SINCE March, we have all been waiting for a way out of the COVID-19 crisis. Now that the vaccine is finally here and the end is at last in sight, we are at risk of letting down our guards.

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This article was published 4/1/2021 (540 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

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Opinion

SINCE March, we have all been waiting for a way out of the COVID-19 crisis. Now that the vaccine is finally here and the end is at last in sight, we are at risk of letting down our guards.

Without question, COVID-19 has been a game-changing challenge, but it also represents an opportunity to implement long-term strategies that will make all our communities stronger, better empowering them to resist future health crises.

Every day in the media, we see updates on the number of sick and dead, both in Manitoba and around the world. Locally, the daily updates have mostly been provided by chief public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin and chief nursing officer Lanette Siragusa. From them, we have heard a disheartening number of statistics: the number of new cases, the number of sick, the number in ICUs and the number who have died.

And we all must confront the reality of lives lost and understand the pain of those struggling to breathe behind those numbers. They are names, they are our family members, friends, co-workers, and neighbours, and we have lost many of them, often without the opportunity to mourn. That loss has left many of us traumatized and deeply wounded; we are walking in darkness, trying to regain our sense of control.

At the same time, many of us have rightly offered our deep gratitude to the doctors and nurses who risk their lives to care for the sick. Yet there are many others who face the danger of the pandemic every day: people cleaning our hospitals, working in our nursing homes, serving at grocery stores, and preparing, packing and delivering our take-out — positions that are poorly paid and often filled by new Canadians.

Yet the pandemic, which some thought would be a great equalizer, has instead revealed the way our society is still deeply divided along class, income, race and gender lines. While COVID-19 rages in Manitoba, the provincial government has been criticized for making testing difficult for low-income Manitobans, while 22 per cent of those who have died have been Indigenous (Indigenous people make up only 4.9 per cent of Manitoba’s population).

Moving forward, there are still concerns about the ability of the government to make the vaccine readily available to remote communities. When one individual is COVID-19 positive, no one is safe, yet some are at a higher risk of facing serious consequences as they struggle to receive the medical care that they need.

By demonstrating the inequities that exist in our society, COVID-19 has become a call for us to unite and care for each other in a way that we have been failing to do.

The cause of these disparate infection and mortality rates are multi-factorial; when we realized early on the increased impact of COVID-19 on people with compromised immunity, many sought to boost their immunity to help keep themselves and their families safe. And there was good reason to do so: those with diabetes (a disease that is both genetic and dietary in cause) have been shown to be at an increased risk of infection and serious complications.

One of the best means of boosting immunity and preventing or managing diabetes is in the food we eat — specifically vitamin-rich fruits and vegetables and healthy fats, including vegetable fats and fish. Yet these are some of the more expensive foods in the grocery store, especially in the remote communities of Manitoba, where the prices of fruit and vegetables are often double what they are in the south.

Because of low incomes, Indigenous and new Canadian families (who are more likely to be employed in minimum-wage positions) are increasingly seeing their diets lack the immunity-boosting benefits found in fresh fruit, vegetables and fish. As a result, diabetes rates and other serious complications are higher among these populations, and without increases to minimum wage and subsidies for healthy foods, this situation is unlikely to change either during or after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since boosting immunity is fundamental to preventing and fighting COVID-19 (and numerous other health concerns), by assisting low-income families to afford healthy food we could save lives as well as millions in health-care spending. Northern communities already receive subsidies, but they are inadequate.

One source of raising subsidies could be raising taxes on junk foods. Subsidies also need to be coupled with better education for children, families and young people on the benefits of healthy eating — we could help to improve the lives of many Manitobans and to give future generations a society in which future health crises do not offer a particular threat to any group of people simply because they earn less.

The world will never be the same as it was before the pandemic, and we are fortunate that we have a vaccine as part of the solution. But we can do better. We can do better if we realize that our humanity is the only thing that will get us through the pandemic. We need to stand with, care for and support each other before it is too late.

The time when a nutritious diet and a healthy immune system is dependent upon a family’s income must come to an end. If we do not act, future health crises will reveal again and again the deep inequalities in our society. COVID-19 must be a call to acknowledge our unity as a human race and not our differences.

Evelyn N. Mayanja is an instructor in the joint masters (University of Winnipeg and University of Manitoba) peacebuilding and social-justice program and the U of W’s faculty of culture and religion, and a post-doctoral fellow with the International Studies Association.