March 11 – An Anniversary for Reflection
It was two years ago today that the World Health Organization officially declared a global pandemic. Many of us were glued to our TV or internet as we watched with disbelief what was happening around the world as well as in our city. It was hard to believe we were part of the news story too.
Reaction was varied as the news sunk in. Many stayed at home and made bread or ran out to the grocery store to get toilet paper, or more seriously, many lost their jobs or were forced into unsafe situations as front-line workers.
Working from home became a new normal and students of all ages turned to virtual learning away from their friends. Parents had to pivot a multitude of times trying to figure out day care alternatives or how to be a teacher, caregiver while managing their own jobs. Zoom and Facetime became a regular part of our daily lives, and face masks became everyday accessories. I remember the panic to find adequate masks in our city as supply was limited.
The last two years pandemic circumstances intensified inequities related to gender, and other factors, such as economic status, race, culture, language, and other intersecting elements of our identities. In general, statistics show that women in Canada carry more unpaid housework and caregiving responsibilities than men, including child and elder care. This was exacerbated during COVID. With growing strain on hospitals and health services, school closures, and more people going into self-isolation and quarantine, women have had to take on increased unpaid caregiving needs.
According to Stats Canada the increased labour force participation of women has led to changes in the economic structure of families. Since the mid-1970s, the proportion of dual-earner families has risen by about 20 percentage points (from 39.2% to 58.8%). At the same time, the proportion of lone-parent families has nearly doubled (from 8.4% to 14.2%), and the proportion of families in which the wife or female partner was the sole earner also grown. These changes have contributed to a steep decline in the proportion of families in which the husband or male partner was the sole earner.
The pandemic put an increased risk of gender-based violence (GBV) as many services such as women’s shelters experienced service interruptions and closures due to capacity. This forced many women seeking their life-saving assistance to stay in dangerous situations at home. Some organizations experienced spikes in service usage, while other organizations have seen decreases in intakes since physical distancing policies went into effect. These trends need monitoring over time, as well as a wide range of funding to ensure adequate support for individuals experiencing GBV before, during, and after the pandemic.
Our health care workers have been stretched beyond their capacity and yet continue to support our communities as silent heroes. Gendered and class differences in the field of healthcare leave women exposed to harms that are directly related to COVID-19 such as illness as well as indirectly related through trauma, violence, stress.
In Canada, over 56% of all female workers are employed in the “5 Cs”: caring, clerical, catering, cashiering, and cleaning. Women comprise over 90% of nurses, 75% of respiratory therapists, and 90% of personal support workers – facing elevated risks of exposure to COVID-19.
The pandemic has helped uncover many underlying other issues both across the province and locally, such as food insecurity, physical access to health care, deficiencies in our long term care facilities.
The pandemic revealed to us the weaknesses in the interconnected web of activities that keep us fed, and the implications of those weaknesses on food security at both the household and community level. Recognizing this I worked with Just Food to promote the initiative of The Ottawa Food Garden Project, that provided increased COVID-19 emergency support for household food production. I had brought a motion forward to council requesting that the City’s Human Needs Task Force work with Just Food to identify solutions for funding and immediate human resource and volunteer solutions required to support the project. The motioned passed enabling the City to partner with social service agencies and reach a lot more families struggling with lower incomes. Supporting community food production mitigates the pressure on emergency food distribution channels and builds long-term food security and community resiliency. We must continue to find new ways and work with partners to promote and create more sustainable access to food.
During the pandemic it was made apparent that there was a disparity when it came to accessing Covid testing and vaccine clinics. Communities across the City are diverse both economically and culturally with different needs. Working with Ottawa Public Health (OPH) my office work to help identify priority neighbourhoods in Bay Ward that needed easier access to testing and vaccine clinics. OPH recognized this in addition to other priority neighbourhoods and supported disproportionate individuals and families by bringing clinics closer to where they live, work and play. Going forward it is essential that we continue acknowledge and address how we can support people who have the least advantage.
The pandemic has revealed the problems that lie within long term care (LTC) privately-operated facilities. There were overwhelming gaps in proper governance, organization, clear standards, a principled approach that reflects the values and priorities of Ontarians and that supports equity and compassion.
The province established the Ontario’s long-term care COVID-19 commission to review these issues. I specifically asked that the Commission include Carlingview Manor in their review and include the complaints from residents and families from before the pandemic. This LTC facility was one of the hardest hit in the province with over 60 deaths.
Everyone’s mental health and mental well-being were challenged over the last two years. Many experiencing exhaustion, anxiety, and depression. Knowing the importance of social connections and exercise to help maintain ones health and the limitations imposed by the lock downs, my colleague Councillor Riley Brockington and I presented a motion to council asking City of Ottawa to collaborate messaging with OPH to communicate the physical and psychological merits of outdoor recreational winter activities and the variety of outdoor recreational winter activities and resources that are available in Ottawa like skiing and snowshoeing trails, outdoor community rinks, walking/hiking trails, and toboggan hills. I am pleased to say that this collaboration of messaging had a positive impact on the number of individuals engaging in outdoor activity throughout the season.
No one lived through 2020 and 2021 without experiencing major change. Many relationships with friends and family have been affected by COVID. While the pandemic has pulled many people apart it has also brought many closer together. I’ve heard stories of people virtually reconnecting after several years. People finding new ways to safely spend physical time together whether it be bundling up during the winter for driveway conversation or organizing drive by celebrations to acknowledge important dates. If we can say anything positive that came from the trials the past two years bestowed upon us is that we have had the chance to re-evaluate how we engage with others and shifted our priorities.
We all want to get back to normal. But by now, we all understand that it will be a new kind of normal. One thing learned during the pandemic is that it is essential that we be flexible enough to adapt when needed.
The province and City will see changes coming in the next few weeks. I understand that there is a lingering sense of uncertainty and fear with this. It is important that we take stock of what we’ve learned so we can be intentional about our health and caring for others. What changes from the pandemic are worth keeping and which should be discarded? It is important for all levels of government not to forget what healthcare shortcomings were revealed by the pandemic and what we can do to collectively focus on fixing them. As a member of the Ottawa Board of Health I am proud of the work that was done by so few for many and want to thank Dr. Vera Etches for her leadership. Ottawa Public Health recognizes that there is still much to do as we continue to keep public health measures as a priority in our city beyond the pandemic.