Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer links impact of COVID-19 to inequality

“This pandemic has demonstrated that inequities in our society place some populations — and ultimately, all Canadians at risk. No one is protected from the risk of COVID-19 until everyone is protected.” — Dr. Theresa Tam, Chief Public Health Officer of Canada

Ottawa (02 Nov. 2020) — The Chief Public Health Officer of Canada's Report on the State of Public Health in Canada 2020 that was released last week, provides a clear picture of how inequality makes it harder for Canada to respond to COVID-19 and will make us more vulnerable to future health care emergencies. 

In her report, Dr. Theresa Tam, Chief Public Health Officer of Canada, made it clear that COVID-19 did not affect all Canadians equally. Among the points she made was that, “while the COVID-19 pandemic affects us all, the health impacts have been worse for seniors, essential workers, racialized populations, people living with disabilities and women.”

Workers with 'the least bargaining power' need more protection

Dr, Tam’s report states that, “the greatest impact of COVID-19 was on workers with the least bargaining power, such as non-union, low-wage, female or hourly paid workers.” In addition to health care workers, those who have been particularly hard hit include meat-packing plant workers and seasonal agriculture workers. As Dr. Tam pointed out, racialized workers make up a relatively high percentage of the workforce in these areas.

What the report suggests is that new regulations and better enforcement may be needed to improve protection from COVID-19. While the report acknowledges that unionized workers are less vulnerable than their non-union counterparts, it doesn’t take the logical next step of recommending it be made easier for workers to organize.

The report also recognizes that when most workers don’t have paid sick leave there is an increased the risk that diseases like COVID-19 will spread quickly. According to the report, “if they are economically insecure, workers may feel unable to comply with public health guidance to stay home when sick.”

Better services part of protecting public health

The report makes a number of recommendations to address factors that contribute to problems related to COVID-19 such as homelessness or overcrowded housing, and underfunding of community services. Many of these recommendations would improve public services if they were implemented. Among the recommendations are a housing-for-all policy, and improving community services by providing “emergency, core and flexible funding allowing community-based organizations.” 

There is also a recommendation to increase staffing levels in long-term care facilities and to end the contracting out of food, laundry and cleaning services.

Fixing inequality protects everyone

As members of the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) know well, reducing inequality benefits everyone. This is particularly true when it comes to public health. 

Dr. Tam made that very clear in her report, stating that, “this pandemic has demonstrated that inequities in our society place some populations — and ultimately, all Canadians at risk. No one is protected from the risk of COVID-19 until everyone is protected.”

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The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) is one of Canada's largest labour organizations with over 390,000 members. Our mission is to improve the lives of working families and to build a stronger Canada by ensuring our common wealth is used for the common good. — NUPGE