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By Regie Plana-Alcuaz, CASJ PAGE Action Group, CTF Advisory Committee on the Status of Women, and Surrey teacher

I have not seen my mother, sister, or brother in person for the past four years, or my twin sister for three. If you spent the holidays on a video call with loved ones, that’s a situation that most immigrants have been experiencing since the advent of visual communication technology. The majority of my family reside in the Philippines, where their pandemic plan is almost inexistent. One of the worries on our minds is that if a loved one passes away, there is little to be done to support our families as we normally would, like flying back to our country of birth to commiserate and condole.

As a culture, Filipinos draw strength from family ties, and this global pandemic has strained this basic societal need. I imagine that the same is true for immigrants from other countries, some of whom have similar reasons for migration: attaining a better life abroad and sending money back to their country of origin to support loved ones. According to Statistics Canada, Filipinos sent $1.2 billion in remittances in 2017—the most of any group sending international money transfers.

As an immigrant to Canada, I am one of almost one million Filipinos who comprise about 2.6% of the Canadian population The majority of Filipino immigrants work in service areas, including health care, education, the food industry, and retail. One in 20 health care workers is from the Philippines. Over one-third of internationally trained nurses are Filipino, and 90% of migrant caregivers providing in-home care under Canada’s Caregiver Program are from this same country, according to the Canadian Institute for Health Information.

The Migrant Rights Network carried out research demonstrating that these migrant personal support workers feel they are trapped in their work homes. They can’t leave for fear of losing the jobs upon which their Canadian immigration papers depend, so they are unable to advocate for better working conditions. If they are fired before attaining the mandatory two years of employment, they may be deported.

Filipinos are so well represented in the Canadian health care system that the first person to receive the COVID-19 vaccine in Canada was of Filipino descent, as were two more of the first five Canadians vaccinated. Filipino health care workers are consequently disproportionally affected by gaps in the health care system, including staff shortages, insufficient compensation, and lack of resources or respite in the case of in-home caregivers.

How much of this information is news to you? One of the issues that has been highlighted by this pandemic is the unbalanced focus of media coverage on certain countries. We hear mostly about the United States, our closest neighbour, but we also hear of other prominently featured countries in Europe or Australia. Rarely do we hear news from the African, Caribbean, or Asia-Pacific regions, which have all experienced success in dealing with COVID-19. For instance, Laos has identified no new cases as of mid-January, as have Somalia, Timor-Leste, and Dominica. Rwanda, Uruguay, South Africa, Vietnam, Cambodia, Bhutan, Brunei, and Djibouti are all beating COVID-19. Countries that are almost there include Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belize, Bulgaria, Cameroon, Nepal, and Kenya.

What are these countries doing right that deserves emulation? The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs put out a paper that examined the experiences in these countries. According to their study, the three main determinants of success were universal health care, social protection, and overall governance systems. The Wall Street Journal also mentioned that many countries in Africa used their experience from past disease outbreaks to mount effective responses to the pandemic. Korea has excelled at early and aggressive testing from the onset of the pandemic. Yet, we hear mostly about English-speaking countries with immense privilege, from which information is constantly regurgitated and remains at the forefront of media coverage.

Another side of this pandemic that we don’t often hear about is the fact that countries where women lead have fared much better, especially when you compare them with countries led by male dictators. The death toll is horrendous in Brazil, Hungary, the Philippines, and other places where strongmen dominate—dare we include the United States? And there is no improvement on the horizon. Looking at New Zealand, Germany, Finland, Taiwan, Iceland, Norway, and Denmark, it is evident that these female-led nations are winning the struggle against this infectious disease because of the leadership styles they bring to the table, which include empathizing instead of commanding.

COVID-19 has provided us with an opportunity to reflect on what we have done and can still do. Canada is in a better position than other nations that are less economically privileged. There is some financial support from the federal government for those who are unable to work at this time. A large number of those affected are minorities and recent immigrants. Unfortunately, immigration processing has slowed down due to the pandemic and travel restrictions. Additionally, as exemplified by politicians who travelled during the winter holidays, some people appear to feel entitled to excuse themselves from the rules set out for the rest of the country. It appears that this is also true for those who are economically advantaged and can afford to weather the pandemic at a holiday home.

This situation has also been a missed opportunity to overhaul the educational system. We could use this time to refresh our ideas on how education can be delivered and why it should be changed from the original program meant to grow factory workers. Instead, we continue to administer assessments that are in no way beneficial to students, educators, or even the system, but are carried out to benefit the private entities that profit from them.

As we have seen over the past year, we rely on schools to provide services that are usually in the domain of social welfare—whether sustenance or non-academic support— and there is no major evidence of anything being done to sufficiently rectify this. Exacerbating these concerns are social justice issues that became blatantly prominent in the Trump era: the relationship between law enforcement and race, the continued lack of gender parity, the ever-widening chasm between the 1% and the rest of humanity, and the quickening rate of environmental damage. Add COVID-19 to the mix and these problems are much more starkly highlighted.

While a bit of light can be seen at the end of the tunnel due to the advent of increasingly effective vaccines, immunity will still take some time to reach a critical mass. It is not too late to consider changes to schooling as we know it. The only question is whether the government and school administration are willing to allow a revolutionary shift in educational services. This shift involves considering what is truly important now and becoming inclusive of innovative practices from the experiences of those who are on the ground.

This pandemic is showing us where our true priorities should lie.

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