For the self-employed in Canada’s gig economy, government relief programs with rigid barriers are forcing some tough choices. A childcare provider in Arnprior, Ont., agonized over reopening her shuttered home business to take in children of emergency workers on the frontline at the risk of exposing her family to the virus. In just three days, a Toronto makeup artist saw clients cancel appointments for the rest of the year.

Both face a gut-wrenching choice. If the daycare provider takes in one or two children, or if the makeup artist books a few new jobs, the resulting income still won’t be enough to live on. It will, however, put them at risk of disqualification from the Canadian Emergency Relief Benefit (CERB), the federal aid package intended to shore up lost income during the pandemic.

If you’re homeless like Stanley Woodvine, you know what it’s like to be asked to get up and move on.

A few spots in the city offered some refuge to homeless people, but with a pandemic at hand these precious places are closing one by one.

The McDonald’s Woodvine frequented in his Vancouver neighbourhood of Fairview — “To blog,” he said, “I make much better food” — is closed. So is the washroom at the local Esso. The nearest library has covered up the outdoor outlet where he used to charge his laptop and phone.

West Broadway, a busy office corridor, has slowed to an eerie standstill; though many buildings have shut down, the homeless people who seek shelter in alcoves and under awnings are still ousted by security.

In times of great emergency, when the normal rules have been suspended, all sorts of things that used to seem unthinkable suddenly enter the realm of possibility. A national health service paid for by taxes and free at the point of delivery in the United States, for example — or a guaranteed basic income in Spain.

“We are going to implement a minimum basic income as soon as possible,” said Nadia Calviño, Spain’s deputy prime minister and economics minister, on Monday. She added that it will not “just be for this special situation, but for good.”

Jeff Karabanow, co-founder of Out of the Cold emergency shelter in Halifax, said pop-up shelters in gymnasiums and community centres have alleviated some of the pandemic-related strain for homeless people, but ultimately, people need private spaces.

This week, Out of the Cold will move about 20 clients into rooms at a Halifax-area hotel, taking over an entire floor of the otherwise empty building.

If demand and resources grow, Karabanow said the hotel could potentially shelter another 60 people.

Peter Martin doesn’t get it.

Workers who have suddenly lost their livelihoods due to the COVID-19 crisis will soon be receiving $2,000 a month from Ottawa to keep them afloat.

And yet Martin, 59, a former constitutional lawyer who lost everything about a decade ago after a mental breakdown, struggles to survive on just $1,169 a month from the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP), the province’s welfare program for the disabled.

“It’s a very frustrating situation,” he said this week from his Junction-area apartment where he is self-isolating with his black cat.

“They are getting $2,000 when they have a house to live in and supports and sometimes savings — as opposed to people like us who live cheque to cheque,” he said.

Many of the financial measures being rolled out by governments to help people weather the COVID-19 storm would be unnecessary if Canada had a basic income policy, say basic income advocates.

“At this point, it would be so good if we could have it in the country,” said Sr. Pauline Lally of the Sisters of Providence in Kingston, Ont. “We really need this basic income. I really, really believe that…. It would be one way to end poverty in Canada.”

Lally is a supporter of the Ontario Basic Income Network and a member of Living Wage Kingston. She points to retired Senator Hugh Segal’s recent book, Bootstraps Need Boots: One Tory’s Lonely Fight to End Poverty in Canada, as a guide to how basic income would transform the country.

In a crisis like COVID-19, a basic income could put the brakes on economic death spirals when hundreds of thousands of people suddenly lose their jobs, said Ontario Basic Income Network external relations co-ordinator Barb Boraks.

From health and safety to the economy, COVID-19 is revealing the penny-pinching of Canadian governments to be pound-foolish.

On April 1, federal health minister Patty Hajdu vocalized this point when she said that successive federal governments have underfunded public health preparedness for decades. The pandemic has also revealed weaknesses in worker protections and the social safety net. For instance, those receiving social assistance or working minimum wage jobs in many cases will make less than the $2,000 monthly Canada Emergency Response Benefit. COVID-19 is showing us how the erosion of social spending has left Canadians vulnerable.