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Our province can’t return to what used to constitute normal when we finally come out of the chaos caused by COVID-19.

That’s one of the takeaways of a new report released Thursday by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives-Nova Scotia (CCPA-NS). 

In the report titledAre you with us? Covid-19 confirms the need to transform Nova Scotia’s social safety net,’ authors Tammy Findlay, Christine Saulnier, and Alec Stratford outline how the pandemic has exposed the fragility of our current social systems. The authors highlight the need to shift our political and economic system to become a sustainable, fair, and just province.

“I do think our main message is that we cannot return to normal, and not just because we don’t have a vaccine. Even if we had a vaccine tomorrow and we could go back to normal, we should not go back to normal,” CCPA-NS director Christine Saulnier said in an interview Thursday afternoon. 

“We should understand what normal meant, and it meant that lots of people were being left behind of course…I do think we do have a real opportunity to do things differently.”

Christine Saulnier

During the report’s virtual online launch on Thursday, Saulnier, described it as “not a detailed reconstruction plan,” although she said they are currently working on one. It does, however, focus on understanding how COVID-19 has affected people in the province and examines why its impact is felt differently among various groups. 

In particular, it focuses on the government’s role providing a social safety net that supports our collective wellbeing in the best of times, and “especially” in the worst of times. 

“The tragedy that has unfolded in Northwood absolutely must be a wake up call,” Saulnier said. “Our long term care facilities have been underfunded, both when it comes to adequate staffing and related supports as well as infrastructure.”

Saulnier pointed to the fact that Nova Scotia has the fourth highest rate of reported COVID cases per million in the country. The vast majority of those deaths have occurred in long term care, and more specifically at the Northwood long term care facility. 

“Northwood has the 11th highest death rate for a single long term care home in the country, and so what I want to say is obviously there’s lots of red flags in what has transpired in Nova Scotia. We are waving some of them today,” she said.

“Certainly we would say there has not been enough transparency coming from our government. There is definitely a lack of data and information, not just on the Coronavirus itself, but on the full impact of COVID-19.”

Saulnier said applying their report’s framework would mean that the best solution for long term care would be to make it part of our publicly funded universal health care system. But that, she said, is just a small piece of a larger puzzle. She pointed to the state of homecare and the broader preventative and primary care services, including hospital-based health care. 

“If we want to support seniors, we need to support them to be able to age well. We need to make those investments up front and all along the life cycle,” she said. 

“We know that earlier life experiences impact how people age. We also know that gender, race, culture, economic, social and environmental factors determine one’s health and wellbeing in later years.”

Using what the report’s authors call an intersectional lens to develop age friendly solutions would mean investing in barrier free buildings and streets, affordable housing, well paid caregivers and support, accessible and flexible employment opportunities, and an expansion of public health care.

Co-author Tammy Findlay, a social policy expert and professor of political and Canadian studies at Mount Saint Vincent University, said Nova Scotia relies heavily on women and charity to provide our services. 

We’ve known for a long time that investing in public services would increase the quality of services, would ensure greater equity for users and providers of services, and improve accountability to citizens,” Findlay said. 

“The public health crisis has simply made this more painfully obvious and more broadly evident. Long term care is of course the most blatant example, but our lack of public childcare, mental health services, pharmacare, and housing have also revealed themselves as major holes in our social safety net.”

Findlay said in our post-pandemic reconstruction phase, these are the areas where public investment will be essential. People will require caregiving support to facilitate a return to work and a comprehensive health care system that covers mental health services and prescription medications.

She said we’ll also need to ensure that workers are well paid, and that income is supported with both better wages and public services. Findlay points to the fact that 30% of the province’s workers earn less than $15 an hour.

“What the pandemic has revealed is that these workers that we rely on most have been paid the least, from food processing workers, grocery store cashiers, warehouse workers, couriers, long haul truckers to those providing care and home care in long term care homes,” Findlay said. “They’ve always worked hard and during the pandemic also put themselves at greater risk. Some of them have received pandemic pay. They all deserve a significant and permanent raise.”

Findlay said any “reopening” of the economy must ensure that all workers receive the necessary support to work safely, whether that includes access to proper personal protective equipment, paid sick leave, stronger labour standards, and other mechanisms to refuse unsafe work. 

“Once the state of emergency is rescinded, workers in Nova Scotia not covered by collective agreements are legally only able to take off three unpaid sick days,” Findlay said. “If we are no longer going to tolerate even a sniffle, we must put protections in place, including more proactive inspections. If workers are protected, so are those they serve, instilling confidence in people who are willing to make a purchase or use those services.”

Alec Stratford, executive director of the Nova Scotia College of Social Workers and the report’s third co-author, said it’s important to recognize that despite the oft-repeated catchphrase, we are not all in this together.  

“People have come into this from very different standpoints…as we start to look at the data and see what’s happening, those who have been privileged, those who have the financial needs, are faring better and we’ll continue to see that evidence as it becomes available,” Stratford said. 

“So coming out of this crisis and into recovery, we must ensure that the most vulnerable are included in the decision making…A core point and principle within our framework as well is that the communities that are impacted, the social policy that is impacting them, they need to be part of the solution and involved in that solution.”

During an interview, Saulnier pointed to a May 12 EKOS poll where one of the questions asked of respondents was “When the COVID-19 crisis ends, do you expect Canadian society to return to the status quo or do you expect a broad transformation of our society?”

In total, 73% indicated they expected such a transformation. 

Beyond that, 70% indicated their belief that a post-COVID-19 Canadian society will be more “societally focussed” and will stress the health and wellbeing of its population. Saulnier said this further highlights the importance of the work they’re doing. 

“So we see that 70% of people want real transformation? Wow. OK. If that’s the case, then we know it’s really critical to put the ideas out there now,” she said. 

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Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor who enjoys covering health, science, research, and education.

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