'Doing my damnedest': Family living in a shutdown world of COVID-19 juggles a lot — with very little

The coronavirus pandemic is exposing a class divide that reveals the virus doesn't affect the population equally. This is the story of one family, living just above the poverty line, and how they are adapting to an upturned world.

Mary Burton, husband care for their grandkids on 1 salary that keeps them just above the poverty line

Jesse, left, Xavier, centre, and Noelle inside their subsidized housing unit in Winnipeg. They've had to spend a lot of time together during the COVID-19 crisis, and it can get a bit tough on all of them, says grandmother Mary Burton. (Karen Pauls/CBC)

Mary Burton wakes up around 6 a.m. every day to soak in quiet time before the chaos.

She makes coffee, checks her work computer and starts a breakfast of homemade bannock — then braces for the smell to jolt her three grandchildren and husband from their slumber. Once that happens, there's little refuge in these days of COVID-19 and cramped quarters.

"I have very rambunctious children," the 49-year-old Indigenous grandmother says about siblings, Noelle, 3, Xavier, 8, and Jesse, 9, for whom she has full guardianship.

The new reality of living in a shutdown world of coronavirus means Burton and her husband, John, juggle a lot — with very little. Her salary is the only one they have, and it keeps them treading water just above the poverty line. (The poverty line for a family of Burton's size would be an annual income of about $42,000, according to the Manitoba Poverty Report Card.)

Before the pandemic arrived, her husband stayed home so they didn't need to pay for daycare. Burton went to an office in downtown Winnipeg for part of the day and spent the rest volunteering with organizations in the city's poorest neighbourhoods, the North End and Point Douglas.

The unit in which Burton and her family live doesn't offer a lot of room for five people to isolate without stepping on each other's toes. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Working from home

Her family of five shares a three-bedroom unit in government-subsidized row housing in the North End. Xavier and Jesse have their own rooms while Burton and her husband share theirs with Noelle.

Prior to school being cancelled, the boys would dash across the alley to David Livingstone School for the breakfast program, which helped the family stretch their grocery dollars.

Burton now primarily works from home where she faces a daily eruption, cleans it up at night and starts again the next morning.

The kids are shouting, climbing on furniture, playing with toys then fighting over toys. There's food to prepare, lessons to start, phones ringing and virtual meetings to attend.

"That's basically my life in a nutshell right now. I'm trying my very best not to lose my temper," Burton says, punctuating it with a hearty laugh that synthesizes with the kids' background shrieks.

In a typical day, once breakfast is cleared, the kitchen becomes the classroom. Mary and John Burton take turns sitting with the kids around the narrow table. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Frazzled nerves, close confines

Their unit is not a space where people can spread out and find solitude. So Burton has fully given herself over to it as caregiver, as cook, as schoolteacher and as playmate.

"Anything that comes up throughout the day that I can't do around the kids, I will do after they go to bed," she says, then has her attention yanked away from the phone interview. 

"Oh God, these kids are breaking things. Whatever, I'll fix it later."

A few minutes later, she's breaking up an argument and consoling Noelle after one of her toys was taken.

Despite the frazzled nerves and close confines, she is happy to keep everyone sheltered and protected from COVID-19 exposure. She is diabetic and has asthma, which makes her more susceptible. Jesse also has asthma.

"So I'm trying to keep us as safe. If I could, I would not leave my house," Burton says.

Xavier shows off the book he's reading, through the window of his family's housing unit. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

But that's not possible. Her income level prevents her from getting a credit card. That means she can't order groceries or medicine or anything else online and get it delivered like many other Canadians.

I have to venture out. I have no choice.- Mary Burton

"I have to venture out. I have no choice," says Burton.

She still visits the office for things she can't do at home, walking a half hour because she refuses to risk public transit.

"I've had people ask me, 'Why aren't you self-isolating?' But I'm doing my damnedest and the best I can. I have to work, and I have to get groceries."

Not a democratic disease

Esyllt Jones, professor of history at the University of Manitoba who specializes in health and infectious disease, says there is often a notion that viruses are democratic — that everyone is equally susceptible. But that doesn't hold up to scrutiny.

"Circumstances are very variable, and all of these inequalities that we know exist in our community — housing and income — they're all going to make a huge difference," she said.

We need to consider the real difficulty that some people have given their economic circumstances, given their familial context. There are people in our community who just are not in a position to protect themselves.- Esyllt Jones, University of Manitoba history professor

During the Spanish flu in 1918, Indigenous communities in Canada had high mortality rates partly because of poor health and no way to isolate.

"We need to consider the real difficulty that some people have given their economic circumstances, given their familial context. There are people in our community who just are not in a position to protect themselves," Jones said.

Burton laughs while watching her grandchildren play outside their home. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

No credit cards, no vehicles

For Burton and many of those who make up her neighbourhood, stories about multi-level houses where families have room to spread out, or where they have several computers so kids can access Google Classroom and continue their schooling, are fanciful plots.

"Ninety per cent of the people living in these units do not have credit cards, they don't have a vehicle to drive somewhere so their kids can run and burn off some energy," Burton says. "And if someone gets sick, they can't isolate in one room and have a bathroom to themselves because there is only one bathroom."

She knows this because she's involved with five non-profit organizations centred around child welfare.

"A lot of things the government is saying need to be done can't be done for people living in poverty," Burton says. "These people have to go out because nobody is doing it for them."

Burton shares a tender moment with Xavier. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Shopping at Dollarama, Wholesale Club

Not only must she shop, Burton has no option but to visit one of the busiest places. Dollarama is a crutch for the out-of-work populace and anyone else with limited funds.

"It has food, it has snacks, it has cleaning products, it has mops and brooms and pots, pans and utensils, and it has toys," says Burton. "You can get a lot on one stop."

She used to walk the eight blocks but now arranges a ride from a friend because there's so much to carry. But if she can't find one, that won't stop her.

"Then I'm bringing a shopping cart home with me," she says.

With a ride, though, she can also hit up the Wholesale Club, eight kilometres away from her home, for meat, vegetables and fruit. That's where Burton got a large bag of flour — to make ends meet and avoid going out too often. She's learning to bake.

WATCH | How to safely grocery shop during pandemic: 

How to social distance in the grocery store

4 years ago
Duration 2:08
As Canadians avoid gatherings and crowds amid the COVID-19 outbreak, grocery stores present a challenge as people stock up and pick shelves bare.

'Being poor is a full-time job'

The amount of work that Burton faces every day is no surprise to Kate Kehler, executive director of Social Planning Council of Winnipeg. She hears similar stories all the time.

"There is a saying that 'being poor is a full-time job' for a reason," she said. "People trying to get by on inadequate incomes are forever juggling basic needs. In normal times, they have to bus or walk to different stores looking for the very cheapest food and other household supplies. In these times, necessary items are scarce and more expensive." 

She said these kids and their families, in crisis before COVID-19, are hurting even more now.

In Winnipeg, 30,000 children — 18.7 per cent of all children under 18 — live in poverty.- Make Poverty History Manitoba

Poverty rates in Manitoba are among the worst in the country with as many as 35 per cent living below the poverty line, according to the group, Canada Without Poverty.

In Winnipeg, 107,000 people (13.3 per cent of Winnipeg's population) live in poverty, states a 2018 report from advocacy group Make Poverty History Manitoba. And they are deeply in it, with incomes more than 32 per cent below commonly-used poverty lines, the report states.

Of that, 30,000 are children, which accounts for 18.7 per cent of all children under 18. In the province overall, there are 85,450 children in poverty, according to the Manitoba poverty report card.

The province also has the highest rate of Indigenous children living in poverty in the country. A recent report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives found that the poverty rate for Indigenous children is as high as 76 per cent on reserve and 39 per cent off reserve.

Xavier and Jesse work at the kitchen table on worksheets printed off by their grandmother. (Submitted by Mary Burton)

Kitchen the classroom

In a typical day, once breakfast is cleared, the kitchen at the Burton home becomes the classroom. She and her husband take turns sitting with the kids around a narrow table crowded with elbows and worksheets.

"We really have no idea what we're doing," Burton says. "We're just trying to get them to do some of the three Rs [reading, writing and arithmetic]." 

There is one computer in the house, and it is Mary's for work, so the kids are barred from using it. The only computers they had are now locked inside the school.

"My computer is my lifeline. It is full of confidential information that, if they were to delete, would be devastating. I would cry," Burton says.

Mary and Noelle play with bubbles in the family's yard. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Trying to help them understand

She prints the worksheets from education websites then squeezes beside, or stands behind them, giving pointers. 

"I don't want them feeling like I'm just saying, 'Here, do this.' So I sit with them, and I think that helps them feel a little bit less chaotic in this world. I know this is scary for them, and I try to help them understand."

Xavier and Jesse have ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and need to work harder on fine motor skills, so Burton gets them on writing exercises that also help improve their vocabulary. There are only about two hours of written work each day because the boys' ability to sit still is limited.

When the focus has fizzled, Burton shifts gears to some home economics.

WATCH | How to physically distance in tricky situations:

How to physical distance in tricky situations

3 years ago
Duration 3:23
Physical distancing has radically changed how we socialize. But there’s still some scenarios where it’s difficult to limit our physical contact with others. Here’s how to best navigate them.

Some play time

"I believe that learning how to clean and cook things like Kraft Dinner and noodles is important as well. So I've been trying to teach them life skills," she says.

The crew then heads outside to play in the nearby schoolyard "so they're not going completely bonkers." The row house unit has a patch of grass at the front and back, which is good for a couple of lawn chairs but not active kids.

The school's climbing structure, though, is off limits, banned by the division because it isn't being disinfected. Anyone using it faces a fine of close to $500 — a half-month's grocery bill for Burton.

Before COVID-19, the housing development was a kid's paradise. The lawns are linked and row houses face other row houses with no road running through — just a sidewalk. Now, it's silent and that's been a big test for Burton.

Before COVID-19, the housing development was a place where kids voices echoed throughout as they ran and played in the yard. Now, it has an abandoned feel to it. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

"Kids are social creatures, so it has been a challenge to make them understand they can't go see their friends," she says. "We're lucky that we can take them to play, but that's about the extent of what we do outside of the house."

The boys usually see specialists for their ADHD but those meetings are now done through phone calls. Jesse also needs an annual ultrasound. That's been cancelled.

Back from the park, Burton makes lunch — sometimes sandwiches, sometimes pancakes, sometimes soup — and the kids are allowed to turn on the video game console. Burton doesn't want them stagnating in front of the TV, but gives them some time to play "because I am not dealing with crazy, nasty, yelling kids all day long."

After lunch, she gets them to do more homework, though they don't know it. They disguise it through board games and the occasional dance party. Burton insists on music being part of the daily routine.

"Not only is dancing fun, they don't know they're exercising," she says.

Doing her best

Around 6 p.m., she sets out supper. The kids help clean up and then it's wind down time.

Burton has a chat with Jesse after he complained about how his brother was playing. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

When the kids are asleep, Burton spends the evening cleaning, takes some more quiet time, checks emails and heads to bed around midnight, where her brain now has the time to worry.

"Finances are a really big concern for me right now. It gets scary," Burton says. "My rent's pretty low, thankfully, and I'm one of the lucky few who still have a job, so my bills are still getting paid. But I don't know how long that will last."

In the same way she approaches everything, Burton shrugs and laughs.

"I'm just doing the best that I can with what I have. That's all that anybody can do."

WATCH | CBC's Karen Pauls reports on how Burton's family is coping with COVID-19:

A low-income family copes with COVID-19

3 years ago
Duration 2:07
Covid-19 is hitting low-income Canadians hard. The CBC's Karen Pauls takes us into Mary Burton's home, in one of Winnipeg's poorest neighborhoods.


Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories. He is the author of award-nominated and bestselling The Lesser Known: A History of Oddities from the Heart of the Continent.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now