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'Focus on those who can’t avoid the virus’ to end pandemic, says researcher

Last Updated Mar 18, 2020 at 9:43 am PST

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Low income, disabled, seniors can’t stockpile, can’t isolate like upper and middle class

Lessons from SARS, H1N1 show stopping pandemic means focusing on low income people, dependents

Virus can spread rapidly in shared housing, shelters, disabled community, expert notes

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) — Homeless, refugees, and other low income people don’t need a COVID-19 tax break, they need a cheque right now, says a public health policy expert with the University of Calgary.

Ron Kneebone is the scientific director of social and health policy research at the university’s School of Public Policy. He says those who can’t afford to stockpile goods will be more exposed to the virus.

He worries about homeless shelters which have bunks close to one another, leaving no way to social distance. Similarly, living in crowded housing (SROs, student housing, many roommates) means people can’t practice social distancing effectively.

“When you have to buy things on a daily basis you’re particularly exposed,” he says.

He says past lessons learned from SARS and H1N1 show stopping the spread in vulnerable communities is vital to stopping a pandemic. 

“The lesson we’ve learned is that if we’re going to end these pandemics we need to focus our attention on those people least able to avoid the virus and they are people living in crowded conditions, people in homeless shelters, people with low income and people with disabilities,” says Kneebone.

“This is true also of people with lots of different types of disabilities who typically have very low incomes as a result so they’re not able to stockpile either,” he says, adding caregivers are also at an elevated risk of infection.

Hope in Shadows vendors need help

As many of us face job loss and financial instability right now, one project employing about 150 homeless and low income people is also facing hardship.

Megaphone Magazine and Hope in Shadows calendar vendors will still be able to sell you electronic copies through an app or Megaphone.com, but with social distancing top of mind they may not have many opportunities to make in-person sales pitches as usual.

“We have a population that is marginalized by poverty and homelessness,” says Julia Aoki, executive director of Megaphone Magazine.

“Many of them have chronic health conditions so that makes them more vulnerable. We have people who live in SROs and other places where the conditions are not perfect for self-isolation,” she says.

“We’re also hearing that the conditions in Oppenheimer Park and other spaces are pretty dismal at the moment and there’s very little access to appropriate facilities to perform adequate hygiene and self-care.”

Aoki says if government stimulus can support her non-profit, and others, they can find creative ways to keep people employed.

“That’s what we’re really set up to do,” she says. 

She would like to see increased support for low income people and mobile health units in vulnerable communities as well. 

Aoki says the public can help by purchasing magazines for $2 and up, a calendar for $20 an up and can email Megaphone to ask tips and commissions to go to specific vendors, but any funds not sent to one person will be shared equally across all vendors. 

‘They’re in panic mode’

Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the government would provide $27-billion in stimulus for these challenging times and says the government is willing to do more.

The plan includes doubling funds for the “Reaching Home” program, a federal initiative that provides funding directly to municipalities to combat homelessness.

The federal government’s latest stimulus package promises a bump in the GST credit for low-income Canadians, now getting $300 more and an additional $150 per child and a six-month (interest free) halt on student loan payments.

The feds also arranged for COVID-19 EI and support payments to support quarantined, isolated and those caring for the sick with direct payments every two weeks, but did not mention any change to payment schedules for those already on social assistance. 

‘We have to recognize the government’s scrambling here and they’re doing the best they can. If I suggest things it’s not because I think they’re falling down on the job it’s just because they’re in panic mode themselves.”

While tax breaks may alleviate the pain for middle and higher income Canadians, they just won’t help those without savings and income to stay safe right now. That’s why Kneebone says just send the cheques, as soon as possible.

“When I think about things that would be relatively easy for the government to do, would be to send an extra cheque to everyone on social assistance … and say ‘Here is a certain amount of money that would allow you to do the stockpiling that people with higher incomes are able to do,’” he says. 

Meanwhile, internationally recognized disability rights advocate Al Etmanski, who calls Vancouver home, says there needs to be more communication from the province and Community Living BC to help people with disabilities to stay home.

He says day programs need to be shut down and staff should be re-deployed to where they are needed the more urgently.