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How does privilege work? In Ontario, politicians risked infamy for beaches while essential workers risked their lives to put food on the table

Posted: January 13, 2021

(January 12, 2021)

By: Dr. Maria Daniel & Dr. Amanpreet Brar


When people in power talk, the bare minimum is that they lead by example and walk the walk, instead of breaking the very rules they create for the rest of the public.

Unfortunately, that isn’t the case, even with those who are supposed to lead our COVID-19 pandemic response.

Over the last two weeks, news outlets have reported on political leaders and public health figures who travelled out of the province or country amidst the deadliest pandemic in our lifetime, having claimed nearly 17,000 Canadian lives (and counting).

One most egregious examples was that of Ontario Finance Minister Rod Phillips who, while in St. Barts, tweeted videos on Christmas Day asking Ontarians to stay home. Elsewhere around the country, resignations and “stepping downs” were announced by other political and public health figures who wanted to act “proactively” before stories of their indiscretions broke — a damage control approach, as we say in the trauma surgery world.

Amid the outrage, essential workers across the province and country still continue to risk their lives amidst a lockdown by showing up to work — some to manufacture and distribute goods, some to put food on tables, and some to ensure that others lived another day to eat at all.

We know that this pandemic has affected, disproportionately, the most vulnerable members of our society with factors such as low socio-economic status, unemployment, or racism — what we often refer to as the social determinants of health. The holiday season drew stark attention to the privilege of the powerful, while vulnerable and voiceless workers continue to work despite the inequities that have plagued them even well before the pandemic even began.

Cases have remained persistently high at an alarming rate in places such as Peel and Windsor-Essex county regions, where many temporary workers are employed in farming, greenhouses, manufacturing and other precarious sectors. These voiceless workers also migrate — but not to beaches or St. Barts. They travel between workplaces due to a lack of employment security. Temporary workers throughout Canada show up to work despite the high positivity rate in their regions, as the alternative would mean a loss of a job and income that is already sitting at minimum wage. One cannot ignore the juxtaposition of these voiceless workers and high-profile leaders who have recently resigned: one risked infamy in order to enjoy the Caribbean sun. The other risked a deadly virus in order to put food on the table. Put side-by-side, the contrast and the hypocrisy is not just glaring, but also repulsive.

Typically, temporary agency workers get assigned to various high-risk industrial, manufacturing and farming jobs. Such workplaces have borne the brunt of workplace related spread of COVID-19. One out of three (33.6 per cent) outbreaks in Peel have been found to be in manufacturing or industrial settings. In a recent report by the Ontario Health Coalition, a 76.7 per cent increase of spread of COVID-19 was noted in the manufacturing sector, the largest amongst the nonhealth care workplace spread. In Windsor-Essex, 9 of the 18 active workplace outbreaks are in the agriculture sector. It is thus all the more crucial that temporary workers assigned to similar locations are not forgotten in this fight against the pandemic.

In addition to proper precautions, screening, and training, workers should not have to rely on working at different workplaces concurrently, so as to reduce the opportunities for the virus to spread. This, of course, is predicated on workers having secure daily employment in one place. Temporary workers also deserve the same basic employment security and safety protections as their permanent colleagues so that they are not worried about the repercussions of following public health guidelines or prioritizing their own health. This includes paid sick leave, vacation and health insurance benefits.

Beyond that, perhaps more importantly, they should be offered a hand during this crisis. In addition to lacking the above benefits, these workers struggle financially. Making just minimum wage, they are unable to afford necessary services such as child care. With the rising cost of living, they are forced to live in crowded basements or homes. It’s not hard to recognize, then, why these workers experience higher rates of transmission and disease during the global pandemic.

More than ever before, COVID-19 pandemic has shown us how privilege can impact lives and health. The powerful talk and lecture on a daily basis without following the very rules they create, while workers have mostly been walking the walk, following the rules and bearing the brunt of the pandemic. We need to bring these workers to the forefront of our discourse on how we manage this pandemic, and, for once, let them talk.

Resignations by these politicians and public health figures are not enough; they neither erase the damage done by their actions nor erase the gaps in our society. We must urgently address the working conditions and lack of employment protections faced by workers in temporary and precarious jobs.

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