“None for anyone”: COVID-19’s impact on community engagement

Jacob Cramer is a Research & Planning Assistant with BC Healthy Communities.

Healthy Community Engagement is a core pillar of the Healthy Communities approach. Public engagement and participation processes allow individuals to play a larger role in influencing the design and distribution of their community’s interconnected systems (transportation, housing, sewage, water, parks, health care, education, etc.), which determine the ease with which they are able to live healthy lives.

As COVID-19 grinds society to a halt, barriers to community engagement are at an all-time high. Regardless of who you are, the pause on non-essential work has rendered public participation all but non-existent. In many communities across B.C., most public activities have been halted, from the cancelling of many local government engagement events to municipal by-elections being deferred. In a strange way, these unprecedented times have led to equality in public participation—none for anyone.

It’s important to remember however, that the barriers to community engagement—including constraints on transportation, time, finances or accessibility—have always existed and persisted at varying levels for equity-seeking groups. This crisis has, for example, demonstrated that the work-from-home accommodations long asked for by some people with disabilities, and often deemed unreasonable by employers, were always entirely possible.

Thankfully this will not last; in time the pandemic will pass, and local governments will begin to explore what engagement looks like in a post-COVID world. However, as we emerge from the COVID crisis and the most expansive barriers to participation are lifted (particularly the far-reaching social, work and travel restrictions), groups in our communities who traditionally face the least hurdles to participation will again have the most access.

The image above represents how access to participation is currently out of everyone’s reach; yet the most privileged will once again be the first to have their voices heard and interests represented once COVID-related barriers to participation are removed.

Once again, the people whose voices have been quieted and opinions forgotten are likely to be disregarded. They are the individuals who unrelentingly face precarious working conditions, unstable financial situations, inadequate access to vital health services and inability to access public spaces due to physical ability, disability or compromised immune systems.

Authentic, equitable and healthy community engagement is a key tool for improving these inequities. Equitable engagement allows individuals or groups to identify and address complex social challenges and shape a future that is brighter and healthier for themselves, collectively constructing a society that supports health and well-being for everyone.

Why is all of this important now? Being proactive in identifying and taking action to address inequity in public participation processes can position communities well for when they begin to regularly re-engage communities. Thoughtful planning now can prevent local governments from reverting to engagements in which privileged voices are unfairly represented at the table, and prepares for equitable approaches to resolving future crises.

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