SHIFT: 'No one cared about us before the pandemic, and now it's worse'

While the worst the pandemic has inflicted on many of us is not seeing friends and endless Zoom calls, for too many others, it has meant a much darker version of an already-difficult life.

Lisa Machado 6 minute read February 7, 2022
Complicated maze

Vulnerable and marginalized communities have been struggling for decades, and the pandemic has kicked the devastation up a notch. GETTY

“Oh darlin,’ there are easier ways to die.”

The dishevelled man looked up at the woman wearing bright pants from the ground where he was sprawled on his stomach, his muddy-looking hands still tightly gripping the torn styrofoam food container he had buried his mouth in just seconds earlier, slurping up remnants of noodles and brown broccoli stems

My daughter and I were a few feet away in a small playground — she had been showing me how she could swing on the bars when the man caught her eye.

She hadn’t noticed him lying in a ragged blue sleeping bag — the kind with plaid lining and a zipper that went all the way around — when we walked into the parkette. He had had his eyes closed, one arm tucked behind his head, the other resting on a wheel of the tattered wheelchair beside him, his nail-bitten fingers laced tightly through the strips of ripped leather hanging down from the seat. But when he crawled out onto the sidewalk, shuffled over to a nearby garbage can and pulled at the foam takeout container someone had squished into the small hole marked ‘Garbage,’ he had her attention.

“Mama, that man is eating garbage,” she whispered, as she grabbed my hand, not shifting her glance from the man, even when the older woman in red cowboy boots strolled up to him, her pink corduroy pants making a ch-ch sound as her thighs rubbed together. The woman shared a few more suggestions with him on how she would spend her last day if she could choose — “I’m going to go in my sleep” — she tossed a coin at his feet, and walked away, her mini furry pink purse bouncing on her hip.

Years later, I still wonder about that man — what had happened to him? And how did he end up on his stomach in the park that day? Depending on my mood, I imagine him now a high-powered executive in a blue suit and fancy striped socks who shares his down-and-out story with others and donates to good causes. Other times, I picture him somewhere in the depths of the cold city, alone, his black hair in a long ponytail, rummaging through overflowing garbage bins for half-eaten meals, his blue, plaid-lined sleeping bag piled in a rusty yellow shopping cart.

He popped into my mind again this week after we received an email from a reader thanking us for a story written by Dave Yasvinski about a study that showed people living with disabilities have been hurt the most by COVID 19.

‘D’ wrote: Thank you for your article about people with disabilities suffering throughout the pandemic. I’m a person with disabilities — I have neurological issues and am unable to walk, I’m in a wheelchair — and I’m high risk when it comes to COVID. Here’s a little peek into what life is like for me. 

They went on to write about how hard it has been to get the N95 mask they needed for the most protection from the virus. I was able to find just one mask at the local Home Hardware for $6. But the delivery would have cost $40 — I get $35 dollars a week for food, etc., after bills. ($35 for food!!)

I haven’t gotten groceries in over three months. No one cares about us — before the pandemic they didn’t, and now it’s worse. I’m dying, I can’t get food and no one cares. It hurts. I’m sad that people don’t care about the most vulnerable in society. They don’t see our value. I just wanted you to know what you wrote mattered very much to me. Knowing at least one person in the world sees our struggles makes it all hurt a little less.

It turns out that despite all that ‘D’ has been through — an aneurysm and a rare neurological condition — they haven’t lost their sense of humour. We shared some jokes as ‘D’ tried to figure out how to get the couple of N95 masks I had offered to mail. Where they live, ‘D’ said, their belongings get stolen, so the next step was getting the OK of a nearby business to have the masks mailed there.

It was never clear whether ‘D’ was without housing, but it didn’t matter — $35 for food each week and not being able to keep the things you own safe, no one should have to live this way, they wrote.

‘D’s’ letter came around the same time that a story popped up in my facebook feed about a woman who was a flight attendant with Air Canada when she fell out of an airport bus, hit her head on concrete, and suffered a severe brain injury. After worker’s compensation ended, experiencing chronic nerve pain, incontinence, spinal stenosis, and using a wheelchair, she lost her Toronto condo, and ended up in various shelters where she witnessed violence, couldn’t fit her wheelchair into many of the rooms, or even access the washrooms — she talks about changing her diaper in a room full of people. She moved out to live in a nearby park for awhile, choosing outdoor living over the discomfort and fear that came with life in shelters. Fortunately, her story gets better: in the end, she was able to apply for an Air Canada pension and afford a small studio apartment.

The woman’s story about violence in shelters is not new — in fact, sadly, nothing about what she describes, or what ‘D’ shared, is new. Vulnerable and marginalized communities have been struggling for decades, and the pandemic has kicked the devastation up a notch.

From the inability to access the health-care system and living arrangements that don’t allow for physical distancing, to lack of access to information and financial stress — not to mention disabilities and chronic health conditions — the quality of life for people in these communities is pretty much screaming at the rest of us to finally recognize that societal inequalities have direct consequences on health and well-being.

Because unlike the pink-pants woman in the parkette so many years ago, who was able to lightheartedly joke about the many dumb ways to die like it didn’t matter, for the man in the park, ‘D’, the ex-flight attendant and so, so many others, the luxury of snarking at the possibility of dying is not something they have, especially when living is so hard.

And when people like ‘D’ thank us for writing about issues that, as they put it, “should matter,” it’s a reminder that while for many of us, the worst the pandemic has inflicted on many of us is not seeing friends and endless Zoom calls, for too many others, it has meant a much darker version of an already-difficult life.

And no one should have to live that way.

Lisa Machado is the executive producer of Healthing. She can be reached at lmachado@postmedia.com.
This story originally appeared in the Healthing Weekender. Subscribe here.
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