distributed and did not affect everyone equally, the CCPA concludes.

“A larger share of Indigenous and racialized households faced economic hardship compared to white households.”

From July 2020 to June 2021, 28 per cent of Indigenous and 31 per cent of racialized households lived with economic insecurity. They lacked adequate funds to pay for basic needs such as food, housing and medicines. For white households, the proportion was much smaller: 16 per cent.

The new report does an analysis of jobs that require close physical contact with others and where risk of infection is highest. This includes jobs in health and long-term care, retail and warehousing and food processing. Here, the researchers’ findings are striking. They identify not only a race and ethnicity gap, but also a gender gap.

Indigenous women had the highest share of employment — over 30 percent — in the occupations that ranked as most dangerous and risky due to the physical proximity to others these roles demand. Next were non-Indigenous women at 28 per cent, followed by Indigenous men at 14.6 per cent.

Non-Indigenous men had only a 12.5 per cent share of these dangerous and risky jobs.

Racialized workers held well more than half — 57 per cent — of the jobs that included, to some degree, what the CCPA describes as “close proximity” to others. It is interesting to note that white women worked these jobs at almost as high a rate. On the other hand, a third of racialized men and only 28 per cent of white men worked in such high-risk situations.

Overall, the CCPA notes that:

“the fault lines of the pandemic have been drawn between low-wage and high-wage workers, between women and men, between those who could safely work from home and those who risked infection at work, between Indigenous Peoples and settlers, and between racialized and white Canadians (sic).”

Politicians and commentators have referred to the pandemic being a “great equalizer.” One of their most frequent refrains has been: “We’re all in this together.”

Not true, says the CCPA.

In fact, “the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed and widened underlying structural inequality in Canada.”

The accumulated wealth of our billionaires has, indeed, increased during, and partly as a result of profiteering from, the pandemic. But so have the savings of those with high-wage professions, a good many of whom could safely work from home. They have managed to save more than they usually do because they have had fewer things to spend their money on.

The story for low-wage workers is entirely different.

They lost their jobs in higher numbers than high-wage workers, “while other low-wage workers had no choice but to continue to work, even when they might have been ill
or exposed to COVID-19.”

The CCPA blames the phenomenon of people reporting to work while sick on the “unwillingness of governments to legislate paid sick days.”

The CCPA recognizes that the federal government’s rapid and salutary response to the pandemic in the form of special spending initiatives such as the CERB to keep the Canadians and their economy afloat “did much to mitigate the unequal impacts of the pandemic.” That response did not, however, eliminate those “unequal impacts.”

Now, the federal government says it is planning its strategy for the post-pandemic era. We got a very general and vague glimpse of that in the throne speech at the end of November. We should get more detail in the economic update, a sort of mid-term or mini-budget, which the government will unveil on December 14.

Will they give us their habitual platitudes, generalities and paeans to the middle class? Or will we finally get some serious measures to address the deep and entrenched inequalities in Canadian society – inequalities the pandemic exacerbated and laid bare for all to clearly see? 

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...