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Workers wave at passing cars honking their horns in support for Pinecrest Nursing Home after several residents died and dozens of staff were sickened by COVID-19, in Bobcaygeon, Ont., on March 30, 2020.

CARLOS OSORIO/Reuters

When Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, Theresa Tam, said on Monday that close to half of the deaths from COVID-19 in this country are occurring in seniors’ facilities, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise. There are two reasons for that.

The first is that the same tragedy is playing out in many Western countries hit by the disease.

Early data collected by the London School of Economics suggest that between 42 and 57 per cent of deaths in France, Italy, Spain, Belgium and Ireland are occurring in long-term care homes and other residences for senior citizens.

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In Spain, stories of elderly people left to die in their beds have horrified citizens. The same has now happened in Canada, in a nursing home in suburban Montreal where 31 people died, at least five of them from COVID-19. Inspectors who visited Résidence Herron last week discovered unfed, dehydrated residents lying in soiled diapers after overwhelmed and under-protected care workers had apparently abandoned their jobs, out of fear of infection.

Seniors’ facilities in every province have been hit hard. Ontario homes have seen at least 182 deaths. In Alberta and British Columbia, the majority of COVID-19 deaths are from long-term care homes.

The other reason it’s no surprise that seniors’ residences have become killing grounds is that they are the perfect target for the novel coronavirus.

This germ flourishes in crowded spaces. In Newfoundland, it’s believed that a single person infected as many as 143 others at a funeral home. At least three died.

Seniors’ facilities are a gift to any infectious disease, with residents sharing common areas and sometimes even bedrooms. They are also filled with people burdened with underlying health problems that can increase the risk of death from a seasonal flu, let alone from COVID-19.

Since these dangers were known, why weren’t seniors’ facilities better prepared for a pandemic?

The answer appears to be that the lessons learned from the SARS epidemic that hit Canada in 2004 have not been applied equally to the thousands of public and private nursing and retirement homes that exist in every part of the country, from cities to small towns.

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Left unimpeded, the virus could have turned hospitals into infection zones, as SARS once did in Toronto. But that hasn’t happened, because doctors, nurses and other hospital workers were ready this time, with better training and updated protocols.

As well, much of the limited testing for the coronavirus that has gone on in Canada, and especially in Ontario, has gone to hospital staff and severely ill patients. Plus, most of the country’s under-supply of personal protective gear, such as respirator masks, has been prioritized for hospitals (and even they struggle with shortages).

A nationwide lack of PPE and virus tests left gaps that seniors in long-term care homes fell through.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford said on Monday he wants all residents and staff in seniors’ facilities to be tested for the coronavirus, but that’s easier said than done, given his province’s severe testing shortfalls.

Beyond that, it has been known for a long time that seniors’ facilities everywhere have chronic staffing shortages owing to low wages and difficult working conditions, a reality that Quebec Premier François Legault acknowledged this week. Some caretakers work in multiple homes, raising the risk of cross-infections. B.C. ordered an end to that weeks ago. Ontario finally did it on Tuesday.

It is also apparent that governments are not doing a consistent job of inspecting and regulating seniors’ facilities, a fact made clear by the horror show in Quebec.

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The COVID-19 pandemic is a reckoning for Canada and its treatment of its aging population.

Governments must ask themselves why they allow seniors to be warehoused in a system with so many known vulnerabilities. Study after study has exposed staffing problems and training shortfalls, and there have been a number of high-profile tragedies in recent years, including a fire in a home in Île Verte, Que., that killed 32 people in 2014.

Above all, governments need to rethink their priorities. If COVID-19 has shown us anything, it’s that whatever is done to protect hospitals during pandemics needs also to be done for seniors’ facilities, stat.

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