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COVID magnifies disparities in society

By Michael Swan

TORONTO, Canada, (The Catholic Register) – If the COVID-era has left most Canadians a little more isolated, a little more cut-off from friends and family, the poor among us have experienced that loneliness more acutely than most.

Raphael Patrick Jiménez lives on $800 a month he collects from the Ontario Disability Support Program. He counts himself lucky to have a highly subsidized, tidy one-bedroom unit from HouseLink, a Toronto housing provider. Having a guest visit his home for a quarter of an hour is exciting for Jiménez.

“I’m alone all the time,” he said. “I got the Lord. I would be at a loss (without The Good Shepherd). Like, I love going there to talk — the fellowship and Br. Peter and the Father, and all the people there.”

Creating that connection to the poor is the central theme for the fourth World Day of the Poor on November 15. In his message to mark the day, Pope Francis highlights a quote from the Book of Sirach: “Stretch forth your hand to the poor” (7:32).

“Time devoted to prayer can never become an alibi for neglecting our neighbour in need,” the Pope said. “In fact the very opposite is true: the Lord’s blessing descends upon us and prayer attains its goal when accompanied by service to the poor.”

Jiménez’s home is about 400 metres from The Good Shepherd and visible from his front door. As someone who once spent more than three years on the street, he knows the importance of agencies that serve the poor. It’s about more than just the shelter and food they provide. It’s the place that takes him in, accepts him, talks to him, knows him.

“The Good Shepherd is really good. They should change the name to The Best Super-Good Shepherd. They’re really good to me,” Jiménez said.

COVID-19 is teaching Canadians some important truths about their society, said Sr. Sue Wilson, director of the Office of Systemic Justice for the Canadian Federation of the Sisters of St Joseph in London, Ontario.

“What we’re learning right now is how COVID-19 has magnified and deepened the disparities in our society,” she told The Catholic Register.

In June the Parliamentary Budget Office reported that the top one per cent of Canada’s families hold about 25.6 per cent of Canada’s wealth — roughly $3 trillion. The bottom 40 percent of us share 1.2 percent of Canada’s wealth. In 2018 5.4 percent of Canadians were living in deep poverty, scratching out an existence 75 percent below the market-basket-measure poverty line.

That’s nearly two million Canadians who have to feed, clothe and house themselves on about $40 a day, $1,200 per month — or less.

If poverty isn’t top of mind or leading off the nation’s newscasts, it’s because the rest of us are OK whistling past the graveyard of financial doom, said Wilson.

“Things are mostly looking good for people earning over $22 an hour (about $42,000 a year), but they are much more difficult for people earning under $22 an hour in terms of lost hours and the loss of a job,” she said. “Lower wage workers were far more likely to lose their jobs or to be exposed to the virus. Women and workers facing racial discrimination were more likely to be in those lower-wage jobs, or in jobs more exposed to the virus.”

COVID-19 didn’t create this gulf between the middle class and poor, but it has shown us how dangerous it can be for society, said Wilson.

“The pandemic itself is just exposing what we’ve already known is there,” she said.

Over at St Francis’ Table, Br John Frampton believes we have to stop thinking of COVID-19 in terms of wars and battles and front lines. Now is the time to learn to live with COVID-19, he said.

“As long as we’re trying to fight it, there are winners and losers when we fight,” he said. “When we live with it there aren’t winners and losers. We’re all winners — out of concern for each other… We have to enable others to live more fully.”

St Francis’ Table is serving about 800 takeout meals per week these days. They had it up as high as 1,200 per week during the summer when COVID case counts were low and people had more freedom to move around. St. Francis’ Table is unlikely to fully open while the pandemic rages. They need between 12 and 15 volunteers per shift to serve meals indoors.

“We can’t get volunteers because the pandemic is still with us,” Frampton said.

When Milanka Pantich found herself homeless and clinically depressed, she began to learn about a world she had never imagined when she worked in medical records at Toronto East General Hospital or in customer relations with Polygram Records.

“I thought homeless people are all lazy. You know, they’re not,” she said.

She’s also learned how invisible you are when you’re poor. “People, I find even on the street, they walk right into you,” she said.

Over the years, Pantich has moved out of the shelter and into a single room in a townhouse she rents with three other people. Because of conflicts with some of the other people in the house, she doesn’t use the shared kitchen and relies on The Good Shepherd nearby.

“Where I live is very awful,” she said. “You go there (to The Good Shepherd) and you meet good people. […] I like to talk and I care about people. I help people there too, when I can — just even talking.”

The gap between the lives Pantich and Jiménez live and the rest of us is an important issue for Canada as a country and for the economy. But it’s also a spiritual issue, said Wilson.

“We need to address the root causes,” she said. “Pope Francis has done a great job of laying out those root causes for us. He goes right at the economic model — the walls that we put up to separate ourselves from each other, the sad state of politics.”

The morality of an economic system that holds people in poverty is one thing, but Wilson believes Catholics should be concentrating on Scripture and spirituality when they think about poverty. If people say they believe in capitalism, Pope Francis has a message they need to hear.

“What Pope Francis is trying to do is take people back to Scripture and spirituality and say, ‘Well, this is actually what you believe in.’ He takes Catholic social teaching and roots it right in Scripture. He’s not messing around,” Wilson said. “That kind of deepening of spirituality and a renovating of spirituality is going to lead to a widening sense of justice.”

On the World Day of the Poor, Wilson plans to spend some of her time “having conversations with people about policy and changing policy.” But she also will connect with a migrant worker friend whom she has been spending time with. A truly Catholic spirituality isn’t lived in the abstract, but in real relationships.

For Wilson the widening gap between rich and poor isn’t a set of statistics, or a political idea. There is a spiritual imperative.

“This is an historical moment. History will judge us by how we will respond collectively to these intersecting crises,” she said. “After World War II, that generation worked to create a social safety net. It wasn’t just given. They had to work for it. More recent generations let those social protections erode to the point where they were in tatters by the time the pandemic hit. So now is our moment. […] Will we step up for collective action or shrink into our individual lives and do nothing substantial?”



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