A lesson from a year of COVID-19: Our systems fail when we don’t put people first
This Maytree opinion is part of our series, “A life with dignity: Towards economic and social rights for all.” Each month, we will explore how our collective choices are bringing us closer to – or keeping us from – what we need for every person in Canada to live with dignity.
People suffer when we do not put them at the centre of our collective decisions. Of all the lessons we should learn from this pandemic, this is one we must take to heart. It must be the basis of our response, recovery, and all of our social protection systems going forward.
Putting people at the centre is a core value of a human rights-based approach. It prioritizes the people who are most in need and requires us to acknowledge that our systems are not neutral; they affect people and communities unevenly.
What does putting people at the centre look like? For starters, we recognize the inherent dignity in each person. We make it our goal to advance dignity and well-being. And we look at the ways our systems and our collective decisions do that (or don’t). When faced with a decision, our first question is not, “How much will it cost?” We understand that it is the government’s job to invest in advancing our human rights. Nor is it, “How hard will it be to change the way our systems work?” We roll up our sleeves to rebuild and reform our systems to better serve our goal.
When we take a human rights-based approach, with each decision, we ask: Whose human rights are at stake? How have their experiences informed this decision? How will the outcomes of this decision advance their dignity and well-being?
It sounds simple. But the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the myriad ways that we have failed to do that.
Take our public school system in Ontario, for example. What would our response have looked like if our decisions had put the well-being of children and youth at the centre? When we re-opened schools in September 2020, we would have done so with smaller class sizes and true cohorts, as experts suggested. This would have helped infection control by minimizing contacts and maximizing spacing, and allowed for more natural social interactions between students and with their teacher. Just as importantly, smaller class sizes would have allowed educators more time to focus on supporting students whose academic progress or mental health had suffered during months of isolation.
We would have considered how some children and youth would be affected by school closures more than others – because they live in crowded homes with nowhere quiet to work, or because their parents are essential workers, don’t speak English well, or otherwise can’t help them adjust to a whole new way of doing school. Because some rely on the school’s breakfast program to get enough to eat. Because some live in an abusive home.
We would have tried harder to limit community spread of the virus by keeping more non-essential sectors of the economy closed so that we could prioritize keeping schools open.
It would have been a challenge, certainly. But instead of “wait-and-see-ing” the first half year of the pandemic, we would have used every minute we had available to plan and marshal resources. We would have convened a task force on education and children’s health. Those in power would have set aside political differences and worked with all actors who could play a role to help. If the well-being of children and youth were truly our common goal, we would have found a way.
Whose human rights are at stake? Children and youth. But instead of putting them at the centre, the decisions around our public schools were mired in other interests – allowing some parents more time to work, scoring political points by sparring with teachers’ unions, keeping the costs of COVID measures down, keeping business interests happy. These decisions pushed much of the burden onto students themselves – to wear masks (even in kindergarten), to restrict opportunities for play and social development, to repeatedly turn on a dime as schools opened and closed. Children and youth were not at the centre, and predictably, they have suffered. Our collective decisions have resulted in a pediatric mental and health crisis. They have disrupted children’s human right to education.
We must start putting people at the centre of the systems that affect them so profoundly. This means putting seniors and people with disabilities at the centre of our long-term care system, workers at the centre of our employment standards system, and people without a home at the centre of our housing system.
The pandemic exploited the existing weaknesses in our social systems. We have an unprecedented opportunity now to learn and to act. As we imagine a future beyond COVID-19, we must re-imagine our social systems with people at their centre, and we must put in the hard work it takes to build them.