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John Welbers and his wife Val Welbers visit his mother Elizabeth Jeppesen, 94, who tested positive for COVID-19, at a closed window in her room at Tabor Home, a long-term care facility in Abbotsford, B.C., on Nov. 18, 2020.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Crafting a detailed and meaningful fiscal update during the worst period thus far in Canada’s continuing battle against COVID-19 – a time in which we can only guess at when virus-control measures will lead to sustained economic recovery – seems a bit like an exercise in horoscope-writing. (That’s no offence to astrologists, who are free to enlighten me on what the moon says about what Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland means when she says “fiscal guardrails.”)

Statistics Canada had earlier reported third-quarter economic rebounds with higher-than-projected growth in gross domestic product (including a 6.5-per-cent jump in June), which offered some indication as to the potential swiftness and intensity of Canada’s economic recovery if and when lockdown measures are relaxed. But the timeline for when the country might start to enter that recovery phase is still very much unknown; notably, the government had announced it will be extending many of its pandemic-relief measures until March, 2021.

Still, Ms. Freeland announced the government’s fiscal update on Monday – one predictably heavy on spending and relief measures, and light on specifics about how Canada will pay for them when this pandemic is finally over. And of conspicuously scant focus – and of new funding for immediate relief measures – was the issue of long-term care, which is peculiar for a fiscal update during a pandemic in which long-term care centres remain the epicentre.

As of Monday, around 8,700 of the roughly 12,000 deaths due to COVID-19 occurred in long-term care, representing around 72 per cent of all deaths in Canada. The number of deaths in long-term care will almost certainly continue to climb as families gather for the holidays and community transmission invariably makes its way into more and more vulnerable communities. And while such care is of course the jurisdiction of the provinces, their actions come down to the dollars they’re given by the federal government – and so it is striking that in terms of new, immediately actionable aid for long-term care, not much is coming from the federal government.

Ottawa’s fiscal update unveiled new spending measures and initiatives that generally fell into one of two categories: acute aid for individuals, communities and businesses to keep them financially afloat and insulate them from the virus, and long-term “build back better” projects to help Canada’s economy recover from the pandemic and stimulate continuing growth.

In the former category was a proposal to remove GST and HST from the purchases of face masks and shields; a plan to raise the maximum wage subsidy back to 75 per cent (from the current 65 per cent); the creation of a 100-per-cent government-backed loan for businesses badly affected by the pandemic; and additional funds to Indigenous communities for continuing COVID-19 containment measures. In the long term, the government has reaffirmed its commitment to a national child care system to get (and keep) more women in the work force; it has proposed giving $150-million over three years to Natural Resources Canada to invest in zero-emissions vehicle infrastructure; and it has set out a series of reforms to the Fiscal Stabilization Program (though provinces had been asking for an increase in health transfers, which they didn’t get).

The issue of long-term care, which presents both as an acute pandemic crisis as well as an area suffering from systemic neglect, would ostensibly fall into each category of focus. Yet this fiscal update only takes the broad approach to reforming long-term care, promising up to $1-billion in funding contingent on detailed spending plans from the provinces and territories, as well as additional funds for virtual resources for care home staff, staff training and policy work. There will also be national standards for long-term care homes, to be developed with the provinces and territories, at some unspecified time in the future.

For the homes currently or soon to be in the midst of an outbreak, these measures will come too late. The federal government did commit a seemingly substantial $740-million over the summer to address infection control in long-term, palliative and congregate care settings, and also deployed the Canadian Armed Forces to assist in the hardest-hit homes. But even three-quarters of a billion dollars is not enough to provide emergency relief to a system that has faced chronic neglect for decades – indeed, Ontario alone is spending $761-million just to build and renovate 74 homes. Nor has three-quarters of a billion dollars been enough to deliver the additional hands, space, rooms, equipment and other resources needed to mitigate the deadly consequences of the second wave on vulnerable populations.

The pandemic’s wrath is disproportionately coming down on long-term care. For some reason, the federal government’s priorities and its money appear to lie elsewhere.

Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland says the Liberals plan a stimulus program of up to $100-billion once the COVID-19 pandemic is on the run, but until then attacking the virus and helping those who need support is their top priority.

The Canadian Press

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