COLUMN: Essential workers deserve a lot more from all of us

Columnist Andre Carrel (File photo)

Columnist Andre Carrel (File photo)

It could be said of any year, but 2021 was indeed a year worthy of reflection. It was the second year of the Covid-19 pandemic and, perhaps, the first year of a new weather reality.

When Covid-19 was officially declared a pandemic in 2020, health officials warned about the inevitability of a second wave. One could have assumed that we would be prepared to deal with it effectively. The end of 2021, however, marked the onset of wave number five. The question today is not whether the fifth wave will be the last one; the question may be how we can adjust to living with Covid-19.

The focus of the public debate about climate change has been on the need to reduce harmful emissions with the aim to limit the rise in global temperature. The experience of 2021 has added an urgent need for us to focus on how to cope with weather events borne of a new climate reality.

The combined impact of the pandemic and weather events has been to derail the complex and finely tuned web of supply chains. From smart toasters to fresh strawberries in mid-winter, we have grown accustomed to an economy capable of responding to our every wish and desire – provided always that we had the money to pay for it.

By the time the pandemic taxed our health care infrastructure to its limits, and weather events left half the province’s grocery store shelves empty, the term “essential services” had gained new meaning. The appellation had hitherto been limited to fire, police, and rescue services. The pandemic and the new weather normal have caused government to expand the list of essential services to include, in addition to fire fighters and paramedics, a long list of other occupations and services (e.g. workers who process and manage claims made by injured workers).

2021 brought home the realization that the people who provide “essential services” are people we encounter on a daily basis. They are our neighbours, our friends and relatives; we meet them on the street, in stores, in coffee shops, and at work. We also know the people who provide “non-essential” services, although we rarely if ever encounter them in our daily travels. Non-essential services are provided by people known to us through various media and Internet sources; they are the wealthy and famous people in finance, business, sports, entertainment, and politics.

We take the bulk of the people who provide essential services for granted. They fill the ranks of the lower 50 per cent of earners and asset owners. Some of the people who provide essential services – too many of them – are forced to rely on food banks and other support programs to make ends meet. On the other hand, many of the people who provide non-essential services are found among the top 10 percent of earners and asset owners.

As important as earning a living wage is, what is arguably just as important is the dignity and respect that should go with the work of providing services that are essential to society’s well-being. The pandemic may not amount to a new normal, but the weather patterns of 2021 are the new normal. Adjusting to the new normal should include, as a matter of priority, a commitment to give the people whose work and occupation are essential the dignity, respect and compensation we owe them.

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