As most of Canada shuts down all but essential services and businesses to combat COVID-19, and people tackle the compounded stress of trying to keep themselves and their loved ones safe from both a pandemic and financial ruin, I find myself grateful for good governance and community solidarity.
Observing the glaring disparity between Canada’s social safety net and U.S. individualism and crass capitalism — cruelly personified by their current leader — has only validated my belief in the overwhelming superiority of the former to protect its people.
Watching U.S. president Donald Trump trying to justify sacrificing American lives and public health for the economy has been mind-boggling. Human lives cannot possibly be worth more than the stock market, and I would never want to live in a society that believes that to be true.
As a Montrealer, a Quebecer, and a Canadian, never have I been more relieved to live in this city, this province, and this country as I do right now. That sentiment does not negate the fact that there is still much to criticize and more I want to see in terms of definitive financial support for the average person now struggling to pay their rent, mortgage, and basic amenities or to keep their business afloat.
Having said that, all three levels of government have demonstrated a solid grasp of the current challenges that we face and have proactively taken them on with a healthy respect for scientific facts, transparency, and a deep concern for the physical and psychological ramifications of forced isolation and fear of financial ruin.
Add to that Canada’s universal healthcare system and we were already miles ahead of the U.S. in the battle against COVID-19, a country that has high healthcare costs, huge disparities in income and quality of life, and a high number of uninsured citizens forced into medical bankruptcies by the thousands each year.
In a recent presser, Quebec premier Francois Legault said, “I know you’re worried about job losses and you have bills to pay, but we will figure out all that later. Right now, your number one priority is to stay home and prevent the contagion of the virus.”
Contrast that with a recent article I read about an uninsured American who just received a medical bill for $34,927. Is it any surprise that some people are choosing not to seek treatment because of these outrageous costs? And will it be that much of a shock when people who have no safety net continue working and infect others?
Their decision to put themselves in harm’s way for a paycheque inevitably puts everyone else in harm’s way too. There are consequences to individualism and neoliberal policies that demand we remain a cog in the production wheel to the detriment of our health. When people are left to fend for themselves it does not inspire solidarity, it leads to social chaos.
A pandemic that demands a collective and coordinated response from everyone — top to bottom — is uniquely positioned to expose all the cracks and weaknesses in our economic, political, and social policies, not to mention how detrimental and ill-suited a for-profit healthcare system can be at saving its most vulnerable. Despite the U.S. often touting its exceptionalism, it actually has one of the worst health systems among developed economies.
It’s no accident that societies built around a sense of solidarity and communal responsibility seem to be weathering this better than countries where “je m’en fous” individualism reigns and is routinely praised as a good thing. People who live their lives thinking they can shut out the less fortunate might soon be realizing what a small and interconnected world we actually live in, and that the health and happiness of our loved ones is, in many ways, connected to the health and happiness of everyone around us.
This willingness to ensure that the weakest among us are protected and shielded from harm is a social contract I willingly co-sign every time I pay my taxes. It forms the very basis of Canada’s most treasured social program: our publicly funded, single-payer healthcare system, which guarantees cradle-to-grave access to free medical services to all Canadians regardless of their economic status. Even with its limitations, it’s a social program that I deeply value and one I know contributes to a sense of social trust and solidarity that can only help in times of uncertainty.
As noted in a recent opinion piece in Maclean’s, the higher social trust we have in Canada “is a quality that makes people more likely to observe quarantine advice, believe their media and public health officials during a crisis.”
The author of that piece rightfully also concludes that after all this is said and done, “we will find that countries with high levels of social solidarity did better than societies where citizens mistrust one another.”
Quebec, where I live, is a place where social solidarity ranks high and where we’re used to having the government intervene in our lives for the common good. Since the Quiet Revolution in the ’60s, the government has always taken a more interventionist approach, taking over social services and hospitals and nationalizing state corporations. The province’s low-fee, universal childcare is also a model worth emulating. It’s no surprise to me that close to 12,000 former Quebec healthcare professionals recently heeded the government’s call to come out of retirement and join the front lines.
But more can be done, of course. Think about how much easier it would be to convince people to self-isolate if basic universal income was a reality and if safety nets existed to protect the most vulnerable from financial ruin. Solidarity comes in many forms and this global crisis may be the catalyst that teaches us that what is possible is what we inevitably choose to prioritize.
In Italy, the government cancelled mortgage payments. Spain nationalized all its hospitals and healthcare providers. In El Salvador, the government cancelled all rent, water, phone, internet, and electricity bills for three months. In France, all taxes, rent, and utility bills have been cancelled for certain companies. Even some U.S. states are putting a stop to evictions. These are but some examples of measures undertaken. Here at home, as unemployment claims reach nearly a staggering one million, much has been promised and much remains to be seen.
Our neighbours to the south are raised on the dream of individualism, the pursuit of happiness, this rugged notion of chasing “the American dream,” prospectors out in the Wild West fighting for what they want. But success and progress can also be measured in collective acts, solidarity, and global cooperation. Now, more than ever, as the climate crisis becomes more real and more urgent, it will become essential that we begin to measure it this way.
A pandemic that knows no borders is the perfect time for us to reassess our capitalist policies and how we see the world, to be reminded that cultural and national divisions are meaningless in the face of natural disasters and quick-spreading viral infections, and that, if humans are to survive, a complete realignment is needed of what we value and what we reward.