City Living in a Pandemic

Danielle Deveau, David Harmes, Sarah Marsh, and Jen Vasic pictured on the screen of a laptop during a Zoom interview.
Zooming In for Midtown Radio (Clockwise from top left: Danielle Deveau, David Harmes, Sarah Marsh, and Jen Vasic)

This new normal that we are all experiencing is stressful for everyone, and so I hope that everyone can take a little comfort in knowing that they’re not alone in this, no matter what the stress is.

– Councillor Sarah Marsh, Ward 10, City of Kitchener

This week, I caught up with Jen Vasic, Ward 5 Councillor for Waterloo, and Sarah Marsh, Ward 10 Councillor for Kitchener, to discuss some of the ways that the cities are changing to meet the new challenges presented by COVID 19.

Here is an excerpted version of our interview. The full interview can be heard here.

DD: How are people doing right now in these new conditions in our Region and our cities? What are some of the fallouts that you have been seeing around your cities, in terms of the changes that we have needed to rapidly make to address this public health crisis.

SM: Some of the changes of course are that so many people have been laid off from their jobs, and are home trying to do their part social distancing, so that right off the bat is anxiety producing. If people aren’t already anxious about getting COVID 19, which of course everybody is, then that added stress in our world is very real. Last week we saw about 1 million Canadians apply for EI, and that number is going to continue to build, and that is a big significant change. And the streets are empty, and that is just so bizarre to see.

JV: A couple of the ones that come to mind first are definitely, we’ve had to mobilize so fast to deal with this, we can’t do all of the things at one time, and the staff are working non-stop just trying to get to some sense of the things that need to be addressed, such as homelessness and people who are under-housed who aren’t even able necessarily to maintain social distancing, and the important work that’s going on with the non-profits who are working on that, and with all of the municipalities in the region who are working to talk about how best to help the non-profit sector deal with this unprecedented event that’s going to disproportionately impact people who aren’t safely housed and able to social distance. And second, Like Sarah said, there’s no one out, and the small businesses are really struggling. Some have been able to adapt online really quickly. We saw that great article recently about Words Worth Books who’ve been run off their feet delivering books to people. which is wonderful, but not everyone is able to to that with family responsibilities that have cropped up because of this.

DD: We’ve been watching the news and seeing all these calls from the Federal Government for manufacturing to move over or promises from the Federal Government about funds moving towards people who need them, and one the things that really struck me this week is how much some of our big institutions and organizations are lacking in agility. They haven’t actually been able to change or move very quickly. But it strikes me at the city-level, that the cities really did hit the ground running dealing with this. How is it that your work life shifted and at what point at the city did you realize that you were going to have to work differently?

JV: The big shift is that we did just have to hit the ground running and so that meant that a lot of the projects that were priority projects before there now has to be a total re-shift of what is even a priority right now and moving into the future, so thinking about what does business as usual look like when we just have to address this really immediately. So some projects that are non-essential haven’t come to council, so we are really dealing primarily with COVID at a council level and at a staff level.

SM: We have the equivalent of about 2000 full-time equivalent roles at the city, and our staff, the management who are in charge of implementing our pandemic plan in coordination with the region and other cities and the townships have been working non-stop twelve-hour days, seven days a week and it is incredibly impressive how well everyone is working together. It is so amazing how people are stepping up. In some cases people are being redeployed so if their role is considered non-essential or able to wait, then if they have the right skills they can be redeployed to help with things that are more pressing.  And we have things that have to happen now, things that have to happen in the next week, and we have additional lists of things that will happen in the next month, and so I have to say that in our role, which is policy driven and the oversight role, we have not had as busy a time as our staff and the mayor who are at the front lines everyday, heads down. But my role has been very much responding to residents, getting them the right information, working with small businesses to help them get the information that they need, and supporting as much as I can the staff who are working on the day to day.

DD: You are the representatives of your constituents and have an outward facing role. .What would you say that you have observed in your cities in terms of peoples compliance with social distancing?

SM: I’ve been very impressed by how well and how quickly businesses and individuals have adapted. We are doing a great job in our community of social distancing for the most part and I am very happy to see that. I also think that if we send home the messages that are very strong and very clear that social distancing is required and if we make sure that opportunities are in place for people to access what they need, for example, online there are so many resources that have popped up, then I think we can do it. In some cases we are going to need to help those who don’t have access to the internet, and as Jen mentioned, the most vulnerable people in our community are going to be hit the hardest by COVID 19 unless we work extremely fast and diligently to control the  spread of COVID 19 within that population. But I have to say, in terms of being nimble, holy cow. If we look at some of the downtown businesses that we have, a youtube channel that they have been populating with videos ‘while you’re at home’ helping people do things at home that they would normally access in services or shops in the downtown. We’ve got KPL oh my goodness, so many great resources online, and the list goes on.

JV: I think overall I’ve seen that people have been doing a pretty good job at complying. We have a dog, so we get out once a day to walk the dog and really not too many people have been out there. But there are still some people who are not complying, and I hear that from people who call me and email me saying, “I’m doing my part. I haven’t been out except to get groceries or to go for a walk before everybody else goes for a walk, so how are we supposed to be addressing people not complying. So I think we’ve seen that the measures have gotten increasingly strict, and so now the parks and environment people are going to be walking around the parks just as an education piece to make sure that people know what the new requirements are. And if it seems that people still aren’t really hearing that, then enforcement staff can come out. But again the goal isn’t really to ticket people, the goal is to work with everyone in collaboration and say, “we are in this together, how can we listen to the messaging to take care of not just you, not just your family, but everyone who is in this. So, yeah, I think it’s a mixed bag. I think lots of people are complying, but I think still not enough, and I’m not totally sure why or how but we’re working through it. In three weeks, a lot of different things have been tried, and we’ll just keep trying new things as they come.

DD: Do you have any last words for your constituents who are in their homes for the foreseeable future?

SM: I can just say, this new normal that we are all experiencing is stressful for everyone, and so I hope that everyone can take a little comfort in knowing that they’re not alone in this, no matter what the stress is. If it’s trying to figure out how to home school, or un-school. Or if it’s trying to figure out how to deal with not having a job. Or if it’s trying to figure out how to make the dollars stretch, there are so many resources out there, so ask for help. There will be lots of resources for people to access that help, so let’s keep working together. And if you happen to be a person who has a lot of time on their hands, and are looking for opportunities, there are lots of opportunities to volunteer.

JV: Ditto.

Councillor Vasic and Councillor Marsh also emphasize that they are here to help, so please do reach out if you need anything. They can answer questions or find out more information about policies and supports, as well as being an information conduit to the mayor, COVID response committees, and other staff and resources.

Jen Vasic, Councillor for Ward 5 in Waterloo
Email: jen.vasic@waterloo.ca

Sarah Marsh, Councillor for Ward 10 in Kitchener
Email: sarah.marsh@kitchener.ca

 

The New Normal

food imageThis week where I live, as well as in many other places all over the world, daily life has been dramatically altered. COVID 19 is in the early stages of community transmission in Canada, and infection rates are on track to be similar to those seen in other hard-hit parts of the world, where widespread infections have put critical health infrastructure on the brink of collapse. 

Like many other people, I have found myself spending much more time than normal in my own home. Ordinarily my partner and I work outside of the home. We are lucky to have jobs at post-secondary institutions with flexible hours, so sometimes working at home is normal for us. Ordinarily, our two daughters (aged 2 and 4) are in preschool. 

We are now all home indefinitely. My partner and I are still working online. None of us are sick. We have enough food for a few weeks, but are also still able to pop out to our local grocery store (only one block away) if we desperately need something. 

Our economic lives have been recentred on the home, and our home is more disrupted than usual because all of our routines have been thrown up in the air.

Doughnut_(economic_model)
Raworth’s Economic Model: The Doughnut

Quite coincidentally, at the time of this shift, I have been reading Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2017). 

Raworth argues that a new economic model is required for the 21st century; one that overturns the reckless pursuit of GDP growth at the expense of all else, and focuses on a more humane economic goal: that all people can live with dignity and comfort within the resource capabilities of the planet. Raworth’s recommendations about slowing down (or even stopping or reversing) growth trends in order to decrease our impact on the environment, coupled with her proposal that more must be done to disrupt wealth concentration and hoarding, are particularly prescient today, with most governments finding their hands forced to address calls for widespread financial support as many workers face extreme precarity in the conditions of the pandemic economy. 

Notably, a recent poll conducted by the Angus Reid Institute (13-14 March 2020), found that 87% of Canadians polled trust their public institutions, such a health authorities. This is a strong reversal of the kind of distrust of government that has been characteristic of the rise of populism in the political right. In a crisis, it would seem that citizens want institutions and experts. We are not so quick to dismiss the “elitism” of experts when our very lives are on the line.  

There is no question that some aspects of our daily lives and the ways that we interact with neighbours, markets, and institutions will be altered at the end of all this. Whether the economy is simply paused for three weeks while we attempt to “flatten the curve” through “social distancing” or if we have a much longer disruption in store, the reality that for the first time in recent history a majority of the active workforce has pivoted away from the public sphere and back into the home will surely alter expectations around daily rhythms, rates of productivity, and expectations of public and private divides in our everyday work lives. 

Prime Minster Trudeau has suggested that the initial few weeks of travel restrictions, social distancing, and business closures that we have currently been asked to endure could in fact stretch on for months. 

A recent report from researchers at the Imperial College of London suggests that our current social distancing measures may need to be enacted regularly over the next 18 months, when a vaccine is expected to be ready for circulation. According to the researchers, in order to prevent a catastrophic pandemic, extreme social distancing would need to be implemented every time ICU admissions began to spike. According to this model, we would drift in and out of social distancing measures. The model indicates that these measures would need to be in place roughly 2/3rds of the time. So, two months at home (no school, no office, no restaurants), and one month back to “normal.” 

The point that the researches, and a number of other commentators are hoping to drive home, is that there is a new normal now. We are not going back to the way things were prior to COVID 19. 

Mixed amongst public expressions of anxiety about these vast economic shifts are other more hopeful political positions. In the days immediately following enhanced social distancing measures, UBI Works, an advocacy organization pushing for universal basic income in Canada, circulated petitions widely in order to push Parliament to implement emergency basic income. So far, Parliament has opted to work through existing social programmes, such as the child tax benefit, GST rebates, and EI. However, it is also evident that these programmes, linked as they are to a traditional economy, are not sufficient to cover the gig-economy and service industry workers who often do not qualify for supports like those offered through EI. Broad calls for some kind of Universal Basic Income, are increasingly coming from all parts of the political spectrum.

1950s-housewife
Photo credit: http://pinterest.com/pin/276197389617648469/

In the immediate days following the escalation of social-distancing and self-isolation measures, the internet has been filled with all kinds of recommendations about how to structure your at home workday, how to distract/entertain/teach your children, how to cook healthy family meals with only non-perishables, how to disinfect, how to stay sane and connected in the absence of your physical networks. 

Writing about Feminist Economics for the Guardian, Lucia Graves argues that the burden for this shift to domesticity will, predictably, fall disproportionately on women’s shoulders. Mothers whose careers were only made possible by extended childcare services outside of the home, and in many instances already burdened with the “second shift” now find themselves at home with children trying to somehow telecommute.

My own personal experience has been that, with both my children and my partner home, all of my professional activities (save for writing this essay) have been pushed aside. While my husband struggles to find a quiet place to continue working from home (admittedly, it isn’t a fantastically productive time for him either), I have resigned myself to entire days spent entertaining my young children, cooking meals, and chipping away at other domestic projects. 

While the articles presenting new ways to be productive from home, or advertising technologies to make the new socially-distanced workplace function, are simply laughable to me (have kids, can’t work), I have found the abundance of domestic hacks that the internet offers up to be entertaining and comforting at a time when I have been thrust into more domesticity than I reasonably ever expected. Full-time homemaker was truly not the job I signed up for.

Over the coming weeks, I hope to feature conversations with individuals who are living and working on many sides of the quarantine curtain. From parents in the home to frontline health works, and all members of the community in between. Please continue the conversation with me.