It’s become an iconic sight across Toronto: signs in storefront and residential windows, written in the unmistakable font of Honest Ed’s, reading “We’re all in this together.”
However, contrary to the sentiment of the slogan, the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t a great equalizer. From health care workers fighting on the front line, to students struggling to pay their rent on top of their tuition, to those ringing through our groceries, the impact of this pandemic affects some of us far more than others.
If the concept of “quarantine privilege” is murky for you, a casual glance at the online antics of bored mega-celebrities should clear things up. When the idle rich and blissfully ignorant complain about their lives in self-isolation? That’s quarantine privilege in a nutshell.
Thankfully YouTube is easy to ignore. Just click that little “x” in the top right hand corner of your browser. What isn’t easy to ignore—and shouldn’t be ignored—is how quarantine privilege plays out in our everyday lives.
What is quarantine privilege?
Those of us who can isolate do. Those who can’t, serve.
Maybe this didn’t cross your radar before COVID-19, but we live in an increasingly inequitable society, globally and here in Canada.
When friends and I are talking about what makes for privilege in this time of isolation, we think about who can afford two weeks of groceries at a time, who has child care so they can “solo shop,” who has a job where you can work from home and a working laptop and internet connection, who has a washer and dryer in their house, who has office space, outdoor space, green space -- any space at all!!
Andreas Laupacis, editor in chief of the Canadian Medical Association Journal, wrote recently in his blog:, “We know poverty and disadvantage kill through a variety of mechanisms, such as unhealthy food options, insecure housing, psychological and social isolation and poor access to health care. But because coronavirus kills more quickly than other diseases, it makes the inequities in our society that lead to death much more starkly visible than usual.”
Where inequities hit hardest in Canada
Essential workers are no doubt hit hardest. These are the people who show up to work every day when others don’t. They pick up and drop things off so we don’t have to go out. They work in our hospitals, our pharmacies, our grocery stores, they cross closed borders and ship our goods around the country. So that we can stay safe.
But there is a ripple effect of this inequity that permeates everything. A recent Egale study reports that LGBTQI2S households are hit harder by unemployment, with people feeling less hopeful about having jobs to return to once things open up.
In Winnipeg, Manitoba, students living in the city’s North End struggle to keep up with those in wealthier neighbourhoods where it’s more common to have fast internet and computers and tablets for learning. Teachers and parents are worried about how far some kids will fall behind and what that means for their future.
The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives released research showing how little our front-line workers in long-term care, grocery stores, and transport are making compared to the average Canadian—sometimes less than half!
On top of basic wages, most of these workers don’t have paid sick days, health benefits, or adequate worker protection. These jobs can’t be done from home. The study also reveals a racial divide.
“While racialized workers are 21% of the total workforce, they range from 22% of grocery store workers to 37% of workers in warehousing and storage. Racialized workers also make up 30% of workers in food manufacturing,” the research shows.
People put themselves at risk every day so that people with privilege, which can take many forms, can isolate.
What Canada can do about it
For too long we've known that Canada's social safety net was badly frayed after years of austerity and government cuts. The pandemic is exposing the weakness of the system—something that deserves our full attention. Governments across Canada have been freezing budgets for health and education and relaxing basic employment standards, like paid sick days and a living wage, for years. And now here we are.
Many have called for the collection of data to improve our collective understanding of which communities are hardest hit, how and why and what we can do about it. As the old adage for data collection goes, what is measured matters. And if you’re not counted, then you don’t count.
What you can do about it
If you’re one of those who are experiencing quarantine privilege, make sure to keep our essential workers safe by reducing your trips out and staying home. Tip your delivery person more than usual. Donate to local food banks and shelters. Push our governments and our workplaces to do better, not just now but for long after this pandemic is over.
Jo Snyder is a seasoned communications professional with expertise on the social determinants of health and health equity. Over her career she's worked with think tanks, non-profits and big tech to deliver comms of all kinds.
This project has been made possible in part by the Government of Canada.