Comment: You’re almost certain to use social services in your lifetime

A commentary by the executive director of the Board Voice Society of B.C., a voice for volunteer boards of community-based non-profit organizations all over B.C. that provide social services.

So many lessons will be learned from this pandemic. The coronavirus has hit us from all directions, revealing in mere weeks all that’s good and bad about our profoundly connected, complicated world.

I work in social services. Long before this virus arrived, we’d talked about the need to stage a “Day Without Social Services” to draw attention to this largely unseen work that maintains the social thread of our communities. Nobody was serious, of course, because people would die.

But then along comes the coronavirus. And while a day without all social services has thankfully not had to happen, the array of stresses on this vital system at the foundations of our communities has been eye-opening.

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Social services in B.C. and across the country run the gamut, from day cares and mental health supports to lifelong care for people with intellectual disabilities, food banks, mom-and-tot groups. We provide your shelters, supportive housing, seniors’ care, youth services, soup kitchens, services for people with disabilities and much more. You’re almost certainly going to use social services in your lifetime — and in some cases, every day of it.

So yes, we really matter, and conversations are already under way in many corners to plan for a stronger future through better social care. But nobody had yet to envisage how things would go in a pandemic.

In the 50 years since our governments began funding some aspects of social care, we’ve come a long way from the small charities and churches that were once the only ones doing this work. We’ve grown into a professional if precarious sector, funded through a multitude of short-term government contracts, grants from community foundations, fee-for-service, and constant fundraising.

The sector shares a broad mission to make things better for British Columbians. But it does that work through thousands of moving parts, with no co-ordination or broad strategy at the provincial level.

It’s a brilliant model for delivering social care, ensuring tailored services made to fit diverse people and communities. But the absence of a guiding framework makes it easy to overlook the grand scope of the sector’s work — and impossible to plan for crisis.

When the virus hit in B.C., even our health authorities seemed surprised at the extent of the work we do.

Social service providers have found themselves making life-and-death decisions on when to keep programs operating. On keeping people working even when they were scared. On balancing health edicts to “distance” with the ethical need to maintain people’s essential services.

All of our work involves people, often at distances as close up as any health-care setting. Yet accessing protective equipment like masks and gloves has been an ongoing struggle for sector.

A non-profit organization doesn’t have reserves of funds for emergencies, like topping up the wages of workers who put aside their personal fears and show up day after day. Our agencies struggle to get a credit card, let alone access loans or lines of credit. The questions we have faced in adapting services on the fly are huge.

If you can’t ensure that everyone in a day program for people with intellectual disabilities will stay two metres apart, now what? If social distancing isn’t possible in a homeless shelter, what then? If staff members with even mild respiratory illnesses are having to self-isolate for two weeks, how do we maintain services?

Throughout this crisis, I’ve been impressed by the countless good people at all governance levels working together to make thoughtful decisions. But social services have developed in a fairly haphazard way over the decades in Canada as we evolved as a society and culture.

We know our communities attach major value to these services. But without an overarching strategy guiding the work, it’s not possible to plan for when things go wrong — or to know when things are going right, for that matter.

Happily, key government people and representatives of our sector now meet via weekly conference calls to talk through coronavirus-related problems and share information. That’s a powerful thing in itself. We’re also heartened to see the charitable sector being spoken of in the same breath as Canadian businesses in terms of post-virus aid packages, although getting our sector back on our feet will require some different strategies than those for businesses.

When this is over, there will be a singular opportunity to confirm social care as critical for population health and well-being, every bit as important as health care, education and a thriving economy.

We’re at that “Aha!” moment, where it’s completely clear just how much social care matters.

Thank you for that, global pandemic. Now let’s make the most of these hard lessons.

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