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As of Thursday, 81 per cent of deaths attributed to COVID-19 were linked to residences – Centre d'hebergement Yvon-Brunet in Montreal seen here on April 18, 2020 – that house our most vulnerable citizens, according to Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Theresa Tam.CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/Reuters

After a COVID-19 vaccine has been developed and life returns to normal, what lessons will this bruised and battered country have learned?

What opportunities will have presented themselves?

It’s self-evident now this pandemic has exposed woeful inadequacies in our long-term care system. As of Thursday, 81 per cent of deaths attributed to COVID-19 were linked to residences that house our most vulnerable citizens, according to Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Theresa Tam.

That is 3,466 who died from the disease while either living or working in an elder care facility.

It’s clear many of our seniors have been grossly mistreated. Pets are treated better. We have not allowed many to enjoy the type of dignity they deserve in their final years. What has happened, in many cases, has been a complete disgrace.

So what are we going to do about it?

Glen Clark has an idea. The former B.C. NDP premier is now president of the Jim Pattison Group, a sprawling collection of companies worth billions. But his mind has turned recently to the deep, systemic problems this pandemic has exposed, seniors’ care being chief among them.

“The issues haven’t been everywhere, not in every single home, but as a general proposition it’s clear we’ve dropped the ball here pretty badly and something has to be done about it,” Mr. Clark told me this week.

He believes reform needs to begin as soon as things return to normal, when Ottawa can move on from thinking about policies designed to keep our society functioning as best as possible, to areas that need urgent attention. And he thinks the country’s political leaders need to have a discussion about bringing seniors’ care, including the homes they often live out their lives in, under the auspices of the Canada Health Act.

“When medicare was brought in it was really designed to focus on hospital care,” Mr. Clark said. “That’s obviously hugely important, but health care is more than just hospital care. I think we need to look at medicare more broadly so it includes things like long-term care.”

He believes funding from Ottawa to the provinces for seniors care would have to be tied to certain metrics, including specific standards that these homes would have to meet around working conditions, for instance, including salaries. Standards might even include the size of rooms and resident-to-care worker ratios.

It’s a wonderful idea. Having been exposed, as we’ve been, to the daily horror stories of the working and living conditions inside some of the seniors’ homes worst hit by the novel coronavirus, it seems like the perfect time for a major transformation of this area of our health care system. If not now, when?

Of course, the hill Mr. Clark’s dream may go to die on eventually is around the inevitable question of money. Where would Ottawa, and the provinces, get the funds to underwrite what would be a hugely expensive proposition? It’s one thing to come up with hundreds of billions of dollars, almost instantly, in order to keep society propped up during a pandemic. It’s quite another to reorder our medicare system to the tune of billions more.

One of the most critical undertakings by governments across the country over the past five to 10 years has been reining in runaway health care budgets. And most governments have been successful in doing so. Adding long-term care to health budgets would be a serious blow to those efforts. Then again, maybe Canadians can agree that this is something that needs to be financed, perhaps through an increase to the GST/HST (goods and services/harmonized sales tax) or some other revenue-raising option.

At least we should have that conversation, and the sooner the better. If we wait until months after the pandemic passes, then the urgency this issue deserves will have passed, too. The tragic images conveyed to us by those working in some of the care homes where the virus killed many will have faded from our memories.

“I think there would be broad support for making seniors’ care a seamless part of the public health care system in Canada,” Mr. Clark said. “It would be the first big expansion of our medicare system that has happened in decades. I think the care of those who worked so hard to build this country is worth fighting for.”

If nothing else, the pandemic has revealed that our country’s health care system has forgotten someone. It’s time we addressed that shortcoming.

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