Opinion

People are risking death so we can stay home. We need to pay this debt.

Scott Gilmore: Your ability to stay safe at home depends on low-paid workers to shoulder the hazards of infection. How can we make this right?

I know I’m supposed to be complaining about quarantine, but it’s been pretty good for me. Life is calm, quiet, predictable, and nicely paced. My days follow a well-oiled routine with plenty of time for diversions like woodworking and cooking. There have been no tedious business trips. In fact, I think this may be the longest spell I’ve spent in one place in years.

I’m spending more time with my kids and we’re having fun and being creative with the not very rigorous home-schooling. I even have time to re-read one of my favourite books, The Decameron—written in the 1300s during the black death, it is a gripping collection of tales told by 10 aristocratic friends over 10 days as they sit out the plague in a country retreat while nearby Florence is ravaged. Timely.

Everything I need is a push-button minute away. Once a week the groceries are delivered, filled with fresh produce and left safely on my porch. When I don’t feel like making dinner, there’s a wide range of restaurants who will deliver a warm meal in minutes. Occasionally the doorbell will ring, but when I open the door the FedEx or Amazon truck will already be pulling away. A couple of times I have jumped in the car for a curbside pick-up at the hardware store or lumber yard. I just pop the trunk, and magically my new router bits and oak boards are placed inside.

I am riding out these global winds of misfortune comfortably in my castle. The pandemic remains safely on TV.

Of course, my protected retreat is built entirely on the backs of grocery store clerks, delivery drivers, postal workers, warehouse stockers and line cooks. Who, in order for me to stay safe and at home, are facing the daily risk of crowded public transport and poorly sanitized work conditions. Statistically speaking, given the current infection rates in Ottawa, it is almost certain one of the hundreds of low-wage workers keeping me safe will become infected and possibly even die from the coronavirus because of their efforts.

READ MORE: Coronavirus in Canada: how to get tested, what the symptoms are, where to get help

And, before you judge me, consider your own circumstances. According to the demographics of our readership, odds are you are doing relatively well, too. And your decision to stay safe at home also depends on letting others shoulder the hazards of infection on your behalf.

Canadians like to believe that you have my back and I have yours. We see an egalitarian society, enlighted, more equal, more humane—especially when compared to our southern cousins. In the land of Tommy Douglas, we have a special regard for our neighbour’s welfare. When the chips are down, Canadians will always look after each other.

But the chips are finally down. And the disturbing truth is we will not look after each other.

I am not the first to point this out. Online and on the air, everyone is talking about the sudden revelation our most essential workers are among the least paid. We are seeing two different pandemics. One that is not much more than an extraordinary inconvenience for the middle class and above. And a second pandemic, facing those who can’t hide at home, that is terrifying and seemingly inescapable. This inequality is not a revelation to those who have been living it.

This is profoundly unjust. And, I am at a loss to prescribe a solution. As a pundit, I’m paid to throw flaming hot takes left and right. But proposing a scheme to rewire the very core of our capitalist society is beyond my education and experience.

I am intrigued by the concept of a universal basic income, however. The idea would be to sweep away the massively cumbersome and expensive system of allowances, subsidies and rebates that is our current social safety net, and replace it with a monthly stipend roughly equivalent to the minimum wage paid out to any Canadian whose income is below a certain threshold, regardless if they are employed or not. In other words, very similar to the newly deployed Canada Emergency Response Benefit which is paying those without work $500 a week, but ongoing.

And, as many on the right have pointed out, if we did guarantee a minimum income for all, many of those who are currently risking their lives to ensure our garbage is collected, our busses run, and our groceries delivered, will opt to stay safe at home, too. Unless we paid more for all those services—enough that it fairly compensates them for the risks and hardships they must endure, so we can sit like those Italian nobles in The Decameron, safe in our castles, while the plague sweeps through the land outside.

When this ends, there will be an overwhelming desire to put everything back to where it was. But that would be a monumental mistake. This crisis has laid bare some fundamental problems in our society that we cannot ignore. And the only way to pay our debt to all those who are labouring in low wage jobs to get us through this pandemic is to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

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