By Stephen Petrick
The COVID-19 pandemic should serve as a lesson on how vulnerable populations are put at more risk than other groups when health emergencies occur.
That’s the message delivered by members of the Vulnerable Sector Group (VSG), which works under the Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge District health unit.
Group leaders delivered a presentation to the health unit’s board on Feb. 17, in which they lobbied for continued attention towards vulnerable groups, which include children and youth, older adults, people who use substances, people with low socioeconomic status, people living in congregate living settings, people with mental illness and First Nation, Inuit, and Metis.
“Equity matters,” VSG co-chair Kate Hall told the board, during the virtual meeting. “We’d like to highlight this as we move forward and out of our COVID-19 response and into recovery. COVID-19 has created opportunities for long-term and high-impact change going forward.”
Hall and co-chair Sarah Tsang lobbied for the health unit to think of health equity values and principals as it moves forward on all policies it creates, including those related to emergency preparedness.
“In this way, we can create the next normal,” Hall said.
Throughout the pandemic the working group, which includes 10 other local health officials, found that COVID-19 was “highlighting and amplifying unfair and unjust” issues, Tsang said.
“We’re all in the same storm, but we’re not all in the same boat,” she added. “Not everyone has the opportunity, privilege and power to respond to the pandemic in the same way.”
The working group, on direction from the Ministry of Health, prepared a program where members asked questions about social-economic status among people they worked with who had tested positive for COVID-19. They also started working closer with partnering agencies to get a feel of what was happening at group homes, shelters, mental health services organizations and other groups that work with vulnerable people.
The group saw that the pandemic was exacerbating hardships that clients were already experiencing.
Hall praised the health board for advancing policies that decrease health inequities, such as advocating for the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit to evolve into a guaranteed basic income program and for advocating for paid sick days.
“We know that people in low-income households are most likely to be negatively impacted by unplanned time off,” she said, explaining that those people don’t always have the ability to follow public health guidelines, and often go to work in risky situations.
Dysart et al Mayor Andrea Roberts, who sits on the health unit’s board, praised the presentation and agreed that vulnerable people are most at risk of being negatively affected by the pandemic. They might not have a support system that can help them avoid doing things like going to the grocery store, when it’s unsafe to do so, she pointed out.
Board chair Doug Elmslie asked if there’s a risk of people in vulnerable populations falling further behind when it comes to accessing health services, when the pandemic wanes.
Hall explained that the board needs to continue paying attention to these groups and understand their stories.
“When we start with people first, we tend to be able to address and mitigate some of those inequities right at the get go,” she said. “That’s a new approach and something we can all think about bringing into our policy going forward.”