The pandemic currently gripping Ontario has exposed the precarious conditions for senior resident who live in long-term care (LTC) homes in Ontario. Almost fifty percent of the deaths from the COVID-19 have been seniors who live in these homes. Out of a total of 626 long-term care homes in Ontario, there have been outbreaks (defined as two or more reported cases) in 114 and this number grows every day. Over 500 residents in these homes have tested positive for the corona virus, as have over 350 staff, one of whom has died. Several compounding factors have contributed to this crisis, but the root cause has everything to do with capitalism’s drive towards commodification and exploitation.
Ontario has the highest proportion of for-profit nursing homes in Canada, a whopping fifty-eight percent of them are privately owned. Extendicare owns thirty-four long-term care homes and manages forty-two others. The company earned $18.8 million in profits from its long-term care business across Canada in 2018. Tim Lukenda, the outgoing CEO of Extendicare, earned $5.1 million in 2018. Chartwell’s CEO, Brent Binions, earned $2.5 million in 2018 while his company posted $18.5 million in profits. The current Chair of the Chartwell Board is none other than former Premier Mike Harris, who made $237,000 in 2019, while workers at their homes made minimum wage. Profits in privatized long-term care homes have been amassed from the commodification of the care for our parents and grandparents who along with their caregivers have been left in inhumane conditions, unprotected from the scourge of this lethal virus.
The massive profits made by the major LTC chains exerts extreme pressure on the government to keep staffing levels as low as possible which impacts the non-profit and municipally run homes. CUPE Ontario, which represents 35,000 front line long-term care workers in the province, has been waging a campaign for years to urge the Ontario government to legislate a minimum of four hours daily, hands-on care for long-term care residents. Both Liberal and Conservative governments have not only failed to do so but they have inflicted further cuts to an already threadbare sector.
The Ontario Health Coalition, who have been doing important tracking of LTC infections and deaths, have just exposed the Ford government’s negligence in carrying out comprehensive inspections in LTC homes since coming to office in 2018. While there were over 600 full inspections done in 2017, half that number were done in the 2018 and only nine were completed last year.
Before the pandemic hit, there were not enough staff in the homes to meet the needs of residents. The majority of staff who do the direct work with the residents – bathing, feeding, toileting, dressing – are Personal Support Workers, who are often assigned to the private homes, along with RNs and RPNs, by temporary employment agencies and who often work in more than one home. The average wage of a PSW is $16.50 per hour, which is just marginally higher than minimum wage. The same report also recommended that more effort be put into creating full-time positions in LTC to strengthen the core staff team at each home. Ford has only announced recently that another Order in Council will limit part-time staff to working in one home, without any assurances as to how they will be able to make up the lost income as they would not qualify for CERB nor would they likely qualify for EI with part-time hours.
LTC staff are also not afforded the proper and safe protective equipment to wear to ensure that they would not be infected themselves or pass on the infection from resident to resident. N95 masks are the recommended personal protective equipment (PPE) for this virus, yet a shortage of these masks was common in most of the homes. Although Ontario Minister of Health Christine Elliot announced that PPE was readily available, eighty-seven per cent of health care staff polled by the CUPE reported that they do not have access to the PPE they need. Some homes in the province were issued defective masks that ripped apart while in use. The province has just recently relented on providing access to N95 masks for all health-care workers in proximity to a patient with confirmed or suspected COVID-19.
An additional ingredient in the devastating number of cases and deaths of seniors living in homes is the offensive unwillingness of the Province to test for possible infection. As outbreaks began, one would think that the first step to prevent more cases would be to test all residents and any staff coming into contact with them. They have not. This failure compounded the spread of the virus and to this date, residents and staff are still not tested to ensure they are not positive.
At the end of March, in an alarming development, the Ford government issued an order in council – not requiring debate in the legislature – that amended the LTC Act. The emergency order listed more than a dozen amended regulations, including the removal of training requirements for workers, allowing homes to bring in volunteers and eliminating the need for administrators to report most complaints to the ministry. Allegedly, the emergency was to address the need to get more healthcare workers into the homes, to replace those that were falling ill to the virus. The unprecedented emergency measures ignored collective agreements and another SARS report recommendation to ensure that comprehensive training on the health and safety procedures during outbreaks was done on a regular basis. Ford’s new order made it possible for any warm body to take the place of skilled and trained workers in the homes.
The CBC recently reported that long-term care residents would not be sent to the hospital if they required intensive care. The Glebe Centre in Ottawa warned family members and caregivers of their residents that it has no plans to transport residents who become ill with COVID-19 to hospital. The medical directors informed the families that their loved ones wouldn’t survive intensive care. End-of-life decision-making has been taken from residents and their families and simply declared an ‘administrative matter’.
The Communist Party of Canada (Ontario) demands that the government of Ontario immediately:
- Take-over private, for-profit long-term care homes and expand the funding to allow for compassionate and humane standards of care for its residents;
- Ensure that all staff in long-term care facilities be given proper PPE, including N95 masks and that all staff have comprehensive training in the use of PPE;
- Issue an order for all residents and staff in long-term care be tested regularly for the COVID-19;
- Ensure all residents in LTC, who so desire, any and all life-saving measures, including access to an intensive care unit and a respirator;
- Rescind the order in council which deregulates the existing staffing standards, allows contracting out and the use of untrained and voluntary labour in long-term care homes;
- Modify the recent order in council to ensure that all part-time staff who were working in more than one home are given full-time hours in the one home they chose
- Carry out comprehensive inspections in all LTC homes;
- Expand funding to
- increase the salaries of LTC workers
- consolidate part-time positions to full-time
- provide all additional resources needed to halt the COVID-19 outbreak in LTC homes