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Opinion

We’re setting the precedent – let’s make it a good one

Published on 30/03/2020

“We are in unprecedented times.” We have all heard – even said – these words too many times to count over the past weeks. But what do they mean?

Living without precedent, without certainty and predictability, can be scary. Many of us feel overwhelmed, even helpless. Those of you on the front lines in our communities might be seeing your programs and services shut down or greatly diminished. The impact that those closures will have on your clients, your colleagues and volunteers, and you, might be weighing heavily on you.

We’re all busy responding to the crisis but whatever progress we see does not seem like enough. We might ask ourselves: does what we do actually matter? How do we ensure that we protect everyone’s human rights – especially those who live on the margins of our society?

What keeps us going, what keeps us motivated is the thought that together, we are all setting the precedent.

In short order, we have seen an enormous groundswell of support and action. We are seeing a common understanding that none of us can find the answers to the COVID-19 crisis alone – that we need collective action. That we need to protect the most vulnerable in our society. That our institutions have a crucial role to play in this protection.

At Maytree, we are finding ways to stay connected and work on projects that are open-ended and change every day. We’ve been working with other non-profit organizations to provide advice and feedback to the federal government on their emergency packages. And we’ve found an open ear and a willingness to listen and change course. We’ve been working with different groups to support the City of Toronto in its efforts to tackle the growing demand on housing and shelter space. Our staff participate in online discussions to share and spark ideas and possible responses to the crisis.

Leadership has come from different places – some expected and some that might be surprising. Our elected leaders have set aside politics and are following the advice of public health experts. Both have stepped up to the task and are working around the clock to keep the public informed and address the pandemic. They are learning lessons from other places in the world that are facing this crisis before and alongside Canada. Staff in the public service are designing and implementing new emergency programs that seem to shift almost every day – while continuing to maintain their regular duties.

We’re also thinking about the people on the front lines – the nurses, doctors and other healthcare professionals looking after the ever increasing number of infected patients. We’re thinking of those who work in shelters and other places that look after the most vulnerable – in conditions that are dynamic and extremely demanding.

And where would we be without the people who provide other daily essential services? The staff in our grocery stores and restaurants who come to work every day to be at the cash registers, to stock the shelves and prepare our take-out food; the cleaners in our buildings who make sure that surfaces are sanitized; the workers who keep our infrastructure running, our drinking water clean and our streets free of garbage; the call centre staff who find answers to our tech problems. The people who care for their children and elders while all of them are at work. We ask a lot of them. We ask them to leave their homes and show up – and they do.

And once the worst of this crisis has passed, we should continue to keep them at the top of our minds, both at the individual and systemic level. We need to ensure that the recovery serves both the economy and people, making sure that workers are paid adequately, that the conditions of their work are fair and safe, and that they have sufficient retirement savings arrangements so they don’t fall into poverty when they stop work. For too many decades, economic prosperity for some has come at the expense of too many people.

This pandemic exposes the points in our health care systems that need to be strengthened. It exposes the gaps in our social safety net that ought to protect people living in homelessness or inadequate housing both in times of crisis and on an ongoing basis. Our work will continue.

This work will not be easy. It will be uncomfortable and hard. We will have set-backs. Our implementation will not be perfect. But if we remain steadfastly committed to our principle of advancing solutions founded on a human rights approach, we will see results. This crisis is already showing us how much we can achieve in a very short time if we are committed and focused.

In time, we will look back on this – on the unprecedented events and how we responded. We need to make sure that we’ve created a precedent that keeps the protection of social and economic rights at the heart of everything that we do.

Summary

In time, we will look back on this - on the unprecedented events and how we responded. We need to make sure that we've created a precedent that keeps the protection of social and economic rights at the heart of everything that we do.

Topic(s)

Housing and homelessness, Human rights, Income security, Poverty