Ontario walked, eyes open, into a disaster in long-term care months ago. There were years’ worth of reports – from the province’s auditor-general, from unions representing health care workers, from nurses, from news media, from the SARS Commission – warning about the precarious conditions in the province’s long-term facilities. They were chronically understaffed, insufficiently monitored, poorly designed, crowded and subject to a patchwork of regulations that, taken together, made them uniquely susceptible to contagion.
When COVID-19 struck, Ontario took weeks to implement necessary procedures to stem the spread of disease – such as prohibiting personal support workers from attending to multiple facilities – even as provinces such as British Columbia demonstrated their effect. The inertia no doubt cost hundreds of lives (more than 1,800 people in Ontario long-term care homes have died of COVID-19, compared with 123 in B.C.), which is an incredibly high price for lessons that ought to have been learned years ago.
And yet, Ontario appears to be again walking into a contagion disaster – this time, among migrant workers on farms across the province. Already, more than 1,000 agri-food workers have contracted the virus, according to advocacy group Justice for Migrant Workers. As of Monday, one Ontario farm alone was linked to 175 infections. Three temporary foreign workers have died.
The conditions on many farms are not dissimilar from those that plagued long-term care homes early in the pandemic. Similar to how crowded nursing homes featured three or four seniors to a room, bunkhouses on many farms lack the space and amenities to separate healthy workers from those who become ill. Seasonal migrant workers sleep in bunk beds and share communal kitchens and bathrooms, some of which are squalid and decrepit. And, as with long-term care homes, the province has known about these issues for years, chronicled in reports by United Food and Commercial Workers Canada, the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, the Canadian Council for Refugees and others.
In response to COVID-19, both the federal government and the province allocated funds to assist farms with providing personal protective equipment and facilitating mandatory quarantine among workers. But for the most part, farms in Ontario have been left to their own devices to see to implementation.
B.C., in contrast, reacted quickly to an outbreak at a plant nursery in March, and since April, it has been facilitating and paying for temporary foreign workers to quarantine in hotels. The cost of B.C.‘s program is not yet known, though it will surely be less than what Ontario ends up paying in lost productivity, unharvested crops and health care services as the virus spreads mostly unchecked on farms.
There are other echoes of Ontario’s long-term care home mistakes. The province currently allows recruiters to move workers from farm to farm, potentially spreading the virus in the same manner as personal support workers who went from home to home (another practice that B.C. extinguished ahead of Ontario). Farm workers, like personal support workers in homes, have long talked about fear or reprisal from their employers for speaking out about workplace conditions.
Inspections of farms and bunkhouses have been anemic and ineffective, conducted in person by local public- health units before workers arrive, and virtually by the federal government (though last week, the province said it will be teaming up with Ottawa to ramp up inspections). Many long-term care homes, similarly, were inspected only by phone during the peak of the provincial outbreak back in April.
But perhaps the foremost condition for an outright calamity on Ontario farms is the guidance from the province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health that explicitly allows workers who test positive for COVID-19 to keep working as long as they don’t exhibit symptoms. There is little information as to how employers and health care professionals can distinguish the truly asymptomatic from the presymptomatic; how to ensure that workers are accurately reporting their symptoms (especially since they know they won’t get paid if they are off sick); and how to properly sequester asymptomatic clusters when farms are already struggling to keep the sick from the well.
The directive also contradicts the messaging public health has struggled to convey about asymptomatic spread, making it perhaps the most egregiously shortsighted and fraught public-health advice we’ve seen from the province thus far in the pandemic. The one saving grace is that compared with long-term care home residents, migrant workers are younger and more physically fit, and thus less likely to succumb to COVID-19. But that doesn’t make the province’s disregard for their welfare any more tolerable.
Ontario is again walking, eyes open, into a disaster among a vulnerable population. Forget the years’ worth of reports: The province should have learned its lesson from long-term care homes just weeks ago.
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