By Laura Track, Human Rights Lawyer, April 16, 2020

Poverty kills.

This grisly fact has been true for much longer than COVID-19 has been around. Statistics Canada concluded in 2014 that income inequality is associated with the premature deaths of 40,000 Canadians a year. That’s equal to 110 Canadians dying prematurely each day. Imagine if that was the statistic being broadcast via government briefings every afternoon.

Despite being one of the richest countries in the world, 3.2 million people in Canada, including over 560,000 children, live in poverty. These individuals and their families struggle to afford safe housing, nutritious food, essential medications, and other necessities for a healthy life. For too many Indigenous people, the struggle also includes a lack of safe drinking water in their communities. People with disabilities, racialized people, single mothers, and immigrant and refugee communities are particularly hard hit by Canada’s shameful levels of deprivation and disadvantage.

These social determinants of health – things like income, housing, and access to health care, as well as racism, discrimination, and other forms of trauma – have a massive impact on public health. Poverty puts individuals and their families directly in harm’s way. The COVID-19 pandemic is showing how pre-existing disadvantage increases people’s vulnerability to the disease, and limits their ability to keep themselves and their families safe.

People experiencing homelessness, for example, are unable to “stay home”, and struggle to find places to wash their hands or maintain appropriate physical distancing. Homeless individuals have even been ticketed and fined for alleged violations of physical distancing rules. Poor and racialized people, as well as those with mental health issues, bear the brunt of increased surveillance and policing.

People with disabilities, who face many discriminatory barriers to employment and may be forced to rely on social assistance payments that are below the poverty line, are struggling to access the care and support they need. People in prisons and jails, many of them incarcerated for reasons connected to poverty, are immensely vulnerable.

Numbers from the United States show that Black Americans are dying at much higher rates than people of other races. We don’t have comparable statistics here in Canada because that kind of disaggregated data is not collected here. But it is safe to assume that Black, Indigenous and people of colour in Canada are similarly vulnerable to the virus – not because of any biological or genetic differences of course, but because of the intersections between race and poverty, and because these communities suffer the burden of both racism and economic deprivation.

While it may be true that the virus itself does not discriminate, people, and the systems and institutions run by people, most certainly do.

BC’s human rights legislation is meant to protect us from discrimination. However, the law contains a glaring gap. BC’s human rights law does not protect people from discrimination because they are poor. Poverty, or what some other provinces call “social condition” in their human rights legislation, is not a prohibited ground of discrimination in BC’s Human Rights Code. Those who are treated badly because they are poor, or who are adversely affected by programs or policies on the basis of their lack of income, have no legal recourse under our human rights law.

This must change. The purposes of human rights law include the identification and elimination of persistent patterns of inequality, and the fostering of a society in which there are no impediments to full and free participation in economic, social, political and cultural life, where all are equal in dignity and rights. Poverty undermines all of these important aims.

The Community Legal Assistance Society and many other groups have long advocated for the addition of “social condition” as a prohibited ground of discrimination in the Human Rights Code. The recommendation was also taken up by MLA Ravi Kahlon in his report setting out recommendations for the new Office of the Human Rights Commissioner.

The urgency of this overdue reform has never been greater. We call on the provincial government to join many other Canadian provinces and take this critical step to protect the most marginalized members of our communities from discrimination.

Poverty is a human rights violation. Now is the time to ensure that those impacted by poverty are protected from discrimination in all its forms.