COVID-19: Neoliberalism’s Chernobyl

COVID-19 has been called neoliberalism’s Chernobyl with good cause. The capacity of our public system to adapt in the face of a sudden and major threat had been all but undermined by four decades of underfunding, leaving the hollowed out remains scrambling to adjust course.

February 27, 2021

3-minute read

IN THE EARLY hours of March 7, 2020, my appendix ruptured. Over the next few hours, my partner and I drove to four separate medical centres in Ottawa before I could find an emergency department that had the capacity to admit me for diagnostics and surgery. This was seven days before an Ottawa hospital admitted the region’s first COVID-19 patient.

I share this experience because it was profoundly dystopic and entirely antithetical to what we think of when we think of Canada’s health care system: driving from one end of Ottawa to the other, then eventually out of town to seek medical care while in crisis. I also share this experience because, while deeply personal, it highlights a universally troubling fact: we brought a needlessly under-funded and ill-equipped health care system in to combat a pandemic. And, unfortunately, the experience is not limited to our acute care system. It is one that extends to mental health services, income supports, public housing, and so much more.

COVID-19 has been called neoliberalism’s Chernobyl with good cause. The capacity of our public system to adapt in the face of a sudden and major threat had been all but undermined by four decades of underfunding, leaving the hollowed out remains scrambling to adjust course and to rebuild purposely eroded trust in public institutions, as Michal Rozworski examines in his article.

It would be reductive to say that what is happening is a paying of the piper, because the people left without access to necessary services during this pandemic are not the people who have made the decisions that left our public services underfunded. We are living through a perfect storm, experienced most significantly by the people at the margins of our society, for whom there has been little relief over the past twelve months.

This issue of the Monitor invites members of our community to tell us what the past year has been like for them. Because COVID-19 has been so much more than a health care story. It has shaped every facet of life in Canada.

I won’t lie. There is a great deal of frustration and anguish in these pages. But there is also a great deal of hope and resolve. While editing these articles, I was reminded of David Orr’s book, Down to the wire: Confronting climate collapse. The book paints a bleak picture, not without justification. Still, Orr ended Down to the wire with a chapter titled Hope at the end of our tether. It’s a chapter that I return to frequently. It’s a chapter that I think is pertinent, particularly in this moment: as Canada surpasses the grim marker of 20,000 lives lost to COVID-19, as vaccine rollouts muddle along, as unemployment and lost wages threaten the security of workers and their families. 

We are in a bleak moment. And all is not lost.

Yes, the authors in this issue rightly name the barriers, inequities, and challenges facing communities across Canada throughout the pandemic, because this is not a burden that we have shouldered equally. And it is through the naming of these challenges that we can face them and overcome them.

Already, we are seeing change on multiple fronts. As Syed Hussan details, migrant workers and their allies have spent the past year fighting to get status for all, working tirelessly to protect the migrant and undocumented workers who’ve had few protections through the pandemic. Taking inspiration from the disability community’s long-standing call of “nothing about us without us,” Anthony Morgan outlines a new framework for social reform, while Andrea Pierce details the missing planks that can be addressed to create an equitable future for Black Canadians. New research from David Macdonald detailing which arm of government is funding COVID-19 recovery initiatives, and which provinces are sitting on large pots of unspent pandemic funds, has already put immense pressure on these governments to commit this money to much-needed investment and to increase the transparency of their spending. Just as this issue was heading to print, the Alberta government announced that it will fully access the federal essential worker wage top-up. The Government of Alberta will now distribute up to $465 million in funding to low-wage, essential workers.

In the penultimate chapter of his book David Orr wrote, “Optimism is the recognition that the odds are in your favor; hope is the faith that things will work out whatever the odds. Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up. Hopeful people are actively engaged in defying or changing the odds. Optimism leans back, puts its feet up, and wears a confident look knowing that the deck is stacked. I know of no good reason for anyone to be optimistic about the human future, but I know a lot of reasons to be hopeful.”

What follows in these pages is not optimistic. One year into lockdowns, there isn’t a whole heck of a lot to be optimistic about, by Orr’s definition. But every article in this issue is cause for hope—if we are ready to roll up
our sleeves.

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Since the beginning of the pandemic, our writers and researchers have provided groundbreaking commentary and analysis that has shaped Canada's response to COVID-19. We've fought for better supports for workers affected by pandemic closures, safer working conditions on the frontline, and more. With the launch of the new Monitor site, we're working harder than ever to share even more progressive news, views and ideas for Canada's road to recovery. Help us grow.

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