Opinion: Alberta’s COVID response: From ‘we’re all in this together’ to ‘just live with it’

True, widespread vaccination has changed the game some. Vaccination rates are high in Canada and vaccinated people are well-protected from severe disease and death. However, immunocompromised people are still very vulnerable and young children are still not able to get vaccinated.

As a working parent of a three-year-old, those concerns sit in the back of my head every day. Like many, I feel as though I’ve been left on my own to figure out what to do about this current wave. As a sociologist studying how vulnerable groups like people with disabilities have been managing during the pandemic, it’s clear that many people have been left behind in this pandemic.

How have we gotten here?

Understanding this journey requires considering how inequality is structured and how this relates to policy — central areas of my research at the University of Alberta.

Considering structures of society shows us that we have never actually been “all in this together.” If we were really all in this together, why have billionaires increased their wealth while others struggle to pay their mortgages and inequality has grown? Why did Canadian CEOs continue to receive astounding bonuses in 2020 when workers struggled? Why do some countries have vaccination rates above 80 per cent while others hover around 10 per cent? Why are COVID-19 mortality rates twice as high in racial minority neighbourhoods in Canada? Why has it become so acceptable to simply write off people with disabilities?

One thing has been very clear since the beginning of the pandemic — some groups are better able to shield themselves from the virus than others. We live in a stratified society where certain groups continually receive better access to important resources, opportunities, and rewards at the expense of other less advantaged groups. The pandemic, especially with the spread of Omicron, amplified these disparities, posing a higher threat to the achievement of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 — and governments have not given this fact enough consideration within policy.

COVID-19-related policy has never explicitly aimed to decrease inequality or address stratification across groups. Some policies like the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) helped to limit the growth of inequality, and others have helped to protect those with the least. Most, however, have focused on getting people back to work and making sure businesses don’t lose profits.

In the case of COVID-19, “just live with it” brings us back to a message that fits with other ongoing policy in Canada and many other nations. Since the 1980s, power has shifted toward businesses and owners above workers, resulting in fewer supports for people outside the labour market. Recent pandemic policy is no different.

So, what do people do when governments don’t support them?

They turn toward community. They turn toward each other. This is where I see hope. This is where people have taken the slogan of “we’re all in this together” to heart. In Edmonton, we see it in the ongoing work of organizations like Boyle Street and YESS and the Co-ordinated Youth Response jointly undertaken by organizations during the pandemic. We see it among the public sector workers — doctors, nurses, teachers, essential workers — supporting each other and standing up against attempts to undermine the sector.

Crises like a global pandemic are shocks to our systems, our way of doing things. They show us the flaws and the faults in our ways. In doing so, they can show us a new path forward. In order to move forward, we must commit to change at all levels. We don’t have to “just live with it.”

Dr. Michelle Maroto is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Alberta. A specialist in social stratification and policy, she’s a speaker at this year’s International Week.

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