The last quarter of the year was almost totally consumed by the challenges presented by the pandemic. On an operational level, it was surprising to see the extent to which information and communications technology has progressed, making it possible to quickly shift our in-person services to online. By mid-March 2020, when the lockdown was declared, we had 300 employees working from home and 70 employees working in shifts at our three refugee hostels. We sent 14,000 emails to clients to ensure they knew that we were still open for service and how to reach us. Our English language training Instructors trained on an online platform and quickly enrolled over 700 students. With the help of government and community donations, we stocked sufficient PPE and established safety protocols at our hostels to keep our staff and clients safe.
While we successfully pivoted to working remotely and safely, the circumstances for our clients were considerably more challenging. It quickly became clear that the pandemic was not equitable in how it was affecting people’s lives. The poor, newcomers, racialized people and women seemed to be affected disproportionately. Some lost their jobs; others were working in low paying essential jobs and had to risk using public transit to get to work; and those on social assistance found that they lost opportunities to earn a little more money to get through the month, which was compounded by the fact that about twenty of sixty foodbanks in Toronto had to close. The United Way Greater Toronto came through with funding for food support. Our staff ordered food online, picked it up and delivered it to families who indicated their need. We also distributed 400 Loblaws gift cards to those in need, provided by Community Food Centres of Canada. We managed computer donations to families who required them for accessing services or school. We connected people who were isolated with online programs. One of the popular programs for seniors was an exercise class on Zoom. These seniors had been frequenting our Seniors’ Active Living Centre before the lockdown and were now finding the opportunity to reconnect through exercise. An Italian seniors group found it comforting to meet weekly on Zoom and pray the Holy Rosary.
There were more disturbing incidents of abuse exacerbated by the reality of living together full-time with little space for privacy. One woman who reached out to her counsellor had been assaulted by her partner and had her cell phone destroyed. After considering a number of options she decided to stay with her partner. We provided her with a new cell phone that she could keep hidden in case of emergency.
The pandemic is still upon us and COSTI continues to adapt to the needs of our clients, including limited access to office services when clients need a form signed or require special supports.
It has been inspiring to see how readily and creatively our employees adapted to working from home or working with strict safety protocols at our hostels. I want to commend them for their commitment and resilience in these difficult times.