I have been getting a lot of blank looks lately. And long pauses over the phone. It happens when I start talking about the potential impact of the influenza pandemic on Canada’s charitable and nonprofit organizations. Hospitals, schools, business and government are having a lively and useful public debate about preparedness for a major flu outbreak. But charities and nonprofits are too often not part of the discussion.
Yet, many of our most vulnerable Canadians depend on charities and nonprofits operating in communities, large and small, across the country. Many of these organizations rely on a small number of staff, and some on only a loyal and dedicated band of volunteers. If the H1N1 virus hits Canada hard—and we don’t know at this point if the impact will be mild or major—can supports and services be maintained if these organizations lose up to a third of their staff and/or volunteers to illness?
What if food banks start closing—how will desperate families feed their kids? What if meals are no longer prepared and delivered to elderly people who can’t get out and who have no friends or relatives nearby to help them? What about the Canadians who need dialysis or chemotherapy but can’t get to the hospital because there are no volunteers to drive them? What about the thousands of children and their families who rely on local sports and recreation and arts and cultural organizations for their weekly activities? What if the homeless shelters shut their doors in the middle of winter?
And let’s not forget the role charities and nonprofits play in supporting people in developing countries around the world. They are the third pillar of Canadian society alongside governments and business. These organizations are part of an intricate system of societal supports that make us a country that actually works, despite our many economic and social challenges. Without them, those challenges would be much worse and the quality of life of all Canadians would be profoundly diminished.
The importance of business continuity during an outbreak is being addressed. Major corporations are putting plans in place and the Public Health Agency of Canada recently announced funding for the International Centre for Infectious Diseases (ICID) to help small and medium-sized businesses prepare for a potential outbreak. That makes sense. Everyone wants our economy to keep on working.
But charities and nonprofits are part of our economy too. The sector generates more than $87 billion dollars annually, a contribution of almost seven per cent to Canada’s GDP. It employs more than 1.5 million Canadians (full-time equivalents) and mobilizes 12.5 million volunteers in Canada. In the event of an outbreak of H1N1, so many of them will be on the front lines supporting and caring for Canadians of all ages and all backgrounds in every community across this country. The demand many of them face is already greater given the impact of the recession and now they must prepare for the possibility of an H1N1 outbreak. What if they are not adequately prepared?
We will need them more than ever at a time of crisis. This is no time for blank looks. As a country, we need to figure out how we can help them be prepared for whatever this influenza season brings.
Marcel Lauzière is the President and CEO of Imagine Canada