Watch this discussion online or read the summary below.

Stripped of dignity: Death and dying in the time of COVID, Harare, 2020

Historian Dr. Joyce Chadya’s new study examines how the COVID-19 pandemic has changed mourning practices in Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwe had 7,898 confirmed cases of the disease at the time of this discussion Oct. 7, 2020. 6,424 people had made a full recovery and 228 had died. Although these numbers might seem relatively low, University of Manitoba professor Chadya highlighted that social gathering restrictions put in place by a “broke” Zimbabwean government left people socially isolated and unemployed.

Chadya noted that funerals are a “must attend event” that carry more cultural importance than weddings and other ceremonies. She said a Zimbabwean woman told her “when you hear people say what the departed meant to them, it lifts your spirit. But we did not do that for my husband – his siblings in the United States and Australia could not come. It was perhaps the most painful thing about his death.”

Chadya hopes her study will shed light on how the pandemic has dramatically altered human social relationships. “One woman jokingly talked about her grief as being quarantined,” she said.

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Planning and projects in a COVID-19 environment

Coun. Roxanne Greene of Shoal Lake 40 First Nation, Ont., said a strong pandemic response team has enabled her community to continue working on a new water plant and school. “We were faced with the decision of ‘shut them down’ or ‘keep them going’,” she said. “What’s more important? Do we want clean water later or sooner?”

Located along the Manitoba-Ontario border, Shoal Lake 40 has been under boil-water advisories since 1997. In June 2019, the community celebrated the opening of the year-round and all-weather-access Freedom Road, which has opened the door for new economic opportunities. Greene said in eight months, construction of a new school will be complete. “Next year, our water treatment plant will be done. We’ll be drinking clean water finally,” she continued.

Greene highlighted that her community’s health protocols must adhere to Manitoba and Ontario standards. She said that this unique position is being addressed by a dedicated pandemic planning team that is “monitoring the situation day by day,” to ensure it keeps “health and occupational safety as a priority.”

Although the decision to continue with both projects was a hard one to make, Greene said she is confident “they were the right decisions.”

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Towards equitable and educative experiences in a pandemic

Remote learning has hobbled schools’ engagement with students, parents and the wider community, said Matt Henderson, assistant superintendent in the Seven Oaks School Division.

On March 13, 2020, the Manitoba government announced the suspension of regular classes in all kindergarten to Grade 12 schools. Following an initial 3-week suspension, the province moved to restrict students to online learning. Henderson said this move, while important for slowing the spread of COVID-19, has impacted “families that are most vulnerable.”

Henderson pointed out that the shift to remote learning meant that students were no longer able to participate in core extra-curricular activities like athletics, music and school clubs. He said this added more pressure for teachers who had to “adjust and pivot to be able to offer powerful educative experiences” through remote learning. “School is more than just a place where [students] learn. It is a massive support system,” he continued. “Every single night there is an event.”

“When we took these away, not only did we divorce from our relationship with parents, but many students also languished.”

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Childcare before, during and after COVID

University of Manitoba sociologist Dr. Susan Prentice said COVID-19 has added significant challenges to a childcare sector that was already struggling before the pandemic.

In Manitoba, only 18 percent of children had access to licensed childcare facilities before the pandemic. Although Manitoba fees are lower than in many other provinces, Prentice noted that many parents here still cannot afford childcare. She said that even in licensed facilities, quality is compromised by inadequate staff pay and low public investment.

Although government pandemic restrictions forced many childcare facilities to close, Prentice said that parents in Manitoba still had to pay monthly fees to retain their spots. When restrictions were eased and childcare facilities were permitted to reopen, Manitoba childcare centres operated with limited capacities that incurred higher costs but brought lower revenue.

“The future of childcare is perhaps more uncertain than it’s been in decades, even though the public awareness and political awareness of the important dimensions of childcare are more visible to more people than ever before,” she said.

Prentice said if there was any “good news,” it would be that the federal government has recently committed to meaningful involvement in childcare services across the country.

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Older persons’ rights: Isolation, agism and pandemic responses

University of Manitoba law professor Dr. Mary Shariff is calling for a human-rights based approach to inform policy responses to COVID-19 in long-term caregiving facilities.

Long-term caregiving facilities have experienced the brunt of community spread of COVID-19 infections. By May 8, 2020, 82 per cent of Canada’s 4,740 deaths occurred among residents of caregiving facilities.

Shariff said the first phase of government restrictions resulted in increased isolation of residents, as well as an increase in staff workload and stress.

In late April, the Canadian Armed Forces deployed hundreds of personnel in Quebec and Ontario to provide humanitarian relief to caregiving facilities. An ensuing report revealed poor infection controls, inadequate disinfection protocols, lack of training, lack of access to resources, understaffing, and significant abuse and neglect of residents.

“If we conceive of violence to older people as a human rights violation, rather than attaching that to the concept of vulnerability,” Shariff said, “we can illuminate the contours of systemic agism.”

Some helpful responses have included use of electronic tablets to improve visits, and use of outdoor spaces to mitigate the impacts of isolation, which can facilitate abuse. Shariff also pointed to class-action lawsuits against caregiving facilities, as well as advocacy by caregivers arguing for their own rights — to information and to provide emotional and spiritual support to loved ones.