We continue to be extremely concerned about Canada’s national response to the COVID-19 virus and its variants. Its negative impact on the health and safety of diverse women and Two Spirit, trans, and non-binary people, as well as their families and communities, has been dire.

Essential workers have long carried a heavy load in Canada’s economy and society. From cleaners and care workers to retail workers, educators, and factory employees, essential workers have been keeping us healthy and cared for. Even as they have received praise for their efforts from elected officials and the public, they have been suffering on the frontlines in the pandemic. This suffering is preventable, and prevention is a matter of leadership priorities.

Throughout our province and territories, less than half of all workers have access to paid sick days. For workers making low wages, only about 10 per cent have access. Women represent the majority of these workers, particularly women who face multiples barriers due to factors like racism and immigration status. At the same time, their work puts them at high risk of viral infection.

Many experts and advocates have demonstrated the importance of wide access to paid sick leave in our pandemic response. Still, only Quebec and Prince Edward Island mandate sick leave, and even in those cases, the support is quite limited. While the 2020 Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit was released in response to this regional gap, there are many restrictions and limitations for workers to access it. Overall, the application of sick leave in Canada as a mechanism to curb this virus has been inadequate. This has led to terrible consequences for vulnerable women, families, and communities.

In the midst of the third wave, many provincial and territorial vaccine rollouts have not reached sites of high risk for marginalized women and communities. Applying an equitable lens to the rollout based on the social determinants of health means that essential workers and people at high risk would have greater priority in the rollout process. But in many municipalities and regions in Canada, the rollout has left vulnerable people behind. This includes racialized people, people with disabilities, and migrant workers. Again, marginalized women have been bearing the brunt.

The Canadian Women’s Foundation adds our voice to the many voices calling for caring, equitable, strategic decision-making at this critical time. Nation-wide access to paid sick leave and prioritizing of people at high risk of viral infection are two critical measures that will protect women and communities and help bring the pandemic to an end. Essential workers deserve decent, livable wages and every health protection we can offer. Now, more than ever, lives depend on it.