For Manitobans without credit cards, new restrictions hit harder, advocates say

Without a credit card, Jami Trout said she’s running out of options for Christmas this year.

The Winnipeg single mother had been hoping to buy new games or Xbox gift cards for her boys. But new Manitoba public health orders mean those items can’t be purchased in-store, and Trout said the alternative — online shopping — is all but out of reach.

“It’s heartbreaking,” Trout said Friday, the day provincial orders took effect prohibiting businesses from selling non-essential goods in-store.

“I don’t know where that leaves the parents or the single parents that are kind of scraping by, [living] cheque-to-cheque, to get their children or immediate family some gifts under the tree,” she said.

“Not having a credit card or access to do online shopping, it’s going to make it very difficult for them to find something to give the kids or loved ones.”

Advocates say Trout is not alone, and the barrier to online shopping is just one of the ways public health orders impact low-income Manitobans more severely than others.

“Eleven per cent of Manitoban adults do not have a credit card …  so it’s not possible for those folks to buy something online and do curbside pickup,” said Molly McCracken, director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, citing data from 2016. 

“People who are operating with cash only have to go in-person…. They still can go in-person to buy things at a grocery stores, but they put themselves more at risk for COVID.”

Many ‘already in a state of crisis’ before pandemic

The new retail restrictions also require businesses to remove or block off non-essential items on their shelves — a requirement that came into effect on Saturday. Those items can still be purchased ahead of time and delivered or picked up at the curb.

When he announced the rules Thursday, Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba’s chief public health officer, said skyrocketing COVID-19 cases forced the province to take drastic measures.

“We’re left with no choice but to announce further measures to protect Manitobans, to limit the spread of this virus,” he said at the time.

WATCH | Dr. Brent Roussin says Manitoba must take ‘drastic measures’:

Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin pleaded with Manitobans to stay home as new public health orders came into effect Friday. 1:16

On Friday, McCracken said she understands the need for the new orders. But the pandemic has left lower-income Manitobans struggling, and increased the number of people who are in need of support due to the impact on the economy.

There’s less access to community services providing access to meals, free Wi-Fi or washrooms, she said, while people experiencing housing insecurity may be more likely to live in overcrowded settings where the virus can spread more easily.

“These are people who, before the pandemic, were already in a state of crisis — not enough money to pay for food, healthy food and housing,” she said. “And the pandemic’s just made it even worse.”

Open thrift stores, advocate urges

Al Wiebe, who works with Make Poverty History Manitoba, said the province must expand what it defines as essential.

Currently, items deemed essential include food, personal care and health products, baby and child-care items, pet supplies and outdoor winter clothing. A list of essential and non-essential items is available on the provincial government’s website.

WATCH | Manitoba clamps down on non-essential shopping:

With cases still spiking, Manitoba has announced stiff new COVID-19 restrictions, including what officials call the toughest retail restrictions in Canada, meaning Manitobans will soon find it hard to buy anything not deemed essential. 2:27

But Wiebe, like Trout, said gift cards should be added to the list — not just as potential gifts, but also as a way for people without credit cards to access more online shopping. More clothing should also be added, he said, for people who may not have much to spare.

Wiebe, who has been homeless, also called on the province to consider reopening thrift stores, to give lower-income people the opportunity to purchase things they can afford.

“It all comes down to knowing what people can afford and how people have to live,” he said.

“We have to live on thrift stores. We have to live on collecting beer cans towards the end of the month. This is how bad it gets for people who are living beneath the poverty [line] and on welfare, which is really unfair.”

List of what’s essential could be expanded: Roussin

In a news conference Friday, Roussin said the province will review the public health orders as needed, and changes may be made. The public health chief has said in the past it’s difficult to write orders that account for all the circumstances that will arise.

McCracken said the province must increase social assistance and welfare rates so Manitobans can support themselves.

“We need to … make sure our social assistance rates are adequate to meet people’s basic needs so they aren’t in this desperate survival mode all the time,” she said.

Trout said she hopes to see shoppers allowed to buy non-essentials in stores, or at least an expanded list of what the province considers essential.

For single parents like her, now trying to find ways to keep teenage boys entertained during lockdown is a challenge, she said. She has a son with autism, and he needs stimulation, too, she said.

“I don’t know how they can decide what is essential and what is not essential,” she said. “Maybe it’s absolutely essential for one child to have something to occupy them during this lockdown.”

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