"Governments are failing to protect our most vulnerable citizens. People living in residential care facilities continue to suffer and die because of the lack of decisive action.” — Larry Brown, NUPGE President
Ottawa (13 November 2020) — Today, the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) sent a letter to the Prime Minister of Canada demanding action to protect our vulnerable seniors and the workers who care for them. This letter follows an April 17 letter to the Prime Minister, where NUPGE initially raised the alarm on long-term care and called for it to be included under the Canada Health Act (CHA). Both letters were also copied to the premiers as NUPGE recognizes that federal, provincial and territorial governments must work together to protect the residents and workers in long-term care.
Infections at record levels in most provinces
This latest call for action comes as we are seeing a second pandemic wave hitting many provinces. The overall infection rate is regularly hitting record levels across the country. Just as in the spring, the worst COVID outbreaks are once more in long-term care. The outbreaks in Manitoba's for-profit long-term care facilities paints a horrific picture, similar to the situation that resulted in the military being called into facilities in Ontario and Quebec.
The Manitoba outbreak and outbreaks across Canada point to the abject failure to protect long-term care residents. We are now approaching one year since the virus was first identified and we still have not taken the comprehensive action needed to keep COVID out of the places where it does the greatest harm. Why have our governments not taken the action that is needed to stop the outbreaks in long-term care facilities? This failure to act has resulted in thousands of needless deaths, and that number is rising every day.
Even before the second wave of COVID, Canada had the worst record in the world, with over 80% of deaths coming in seniors' facilities. This is twice the average among OECD countries and should have resulted in urgent action by our governments to ensure the immediate protection of residents and staff in these facilities.
While commitments in October’s Speech from the Throne point to action, such as creation of national standards, the reality is that there have been no discernable steps taken to head off another crisis in long term care. Residents and workers continue to bear the burden of this failure and NUPGE is calling on all levels of government to act with urgency.
Speech from the Throne's promises are welcome, but actions speak louder
Without immediate action, the pattern of outbreaks will continue. In NUPGE’s letter to the Prime Minister, NUPGE welcomes the commitments in the federal government’s Speech from the Throne but points out that little action has taken place and the infection rate has only increased in the almost 2 months since those commitments were made.
National standards were promised, as were steps to treat workers better, and to "better value their work and their contribution to society." These are all positive sentiments, but without action and funding, they will ring hollow.
Protect and support health care workers
Health care workers and all frontline workers have received an abundance of praise for their work, and this is well deserved. Unfortunately, positive sentiments alone will not help protect workers who are increasingly succumbing to the pressures from this pandemic. We must ensure they have the proper personal protective equipment at their disposal, adequate staffing levels and pay, with benefits that support workers and their families.
Long-term care workers have long played an undervalued role in our health care system, and this must end. It is not business as usual inside any of our health care facilities. Employers and governments must adapt to the new realities of how COVID has changed the roles in health care, because they have an obligation to protect workers and patients. Unfortunately, the evidence clearly shows they are failing in their obligation: almost 20% of COVID infections are among health care workers. This represents a failure to protect these workers and their families. We need to keep workers safe and secure to allow them to be able to continue to do the critical work they do, serving their patients and protecting us all from COVID. Words of praise are not enough.
End for-profit long-term care, save lives
The reality is that our current long-term care system has been failing seniors for many years. COVID has exposed the failures in a manner that we can no longer ignore. Fundamental to the failure is that we have allowed for-profit providers to co-opt an increasingly large proportion of long-term care, shifting the focus from care to profit. It is not acceptable that our most vulnerable seniors are treated as a source of revenue by corporations, and it is also unacceptable that our governments support and subsidize this model of care. COVID has exposed this flaw and shown that these for-profit corporations do not provide the level of care or protection that our seniors deserve.
The danger now is that the loud public outcry to fix this broken system will result in new public funds being diverted to the for-profit providers. The messaging of these companies since the start of the crisis is that they need more money from governments. But the reality is that they had enough money to upgrade their facilities to better protect seniors and workers: they instead chose to funnel this money to their shareholders.
Invest in public services
The only solution is to have long-term care brought under the Canada Health Act and to actively transition to a fully public model of care. In the letter to the Prime Minister, NUPGE clearly calls for increased resources to deal with the pandemic and an investment in health care for pharmacare, public health mental health, and long-term care. The letter also clearly states that we must stop subsidizing and supporting for-profit corporations in this sector.
The upcoming budget must focus on public investment in public services and strings must be attached so that ideologically driven provincial governments are not allowed to prop up these failing corporations using public funds. Canadians are committed to strong public services, and it is strong public services that stand between Canadians and COVID. Canada needs our governments to act and to invest.
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