In 1997, the Asian avian influenza (H5N1) commonly referred to as “bird flu” circulated around the globe but affected few people, even when it reemerged in 2003. In 2009, a new H1N1 influenza virus also emerged. But it too, like the 1957 and 1968 H1N1 influenza viruses did not shut down the entire world.
When we began to socially distance due to the Coronavirus pandemic, I started to think about these viruses, and when the media started to point out that Spanish Influenza of 1918 was the last global pandemic of this magnitude, I had my “aha moment.” I have been researching Canada’s history of blackface performance between the late-19th and early 20th centuries for nearly a decade, but I have never come across anything about a pandemic. While it never came up in my findings this was not because it wasn’t there but because my awareness wasn’t there.
Although my research assistant Lucy Wowk was hard at work cataloguing newspaper records of blackface performance, I immediately asked her to pivot, and she began to catalogue the newspaper discourse on Spanish flu. If there is one preliminary conclusion I can speak about, it is that where there is blackface in the historical record, there is always something else. Turns out, Spanish flu is yet another part of Canadian history that has scarcely been unmasked.
My unexpected research turn led me to reading Mark Osborne Humphries’ ‘The Last Plague: Spanish Influenza and the Politics of Public Health in Canada.’ According to Humphries, Spanish flu was scarcely written about until William McNeil’s 1976 book, ‘Plagues and People’ which was followed by Janice Dickin McGinnis’ 1977 article, ‘The Impact of Epidemic Influenza: Canada, 1918-1919.’ ‘The Last Plague’ explains that Spanish Influenza got its name only because newspapers in Spain were first to report on the virus not because it originated there. Public health officials were never quite sure of its origins.
The 1918 pandemic shined a spotlight on racial prejudice, poverty (shared accommodations, poor diet), poor sanitation, lack of hygiene, and the inequalities of industrial capitalism. Humphries notes further, “In the end, the failure to address these issues before the pandemic – and to thus prevent the crisis from unfolding in the first place – was identified as responsible for the unprecedented loss of life rather than immigrants or the working class themselves.”
Similarly, issues such as wealth in equality existed long before COVID-19. While the headlines have repeatedly told us that “everyone” is being affected by the pandemic, and as such the “playing field is now levelled,” it is extremely urgent that we not forget the policy decisions of the last few years that might not have gotten us into the economic crisis that we’re in, but that have made the effects of COVID-19 unequally felt.
According to an RBC Wealth Management’s Wealth Transfer Report from 2017, US$4 trillion was expected to be passed down to inheritors in Canada, the United States and Britain within a generation. In 2018, National Bank posted an article on its website titled, ‘Passing it on to the next generation,’ where it cited a report from the Canadian Wealth Advisors Network, which stated that Canadians born between the end of World War II and the 1960s — about 42% of our population — stood to inherit $1-trillion over the next 20 years. This percentage, they noted, represented the largest intergenerational transfer of wealth in Canadian history.
While there is no mention of race in any of these reports, the vast majority of people in Canada between 1945 and 1970 – before the Points System eliminated a race-based immigration policy – were white. Thus, before (and in some cases after) COVID-19 millions of white Canadians stand to inherit significant amounts of money to purchase primary residences, vacation cottages, or homes outside the country. For instance, this explains why recent studies have found that in the city of Toronto, visible minorities concentrate in low-income neighbourhoods but white residents dominate affluent areas in numbers far higher than their share of the population. “Government policies caused the income polarization, and only government policies can reverse it,” said University of Toronto Professor David Hulchanski in an interview with the Toronto Star in 2018.
The impact of this wealth gap means that during major disruptions to the economy, governments focus on “giving people financial support” who hitherto did not need the financial assistance while marginalized groups who have needed the same assistance for decades remain sidelined. In other words, those who have historically benefited from the wealth gap in our society are now taking priority over the historically disenfranchised.
A 2019 study from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), which compared data from the 2006 and 2016 censuses on racial equality in the workforce, found that racialized women earn 59 cents for every dollar earned by white men, while racialized men earned 78 cents for every dollar earned by non-racialized people. “These (wage) gaps continue into the second generation and beyond,” the report noted. “The repeal of Bill 148, which included raising the minimum wage and pay equity provisions that would help close these gaps, will further exacerbate this inequality,” said Sheila Block, co-author of a 2018 CCPA report on inequality in Ontario’s labour market.
Bill 148, a Kathleen Wynne initiative, aimed to give all Ontario workers a minimum of two paid sick days and force employers to pay part-time and casual staff at the same rate as full-time workers. It was scrapped by the Doug Ford government in October 2018. Another Ford government rollback eliminated Ontario’s basic income pilot project before any results could be gleaned from the program, which aimed to provide payments to 4,000 low-income people across the province with single participants receiving up to $16,989 a year ($1,415.75 per month) while couples would have received up to $24,027 ($2,002.25 per month), less 50% of any earned income. While Basic Income had its critics, specifically those who felt there were design flaws with the pilot, we will never know the efficacy of the program since it ended before it even got started.
In March, the Federal government unanimously adopted the COVID-19 Emergency Response Act. The bailout included $2,000 a month Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) for those who lost their job due to the pandemic – including gig economy workers, short-term contract workers, the self-employed and those sick, quarantined or primary caregivers for parents or children impacted by the pandemic-forced closures. As of May 21, $14.54 million CERB applications have been processed, totaling $38.98 billion CERB benefits paid.
And so here we are, dealing with unprecedented levels of wealth redistribution which is overshadowing existing wealth imbalances, and questions of who exactly are applying for and receiving the CERB and where is the money coming from?
In Ontario, the list of programs and services that were either cut or proposed cuts by the Ford government is too long to recount here. What matters is that we start to pay attention to the existing issues not related to COVID-19. Since higher percentages of racialized people have worked in low-paying occupations for decades, now that many of these positions have been designated “essential” these are not the people applying for CERB. From personal support workers to grocery store clerks to cleaners, there is no access to generational wealth for these folks, and many, prior to the coronavirus pandemic, were financially struggling and in some cases, faced food insecurity, which is hardest felt among renters since homeownership means that funds can be leveraged.
Let’s not forget that the Ford government put a freeze on minimum wage at $14 back in 2018 so in April, when the province announced that pay for front-line workers would increase by $4 per hour but only for 16 weeks in what they called “pandemic pay premium” this increase, in real numbers, is what these workers should be paid to begin with. Also, the primary sectors this pandemic pay targets – healthcare, social services, and corrections – are also the very sectors the Ford government had earmarked for cost reduction since taking office in 2018.
There are so many low-income workers and those living with disabilities who don’t qualify for CERB funding and who were scarcely on the Ford government’s radar prior to COVID-19. But just like the federal government, the provincial government seems to have an endless stream of money except for the very same people who have been demanding something from government not for a year or two but for decades.
The bottom line is that we cannot become complacent over the seemingly endless assistance that is now being doled out at historic rates. This money will be recouped in the future. Most notably, Mayor John Tory recently told media that the city of Toronto will be forced to make massive cuts to public transit, social services, child care subsidies, and Toronto Community Housing would cost more for residents paying subsidized rent because the city is facing a “best-case scenario” shortfall of $1.5 billion in lost revenue this year because of COVID-19. The money could be recouped if the city raises property taxes by an estimated 47 percent to make up that shortfall, however Mayor Tory made it clear that such a hike to homeowners would be “unacceptable.” Does something seem wrong with this picture?
Structural inequalities are not caused by pandemics – they are created by policy decisions that are illuminated in times of crisis. While the welfare-state appears to have returned, it is only an illusion. Neoliberal capitalism will return with a vengeance and when it does, we must be diligent in our fight to ensure that the castle is not rebuilt on the same faulty foundation as the last 80 years.