As the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic threat continues to escalate internationally, governments around the world are taking serious steps to prevent virus contraction and spread.
China has pursued the most aggressive measures to stymie coronavirus spread by sparking massive lockdowns and electronic surveillance of its population. In Canada, airports have initiated protocols at border entry points, including rigorous screening of travellers flying into the country from Iran and China. The U.S. has seen one Washington State county declare a state of emergency in an attempt to contain the virus after four infected people died in Seattle. The country as a whole has ramped up coronavirus testing: up to 1 million people could be tested by Friday. Italy, the current epicentre of Europe’s coronavirus struggles, has been forced to ask the European Union for financial support, since local hospitals have too few resources to support patients, and the typically-robust tourism industry is plummeting.
One thing all these countries have in common is that their richest citizens are in the best position to prepare for the inevitable spread of the coronavirus.
On Tuesday, the World Health Organization announced that there are now more than 90,000 confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide, with more than 3,000 deaths. Almost 50 countries have reported at least one case.
In response, health authorities around the world are pushing for frequent hand-washing and no face-touching. They have also urged people to take sick days at the onset of cold- and flu-like symptoms, and to stock up on about one week’s worth of food and water, in case of emergency quarantine. The recommendations have prompted the precariously employed to highlight just how difficult it is for many people to cope with a serious health issue.
Research has found that pandemics disproportionately affect poorer communities. One study even suggests that it’s a misnomer to assume the ill and elderly are the most at-risk during pandemics. Rather, mortality rates are divided along class—and often, racial—lines, with poor neighbourhoods seeing more deaths during health crises than affluent ones.
“We live in an overarching capitalist system where all the decks are rigged in favour of the one percent, and the further you are down the ladder, the worse off you are,” said Blake Poland, a professor at the University of Toronto who specializes in health and community resilience.
A quick Twitter search pulls up several concerned users who say they can’t take sick leave because they do shift work and get paid by the hour, as opposed to enjoying stable salaries with sick days built in. Others say they live paycheque to paycheque and can’t afford to pay for extra food rations.
For someone on social assistance or a single parent who is precariously employed and doesn’t enjoy sick days or disposable income, following the government’s recommendations might be impossible, Poland said.
While some U.S. states and Canadian provinces have enforced varying degrees of sick day legislation, neither country offers federally-mandated sick days—it’s often up to the discretion of employers to dole them out. Even in the U.K., a country with statutory sick pay rules, a major employer, the J.D. Wetherspoon pub chain, has said it’ll treat the coronavirus like any other illness. That means, a person’s first three sick days will remain unpaid, as per statutory rules, and self-isolation doesn’t necessarily warrant pay.
The pub chain, which has 45,000 employees, made the decision despite calls to treat coronavirus-related absences like sick leave or holidays, which would sanction immediate pay.
People struggling with poverty face more exposure to illness as well, because they often work in the service industry or live in cramped, subsidized housing, Poland said.
“For many marginalized groups, it’s a double whammy,” Poland said. “Certainly, when we think about people crammed into substandard housing, we can readily understand how things spread there in ways they don’t in (an affluent neighbourhood).”
According to University of Toronto Human Geography Professor Michael Widener, the amount of free time a person enjoys also plays a role in widening health inequities; people working multiple jobs to stay afloat won’t have time to drive out to Costco and stock up on beans and rice, even if they have the financial means to do so.
Widener said systemic change needs to take place for health crisis prevention to become equitable.
“It’s ultimately an issue of power,” Widener said. “Often, lower wage workers don’t have power, so working with other advocates and politicians who are advancing causes like universal childcare, increased minimum wages is a first step.”
We should also work towards creating more employee unions, in the hopes of improving worker’s rights, Widener added.
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