By Gabby Aquino
“Just pray,” are words that are all too familiar in troubling times. Religiosity and spirituality aside, I think that prayer comes in many forms, can be done in many ways, and can serve many purposes. But when I hear the words, “just pray” spoken from a place of emptiness, I think about how the call to just pray stems from a recognition of the harsh realities of systemic inequality and historical disadvantage that many are handed. I hear a lack of faith and helplessness in the face of a state that creates and recreates that inequality and disadvantage.
Your labour is essential, but your rights and life are not
At the turn of the new year, my dad tested positive for COVID-19 after being exposed at work. This came on the heels of my elderly great aunt testing positive in the long-term care home she lives in as well. After the province first revealed which services would be “essential” at the start of the pandemic, it became a when, not if, my dad would test positive.
I quickly began to research what options my dad had to be safe in every sense of the word. Working from home and paid leave were not available to him, and neither was employment insurance unless he were to get dismissed without just cause. Under the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA), employers have a clear obligation to do their best to ensure workers are not exposed to, and do not contract COVID-19 on the job. In knowing the stark difference between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law however, I directly contacted Public Health Ontario to understand what some of these provisions might actually look like.
I was advised that employers must ensure that employees can social distance (i.e. remain 6 feet apart for at least 15 minutes at a time), wear personal protective equipment, and practice frequent sanitization and proper hygiene. Where there is a confirmed case, employees must get tested and if they test positive, must isolate for at least 10 days. Where there is a workplace “outbreak,” Public Health conducts contact tracing but what constitutes an “outbreak” remains a grey area. How quickly Public Health can respond to a workplace outbreak, and conduct contract tracing is also currently constrained by ongoing backlog. Workplace safety and health complaints can be filed with the Ministry of Labour (MOL), but the Ministry has come under fire for its continued reluctance to actually fine employers.
While employers are legally prohibited from dismissing employees for missing work for COVID-19-related reasons, the reality of work precarity, and the lived experiences of employees even before the pandemic coupled with the gaps in the MOL’s accountability measures, make extralegal reprisal very real and all too common. Therefore, some employees may also be reluctant to isolate and miss work out of an understandable fear of losing their job at a time of crisis and instability.
My dad has since been able to access the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit for the first two weeks that he has been away from work. Still, the CRSB only provides 50% of his wages. And, because he is still recovering, the issue of income remains. Even when he is ready to return to work, exposure is still a major concern, especially with vaccine inaccessibility. Fortunately, the rest of my family and I tested negative, have been able to care for my dad, and did not have to bring him to the hospital. However, I say this lightly because I think people shouldn’t feel lucky to be safe and healthy, it is a right that all people and beings hold. Nonetheless, the privileges inherent in being able to stay home with my loved ones is not lost on me.
My dad’s COVID-19 experience is not isolated from the complex and disparate ways that the pandemic has systemically harmed Black, Indigenous, racialized, migrant, elderly, poor, disabled, and other communities who have been deemed “disposable” even before the pandemic. Like other racialized and migrant communities, Filipino/a/x workers including my dad are among those whose services have been deemed “essential” yet have not been afforded more secure working conditions such as paid sick leave, increased wages, or in some cases, status.
Although Canada’s continuing dependency on Black, Indigenous, migrant, and racialized communities has come to light, the language of “essential” fails to capture the nefarious ways that the Canadian economy marginalizes those same communities. It also overlooks how Canada plays a direct role in pushing some of those same communities out of their homelands, which has resulted in many occupying stolen lands on Turtle Island. In many complex ways, they are then implicated in the settler colonial system, which again, includes the occupation of stolen lands and ongoing colonial violence against Indigenous peoples.
As such, the language of “essential worker” erases the racist, colonial, and capitalist systems that force people to be resilient, and often implicates some people in other communities’ need to be resilient as well. Ultimately, the language of “essentially worker” too often celebrates people’s resilience while neglecting the root causes for their need to be resilient in the first place, and the complexities and inherent tensions of those root causes.
I have a deep respect for those who have been putting their lives on the line to keep everyone else safe during the pandemic. However, I also think that this should push us to reimagine a world that does not solely place that burden on marginalized communities in ways that further their marginalization. This should push us to build our respective and collective capacities to carry out our responsibility to take care of each other and our diverse needs. Everyone beyond and during the pandemic, deserves care and support.
Webs of disposability
The impacts of COVID-19 on essential workers closely parallels the other devastation that the pandemic has wrought in long-term care homes, prisons, housing, the colonial violence in Canadian healthcare systems, and the policing of Black and Indigenous communities among other related harms. All of which are built on systems that have by design, historically and contemporarily replaced care for Black, Indigenous, racialized, poor, disabled, elderly, and marginalized communities, with harm. Through shared interests, resource and information sharing, active channels of communication, and common design, LTC home, prison, healthcare, and criminalization systems also actively work together to entangle the same people in their webs of disposability.
Just as the virus is particularly harmful for people with pre-existing health conditions, the pandemic has exacerbated systemic inequalities and inequities that pre-exist it. As such, we are forced to confront the very real ways in which those who have been directly impacted have been rendered vulnerable to the pandemic by systems that constantly attempt to dispose of them.
Pray that our prayers are revolutionary
When I think about prayer I think about talking to my late grandfather, asking him questions I long for him to answer. I think about relatives and other loved ones who have gone before me, but who have grafted themselves onto my own life which I feel daily. I think about those who came before me, who I have only known through stories both generously shared with me and left to my own imagination, and trying to honour their legacies. I think about imagining different circumstances where love and care thrive, especially for those to come.
If prayer is all these things, prayer is fundamentally about collective action to demand that nothing and no one is disposable, something that should not have to be demanded in the first place. Prayer is demanding universal paid sick leave for all workers, including the passing of Bill 239. It is demanding the safe decarceration of incarcerated peoples while abolishing prisons and the broader criminalization and punishment system including the police altogether, and simultaneously creating systems and resources so that we can keep each other safe. It is demanding status for all while eliminating borders, returning the stolen lands that those borders have been imposed on, and eroding imperial forces that push people out of their homelands. So I pray that we put a human face to the pandemic, and are moved to hold oppressors accountable, dismantle death-making systems, and build our capacity for care. I pray that our prayers are revolutionary.
The pandemic tells us how deeply connected these distinct struggles are across the globe, and reminds us of the ongoing urgency of Mariame Kaba calls co-strugglership. That solidarity is more than a hashtag or diversity and inclusion policies, it is a site of ongoing struggle rooted in a deep understanding of our shared humanities, histories, and futures. It is our commitment to our obligations to one another, and a recognition that it is only through honouring those obligations that we can have any futures.
This past year has shown me the strength of mutual aid and community care. It is far more sustainable and powerful than the settler state and white supremacy will ever be. Worlds outside capitalism, settler colonialism and white supremacy are not just coming, they have always been here. We must nurture them, nurture one another, and nurture the lands that hold us all together for those who have come before us, those with us now, and those to come.
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