This March marks one year since all of our lives were turned completely upside down. My memories from last March are still vivid. None of us knew exactly where things were going, people started panicking and hoarding, and suddenly the things we take for granted became serious and existential questions, like whether or not we send our kids to school and how often we visit our relatives.
As someone who closely follows the news cycle as part of my job, it was incredibly difficult to think about anything else and unplug even for just a few moments. It was overwhelming and there was no aspect of our lives left untouched as a result. The number of pandemic casualties is so enormous, and the reporting of them so routine, that a sort of numbness and fatigue greets every new headline, statistic, and public health communiqué.
Of course, everyone, myself included, cannot wait for things to return to some semblance of ‘normal.’ Nonetheless, the global pandemic has highlighted a number of things that just aren’t ‘normal,’ or at least shouldn’t be considered ‘normal.’ In fact, we have several crises that predate the pandemic, despite them not receiving the attention they’ve so desperately deserved. All of these crises have one thing in common – a systematic devaluation of care – and the status quo of elder care, in particular, is a good example of a crisis that simply cannot continue if we’ve learned anything from the past year.
Some of the most heartbreaking scenes of the pandemic have included family members desperately forging connections with their elders through panes of glass. We were then greeted with a barrage of news stories that revealed absolutely horrifying details. Elders were left without any attention for days, sometimes soiled and confused. Care workers had abandoned their posts due to burnout, fear, and a total lack of management and leadership. In response, governments emphasized that those responsible for these horrifying conditions could be held criminally responsible.
It’s hard to fault those tasked with care labour in these settings. Everyone knows that elder care jobs are physically and emotionally demanding, but we’ve somehow become accustomed to offering many of these workers embarrassingly low-wages and temporary positions void of any labour protections. To put things in perspective, these workers are potentially putting their actual lives at risk every time they show up for work.
At least part of the problem is that long-term care homes have become a very profitable industry. Hopefully, governments will adjust their funding formulas so that the Canadian public is not subsidizing for-profit homes that fail to deliver even a modicum of care. One can make many sound arguments for the free market: competition, innovation, rewarding risk-taking, and many others. But I have a hard time believing that financial incentives will result in levels of care that are consistent with the affection we have for our loved ones. Just imagine for a moment an elder care setting that was cooperative and non-profit. Imagine if every extra dollar siphoned to executives and shareholders was instead directly reinvested in the quality of life of your loved ones.
The bigger problem, however, is one of priorities. How is it possible that we have an innate stake in caring for the elderly – because we will likely be elderly ourselves some day – but we’re nonetheless willing to consign wide swathes of our elderly to living conditions that result in a poor quality of life? The first step in the right direction, I think, is to truly value the labour required to care for others. When we don’t, we’re sending a strong message that our most basic human needs for care are actually not that important, and that it’s okay to simply forget about people once they’ve exhausted the means to make their needs known.
When the pandemic is over, or at least managed to a sufficient degree, we will still be experiencing a new form of collective PTSD, hopefully one that will wane over time. But the crises that both predate the pandemic and have become difficult to ignore will likely still be with us. In my short lifetime, human vulnerability has never been so glaring. Women and children who are abused, people who are incarcerated, people living with disabilities, people struggling with homelessness, addictions, and mental health issues – the list is quite literally endless. There’s a truism that goes something like this: judge a society by how it treats its most vulnerable. Without seriously rethinking which ‘normal’ to which we ought to return, I fear that history will not judge us too charitably.