As a single mother of three who’s fallen through Canada’s safety net before, I spend a lot of time counting. Counting the money in my bank account, how much income I can expect — and how many days it will all last my family during this pandemic. I know it’s only a matter of time before what comes in doesn’t match what goes out.
Five years ago, I had the fortune of a huge job promotion, followed by the misfortune of getting a serious health diagnosis leading to five oncology surgeries. I lost my income overnight, and my new employer’s health-care provider refused to pay disability.
When my emergency fund ran out, we were plunged into poverty. Public assistance rates were too low to feed a family and afford the mortgage for our small semi-detached, so rather than resting to recover, I worked odd jobs non-stop to pay the bills.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, I’m afraid this will be the experience for millions of Canadians — the poor yet again most likely to suffer.
‘Everyone is worried about money’
Terrified of once again finding myself standing in the food bank line or being unable to afford essential supports for my child with complex special needs, I had secured multiple income streams. I took in international students, had a part-time professional job with flexibility to care for my child, provided childcare after school and taught music lessons.
I also cleaned condos, but was able to give it up recently when I could finally afford some breathing room. (Much to my doctor’s relief.)
Within days of the World Health Organization declaring COVID-19 a pandemic, about 40 per cent of my income disappeared, just like that. A student moved out, childcare stopped, and some pupils cancelled music lessons (despite my offering them remotely).
“My family has $140 to get us through two weeks of isolation.”
I understand. Everyone is worried about money.
I pulled the small amount I’d been able to save in my emergency fund. If we need it, my family has $140 to get us through two weeks of isolation. My oncology-related surgeries, which put me at high risk of this virus, make this a possibility.
More than one million Canadians who have already applied for EI are suddenly going to make do with a fraction of their income. As a single parent, that reality is even more profound. You don’t have two halves to make a whole.
Supplies, food and survival
I was at the checkout in the grocery store. The people in front of me spent more than $800 on supplies and bragged how they could “survive for months.” The next lane spent twice that. Meanwhile, I was typing every purchase into a calculator.
As an immunocompromised person, I was buying two weeks of provisions for our household. And I felt fortunate to be able to do that. During the worst years, that extra $140 would have been impossible.
I couldn’t find high-demand items like wipes, hand sanitizer, bread and flour. Nor could I afford the jacked-up prices for toilet paper at my local store in Toronto’s East End — a jump from $5.99 for eight rolls to $13.99. I walked out of there empty handed. I managed to purchase a few extra items from a different shop, and dropped supplies off for the food bank. They need it more than we do.
At home, I’ve made frugal meals for the freezer in case I get sick and can’t cook — homemade soup, lentil dahl and cottage pie are family favourites that can be warmed up easily. I’ve set up a hand-washing station, and ordered a supply of my son’s medications (though I can only get 10 days’ worth).
The six different medications, totalling 17 pills, he takes each day are increasingly hard to find. Taking any of his medications a few hours late will result in a hospitalization. It is as worrying as our financial situation.
Self-care and mental health
For years, self-care has eluded me. There is no such thing as self-care amid oncology surgeries and poverty. But I’m trying to do something, anything, to feel OK during this pandemic.
My focus is keeping the kids healthy and well, and making their days feel predictable and safe. Yet recently, I found myself breathing deeply, reaching for a cup of tea (knowing I have exactly 21 tea bags left) and letting myself have that much-needed moment.
“I wonder how much stronger our nation would be if we worried for the most vulnerable as much as we did for ourselves.”
Free online mindfulness and exercise programs are accessible and may work for some. However, mindfulness is difficult when your mind is on affording the basics, and exercise is difficult with nerve damage.
If I had the funds, I would take a $10 dance class for people with disabilities that runs twice a month, now remotely. But I’m pinching pennies so hard I can hear them squeak, hyper aware that $10 can buy a day and a half of groceries in a pinch.
What I think about
Those in need are all around us, not asking for handouts but desperately needing us to acknowledge their fears and experiences.
My family has the privilege of volunteering at Out of the Cold, a program serving meals and providing a safe space to sleep for people experiencing homelessness. Our location sadly had to make the difficult decision to cancel as a safety measure against COVID-19. Where will those who rely on the program find food and a warm bed?
I had a similar thought last week when I delivered food boxes to the porches of the elderly, only to find out it was our last delivery — the program simply can’t package boxes up in a way that keeps volunteers safe. I worry about all these incredible older people who rely on us.
Meanwhile, I overheard a few middle-class people talking about just what they can get “for free.” I wonder how much stronger our nation would be if we worried for the most vulnerable as much as we did for ourselves.
Canadians supporting Canadians
There are a handful of supports available. Some aren’t available unless you lose all your income, many won’t come until May, and most aren’t a guaranteed income replacement. The U.S. has gone with a $1,200 payment for every American — a start, but it won’t keep people going. By contrast, European governments have 80- to 100-per-cent income replacement in effect, covering far more than the 55 per cent Canada’s employment insurance does.
We need a way forward for this country.
Individually, we must live out the principles we teach our kids — sharing, for example. That $800 shopping cart should have as many items for our neighbours as it does for ourselves.
We also need those with stable paycheques to continue to pay for the services they use, like childcare, cleaning and hair appointments, even if they can’t currently benefit from them. This is one way to create stability for the people who, after all this is over, will hopefully be there to care for our children, clean our homes and serve our meals.
At a policy level, Canada needs a basic income program. It will lift millions out of poverty by helping them access stable housing and food security. This nation also desperately needs national pharmacare — nobody should have to decide between prescriptions and feeding their family.
Since I started writing this article a little over a week ago, my part-time professional job increased my hours. I cried when I found out. I’m so pleased to not only have added security for my family, but to be able to provide more for my community.
Katie Smith blogs, budgets, lives and parents in Toronto.
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