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Solidarity after the Pandemic: Basic Income or Basic Services?

People are struggling. As front-line workers in emergency rooms, isolation shelters and clinics, we see how the COVID-19 pandemic has devastated health and livelihoods. We’ve witnessed the toll that the last several months has taken on workers, families, and marginalized communities.

It’s clear that COVID-19 remains a grave danger, but it’s also reawakened our true priorities. Values of solidarity, resilience, and equity have emerged as cornerstones for a healthier future, heard in national surveys and cheers for workers alike. 

The pandemic has also shown us how governments directly affect our lives. Policy decisions taken now can either lock in further insecurity and inequity or lay foundations for a sustainable recovery.

If internet searches are any indication, a national basic income is gaining attention. Some say the $2,000 a month Canada Emergency Response Benefit has opened the door to this idea, and a well-timed new parliamentary budget report adds hard numbers to the debate.

Indeed, the CERB has helped many and fostered self-sufficiency through hardships, but the pandemic has also revealed the necessity of strong social safety nets. The question of what comes next has a high level of urgency.

Income is vital, but only gets you so far. Money still needs to work within a patchwork market. While conventional markets may be convenient for books and board games, they fall short for life’s essentials. Health care, long-term care, or access to clean drinking water, for example, do not follow the simple precepts of supply and demand taught in introductory economic courses. 

Meeting universal basic needs for participation, health and independence is not a simple consumer choice. Rather, it’s a minimum condition to ensure a vibrant and thriving democratic society. Sadly, personal income alone cannot create more space in a child-care centre, more beds in a well-staffed care home, or more rail and bus routes. You may have more money, but are you empowered to live and sustain a richer life?

What if more income wasn’t the only path to a better life? A basic service we’ve all experienced is so deep-seated that we take it for granted: we pay taxes for our public health-care system, but it’s free to use when we need it and supported as a matter of civic pride. Our health systems are further supported by monitoring and standards to address the variety of ways the benefits of health can be achieved. As our neighbours to the south know all too well,  trying to purchase a public good like this, out of your own pocket and through private markets, can quickly become expensive in a life-altering way. Yet we haven’t carried this lesson over to other basic services.

The truth is that Canada lags other rich countries in social spending for public programs that improve health, assist children and seniors, and protect us from poverty and unemployment. Research shows that we stand to reap large rewards from boosting our basic health and social services. In their absence, COVID-19 has exposed these long-standing gaps as a precarious reality for too many of us in Canada.

Broadening the scope of what might transition from the CERB, a national approach to public “basic services” complements the undisputed importance of income by ensuring our shared needs are securely met in an uncertain world. It’s already supported by experts in the UK and Canada. They point out that the greatest needs are those that form a basic standard of living and support the determinants of health: clean water, pharmacare, safe and affordable housing, good-quality child and long-term care, and transportation and internet services that rapidly connect this vast country, among others. 

Calling them “basic” recognizes that these services are building blocks for a strong society, as essential for a thriving nation as roads and bridges, and an essential responsibility of governments to deliver. For workers stranded by changing trends in labour conditions and the economic shutdown, expanding access to basic services may provide lasting support while maintaining impetus for better employment standards. Ensuring access to high-quality basic services for everyone can also begin to address existing injustices, particularly to Indigenous peoples, with inclusive design and adequate funding from the start. 

Like Medicare, basic services would form the “tangible expressions” of our solidarity. And like public health advice, they’re designed to prevent crises before they happen. The tragedies of COVID-19 are not unique: this is neither our first nor last pandemic. Just as how we flatten the curve matters, so too does how we chart our recovery. 

A move towards meaningful universal basic services is no small task. Canadians are ready. Only 12 per cent of us think we will return to our pre-pandemic way of life. As Nik Nanos has put it, the old status quo of consumerism and individualism is dead. 

It’s no wonder. As we help each other through unexpected layoffs and illnesses, we develop a greater appreciation for our priorities. Instead of going “back to normal”, leaders can enable greater health and resilience for all by investing in national basic services to strengthen our social infrastructure. COVID-19 remains a threat that’s best defeated through solidarity. This is our time to transform that vision into action.


Edward Xie is an emergency physician working at the intersection of inequities and health and Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto. 

Danyaal Raza is a family physician, Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto and Essential Solutions Project member of the Broadbent Institute.