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Justin Trudeau needs to do something bold to fix the long-term care disaster

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Justin Trudeau gives a speech in Parliament on April 11, 2020. Image: Justin Trudeau/Twitter

Surging deaths in Canadian long-term care facilities have blown Canada's COVID-19 death projections to smithereens.

Last night, the CBC reported the number of deaths from COVID-19 is already double what Ottawa thought it would be only a week ago. "As more deaths are reported and counted over the next day, the toll could double even the higher estimates," the CBC report continued grimly.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau admitted the deaths are the result of outbreaks in long-term care.

If you're a Boomer of a certain age, this should scare the hell out of you. If you're not, don't be too smug. Old age will come at you sooner than you expect, and that's if you're lucky.

That so many of Canada's COVID-19 deaths are happening to people in long-term care is pretty obvious to anyone who has been tracking the impact of the coronavirus in Canada, as has Quebec journalist Nora Loreto.

"Canada's coronavirus death toll sits at 1,195 and I've linked 682 deaths to various care facilities," Loreto tweeted last night. That's 57 per cent of Canada's COVID-19 deaths. The spreadsheet she has created is frightening, and informative.

The CBC's report of the prime minister's remarks said this was due to "unexpected outbreaks" in long-term care. But if you've been paying attention to the galloping privatization in long-term care -- a phenomenon that has also impacted the way things are done in not-for-profit and even public facilities -- there's nothing unexpected about it at all.

This is not complicated to figure out. Scrimping on medical equipment needed by residents and caregivers, cutting corners on safety, chronic understaffing, low wages and job insecurity for staff are all part of the formula for big profits in the long-term-care "industry." They are also part of the conditions that have made so many seniors' homes more vulnerable than they should be to a galloping infection.

The only surprise has been the timing of the global coronavirus pandemic. Creeping privatization of seniors' care has been encouraged by neoliberal governments throughout Canada for decades.

This is not just a tragedy, it's a story with a significant political side. And I mentioned you Boomers for a reason -- because you're not only old enough to vote, obviously, nowadays you're inclined to.

And any political party that will actually do something to make long-term care safer -- not just mouth the usual anodyne platitudes while doing the same old thing -- stands to gain politically as a result.

After all, as Samuel Johnson famously observed, "a hanging in a fortnight concentrates a man's mind wonderfully." Even the prospect can have this effect.

Health care is a provincial matter under Canada's constitution, of course, and the United Conservative Party provincial government here in Alberta is of the sort that loves to eliminate regulations, fight with doctors in the middle of a pandemic, drive the feisty ones right out of the province and has never seen a public service that it doesn’t view as an opportunity for privatization.

Premier Jason Kenney, who is known to covet the prime minister's job, would be happy to try to blame Trudeau and his Liberal government for this state of affairs if he gets the opportunity. He's not a man, our premier, who's held back by an overdeveloped sense of irony.

So if Trudeau wants to avoid being smeared for the disaster now unfolding, and not incidentally for the lack of federal policy from generations of Liberal and Conservative federal governments alike that has helped make it possible, he needs to act, and he needs to act boldly.

Here's what he could do and should do: Commit, right now, while the iron is hot, to creating a new federal transfer earmarked for provincial long-term care, tied to higher standards of care, not-for-profit operation, and the elimination of low-wages and part-time, precarious work.

If those words sound familiar, I've borrowed most of them from a recent tweet by Tom Parkin, progressive journalist and sometime Ontario NDP candidate.

Historically, the chimerical cost cutting promised by privatization and its smooth-talking advocates is too tempting for most politicians, even some New Democrats.

COVID-19 could change that, at least while the memory lingers, because it has laid bare the dangers of handing off seniors' care to predatory profit-seeking corporations. We've heard a few horror stories in the past few days, and we'll hear many more before this is over.

Such a policy would be easy to advocate, simple to implement using a formula like that of the Canada Health Act, fair to working people and to seniors, and it would even provide a boost to the economy at a moment of great fragility. Because if you want to create jobs, there’s no better investment than health care. And if you want to put money in the hands of people who will spend it in Canada, there's nothing like secure work with fair wages.

All it would take is a little spine.

Trudeau, alas, is a politician too often characterized by timidity.

This is an opportunity for him to channel his old man, have a real "just watch me" moment, and save his own bacon. Not only that, he'd doing the right thing!

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: Justin Trudeau/Twitter

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