Top concerns are protecting frontline workers, personal protective equipment (PPE), testing for COVID-19, and wage protection.
Ottawa (12 March 2020) ― On March 11, Larry Brown, the President of the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE), wrote to the Prime Minister and the Premiers to express concerns around Canada’s handling of a potential COVID-19 outbreak. On behalf of NUPGE’s 390,000 members, Brown’s letter outlined the top concerns about coordinating efforts on a national level that should inform the deliberations of the First Ministers at their meeting that was to be held on March 13.
Call with Component unions revealed inconsistencies across provinces
Earlier in the week, NUPGE facilitated a call with 10 of its Component unions to gauge provincial readiness for a Canada-wide outbreak of COVID-19. NUPGE serves hundreds of thousands of frontline staff in health care, home care, corrections, and the public sector that will be directly impacted should the virus take hold in Canada. Disruptions to these frontline services will create a huge ripple effect across Canada.
The variance in readiness was alarming. Particularly concerning was that some provinces have barely started preparing for a pandemic scenario. As of March 11, the World Health Organization (WHO) has deemed COVID-19 to be a pandemic.
Preparations must be made without giving in to panic
Complacency is dangerous when dealing with a public health emergency, as is a lack of information and communication. The federal and provincial governments must send out stronger messaging regarding COVID-19 plans and protocols. More needs to be done than just posting updates on a government website.
Personal protective equipment a top concern
In January, NUPGE published a statement that called for personal protective equipment (PPE) to be made available to health care workers.
But the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) has released interim guidelines that call for lower levels of protective equipment than advised by public agencies in Europe and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The federal and provincial governments must properly apply the precautionary principle to the protection of health care workers.
Testing should be coordinated on a national basis
Testing for the virus is one of the most important ways to prevent community spread. Multiple health agencies have stated that symptoms of COVID-19 may not appear for several days, at which point an infected individual might have unintentionally spread the virus to a huge group of people.
Testing has to be widespread, readily available, and provide timely results. Sending the samples to the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg, as most provinces currently do, does not meet any of these criteria. All provinces must have the capacity to carry out testing and analyze the results.
Wage protection must be considered in pandemic planning
Workers who are quarantined, or who are advised to self-quarantine, must have financial protection. This is even more paramount for precarious workers in casual or temporary positions: missing a shift could cause financial ruin or mean the difference between eating that day or not. All workers must be covered by a comprehensive policy to ensure greater adherence to mandated protocols and ultimately protect public health and lives.
Unions, other stakeholders need to be involved in planning, decisions
Unions, health advocates, municipalities, Indigenous organizations, and other stakeholders all have a role to play in curtailing the worst effects of this outbreak. The reality is that, to properly fight the expected outbreak, it will take a concerted effort by the whole society. Federal and provincial leadership is needed. Resources are needed. Transparent decision-making is needed. Timely and accurate information is needed. Adherence to the precautionary principle is needed.
Several of NUPGE’s Component unions have indicated that provincial governments have resisted unions’ involvement in COVID-19 meetings. For the safety of our members, for the safety of the public they serve, and for the safety of our society as a whole, unions and other stakeholders must be allowed to attend strategy meetings.
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