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It's hard to believe keeping meat-packing and oilsands plants running hasn't contributed to Alberta COVID-19 spread

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Alberta Chief Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw at the April 20, 2020 COVID-19 briefing in Edmonton. Image: Screenshot of Government of Alberta video

If you listened carefully to yesterday's COVID-19 briefing in Edmonton, it was difficult to avoid the conclusion the Kenney government's reluctance to regulate certain industries has contributed to the spread of the disease, and not just inside this province.

Particularly interesting was Chief Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw's carefully worded description of how the serious COVID-19 outbreak at the Cargill Inc. meatpacking plant in High River may have impacted another profitable corporate business that relies on immigrant labour willing to endure tough, low-wage, precarious work -- long-term care.

Hinshaw noted how the connections between communal living and carpooling among extended family groups where some members worked at the Cargill slaughterhouse and the others in long-term care facilities may help to explain the intensity of the outbreak in the town 60 kilometres south of Calgary. That, in turn, has contributed to the high rate of infection in Alberta Health Service's Calgary zone compared with other parts of the province.

"There are 360 cases in workers from that plant related to that outbreak," she told the briefing. "But there has also been spread in the community beyond these workers, the 484 total cases linked to that outbreak. Not all of these cases are people who work at that plant." One plant worker has died.

She explained: "There's households where people simply don't have the space to self-isolate if they're a case, or if they're a close contact." Evidence, arguably, that our era and province is not so far from the days of working-class tenements as we imagined. "It was very difficult for people to self-isolate in ways that kept spread from others."

Hinshaw also noted AHS has also seen community spread in Brooks, home of JBS S.A.'s large meat-packing plant in southeastern Alberta. "Brooks has some similar challenges with households that have many people living in those households, where there can be difficulty for people to stay away from others if they are sick."

Sixty-seven cases have been reported in the Brazilian-owned JBS plant and people in Brooks are saying there are now about 115 cases in the town.

It is easy to infer from this a symbiotic relationship between industries that thrive in a neoliberal economy -- in this case industrial-scale meat-packing and privatized health care -- both drawing workers from vulnerable immigrant communities whose members have little choice but to work for low pay in harsh conditions.

Moreover, it's hard to believe the Kenney government's determination to keep the plant open as long as possible didn't contribute to the spread of COVID-19 in the region.

When Cargill workers and their union begged the government to close the operation until the threat of COVID-19 was under control, the government instead organized a telephone town hall last weekend to assure them they were safe. Employees have accused the company of trying to pressure them to return to work and ignoring physical distancing protocols on the crowded meat-packing floor.

Yesterday, Cargill bowed to the inevitable and temporarily closed the plant, which slaughters about 4,500 head of cattle daily and employs about 2,000 people. Cargill is the largest privately held company based in the United States, with annual revenue of more than US$115 billion.

Meanwhile, in long-term care, Alberta government policies have long assured a big role for the private sector with its characteristic understaffing and low pay. The UCP came to office promising more of the same.

The government's recognition it had to step in during the coronavirus emergency and take over operation of some private care homes, not to mention to protect the jobs and benefits of health-care workers suddenly restricted to working at a single site, is a tacit admission of the failure from a health-care perspective of low-wage, low-job-security, low-staffing policies.

Similarly, the government's resistance to closing oilsands camps in an effort to keep the mines running come what may -- including, apparently, prices in so low you have to pay people to haul away your unwanted crude -- also seems to be contributing to the spread of COVID-19.

Hinshaw said 20 cases have been linked to the Kearl Lake oilsands camp north of Fort McMurray, with eight of the infected workers returning to homes in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

Yesterday's news conference also cast some light on how Premier Jason Kenney's giveaway of 750,000 N95 medical masks to other provinces in a grandstand bid to build social licence for more pipelines has turned into a public relations nightmare for the UCP.

Large numbers of front-line workers have been complaining on social media about the poor fit, bad smell and lack of availability of the procedural masks they are now being supplied by AHS, and journalists have started to take note.

The original plan for the briefing, including a cameo appearance by the premier, seemed to be to explain and excuse the personal-protective-equipment procurement fiasco, although Kenney soon changed topic and spent much of his time demanding Ottawa give more money to the oil industry.

"All of our PPE meets the required safety standards and all of products are tested, prior to being ordered, and then are inspected again prior to being supplied by AHS to our sites," Health Minister Tyler Shandro told the briefing.

AHS chief procurement officer Jitendra Prasad explained the smelly masks as the result of a new packing process intended to ensure they contain no coronaviruses. He said AHS is working with the manufacturer to insure better fitting masks.

He assured unhappy health-care workers, "we'd like to work with you to resolve the issues that you may have, and also assure you that the products that you're used to, they have not been sent away. They have not been donated to other provinces. They are actually right here in Alberta, and what we are using, or what we have obtained from our alternate supplies, is what has been sent out."

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on his blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: Screenshot of Government of Alberta video

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